US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War, But If Talks Fail, Iran Will Be Attacked, Eventually!

Pictured above are two of Iran’s most senior leaders, President Hassan Rouhani (right) and IRGC Commander (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (left), in an impromptu discussion of security issues.

According to a February 26, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Kerry: US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War,” by Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed, US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.  Kerry further explained, “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if before we go to war there actually might be a peaceful solution.”  On November 12, 2013, Iran reached a landmark preliminary agreement with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) to halt what were alleged to be its most sensitive nuclear operations in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.  The interim deal was completed on January 12th, and the parties set forth to continue negotiations for six months after which, it is hoped, a final accord will be signed.  However, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.  The Reuters article’s authors explained that when he states all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama is using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.  His predecessors and a long line of US officials have held out that same threat.  Yet, when Kerry spoke to the reporters, he apparently left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks breakdown.

Kerry’s public comments concerning the Geneva talks were uncharacteristic of him. Kerry is an extremely capable Secretary of State, and he has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  He is a discreet person who would hardly want to do anything to derail the Geneva process.  The Reuters article’s authors asserted that Kerry’s statements were in reaction to pressure placed on the Obama administration by Congressional Republicans who threatened to revive a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  The Obama administration has cautioned Congress that such action could interfere with delicate nuclear talks to find a lasting agreement.  The article’s authors also assert that pressure from Republican lawmakers will likely increase with signs that the easing of sanctions is allowing for the boost in Iran’s oil exports.  However, Kerry’s comments on going to war with Iran were doubtlessly also heard in Tehran.  As Iranian Foreign Minister and lead Iranian negotiator for the Geneva talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in December 2013, “When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.”  Kerry’s comments were very threatening in nature.  Yet, at this point, it is that the leadership in Tehran probably did not become too concerned about US military action.  Indeed, they feel that such action is unlikely.

Among the key power centers in Iran, to include the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, there was an understanding that Iran would be negotiating in Geneva from a position of strength as a military power.  Such power was in part the basis of their belief that the US needed to negotiate with Iran as an equal.  Iranian leaders likely reached this conclusion as a result of an assessment of the “capabilities and possibilities” for likely US military action.  Certainly, Iranian leaders regularly receive a wealth of detailed reports from official and unofficial sources, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, on information such as US approaches to the nuclear negotiations, policy and decision making and statements made by senior US political, diplomatic, and military officials on Iran.  Yet, the consideration of capabilities and possibilities is a standard procedure and favored methodology for foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations in Iran to assess, in the abstract, capability to effectively perform a proposed action and the real possibility for success.  It also allows for an assessment of an opponent’s capability to respond to that action and possible decision making and reaction to it.  By wrongly giving higher meaning to certain facts and assumptions and incorrectly weighing relative strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military power versus the US, it becomes clear how Iranian policy analysts and decision makers would reach the conclusion that they would not face a military response if talks failed or if they took the step to develop a nuclear weapon.  Based on one member’s experience working with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue, a truncated assessment of capabilities and possibilities, comparable to those done in Tehran, is presented here by greatcharlie.com in order to demonstrate how the Iranian leaders most likely acquired certain views, and why they have taken certain approaches toward the US.  If Iranian leaders decide to drop the Geneva talks and actually develop a nuclear weapon, its decision will be based on a flawed understanding of US capabilities.  There is a real possibility the US will attack Iran.  However, there is also the possibility that as the Geneva talks advance, and greater contacts occur among US and Iranian officials and diplomats, some prevailing views in Tehran on US military capabilities may be modified.  Those contacts may also create interest among Iranian leaders to seek a sustainable final agreement on economic sanctions and their nuclear program, if a final decision on how to proceed on the nuclear issue has not already been made.

“Capabilities”

The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces have declared their willingness to defend Iranian territory with military power, and are convinced that they have such capabilities.  IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has explained: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.”  Regular displays of military strength through exercises and parades, along with hubristic declarations regarding Iran’s power, serve to assure the Iranian people that their government has the capability to defend them, and are also intended to serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Although the impact of US directed international sanctions on Iran’s economy has been considerable, Iranian leaders have vowed not to allow US sanctions prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program.  Concerning sanctions, Jafari explained: “Today, Americans and Westerners have understood that pressure on Iran not only does not lead to the advancement of their desires but also has the opposite effect.  Iran has progressed day by day.”  Jafari’s statement is indeed accurate.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, advances would continue to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iranian leaders have also appreciated the deterrent effect created by Western intelligence assessments that Iran is close to breakout capacity with its nuclear program; some estimates are that Iran is only six months away from having the technology to develop a bomb.

Iranian leaders feel Rouhani can capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise.  Regarding negotiations, there is a sense among Iranian leaders that Zarif has capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that are superior to his Western counterparts and is capable of driving them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering nuclear rights.  While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks have been highlighted in the West, there is actually an understanding among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team.  Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.”

On regime change, a threat posed by the administration of US President George W. Bush against Iran, Iranian leaders are certain their security apparatus is too strong for the US to ever defeat and the US has backed away from that effort.  Addressing the issue of regime change, IRGC Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani stated: “the important side of your [US] attempts today have been to confront the Islamic Republic.  Your [Obama] statement [at the UN] that ‘We are not seeking the Islamic system’s overthrow’ is not a statement of kindness, but rather an announcement of incapability.  You have been and will remain unable to be successful in overthrowing the Republic’s system.”

There is a sense among Iranian leaders that Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s efforts to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities at the present and in the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.   Iran has successfully used a base in Venezuela as a test bed for new technologies.  Regarding application of those new technologies, in the Gulf, Iran believes it can establish dominance with the advent of new anti-ship system and naval technologies.  Ali Shamkani, the new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council directed the IRGC attempts to realize Iranian dominance in the Gulf while serving as IRGC Commander.  He retains a strong interest in that effort.

On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western policy analysts suggest that the US use as a means to weaken the government in Tehran.  In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime.  Iran has trained and equipped Syria’s shabiha (militiamen), and organized them into the National Defense Front.  It is known that Iran has sent at least 330 truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups back in the 1990s.  Calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement, some have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini rebels are operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders, but typically trained in Iran.  Iranian leaders feel they could utilize these diverse forces against the interests of the US and its friends and allies in retaliation for US military action.

As events and issues in the Middle East do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest, some Iranian leaders feel the US has become disinterested in the region.  Most also recite the global mantra that the US has been traumatized by its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan both in which Iran supported opponents of the US.  Obama, himself, appears to Iranian leaders as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than actions where participation by US personnel is very limited in scope as in Libya.  Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving them somewhat less able to project robust power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies.  They have also observed Obama administration effort to make steep reductions in its nuclear forces, the crown jewels of its military power, only to be thwarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin refused to negotiate on the matter concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.  Additionally, they were amused over the way in which the Obama administration buckled under pressure from academics, policy scholars, and activists over drone use.

Iranian leaders have noted the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying a European based missile defense system to defeat an imagined Iranian nuclear-tipped missile attack.  To Iranian leaders, the deployment of the missile defense system indicates that there is a willingness within the US to rely on defense and deterrence rather than offensive military action to cope with Iran’s nuclear program.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s behavior has been perceived by Iranian leaders as being very awkward.  Regarding those military operations, Suleimani stated: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace.  The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.”  In the view of some Iranian leaders, the Obama administration withdrew from Iraq as a result of a promise made during Obama’s first presidential campaign rather than strategic considerations.  Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq.  However, the door was also opened for a growth of al-Qaeda’s presence there.  The initial increase in force in Afghanistan after a long, agonizing decision by Obama in 2009 was made with the goal to create the opportunity for the US and NATO to succeed there.  Iranian leaders have observed how that approach transformed into a decision to withdraw.  Indeed, the US has now declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014 without a security agreement with the Afghan government.  Iranian leaders have been presented with an opportunity to further Iran’s dominance in the region, but recognize the US withdrawal may open the door to a growth in al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the popular view espoused was that the Obama administration was forced into an aggressive stance against Iran with manipulation from Israel.  Senior Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Former IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi stated, “It is sad that the US President is under the influence of [Netanyahu’s] pressure and lies about Iran to such an extent, that he changed his tune and stance towards the Iranian issue. This leads to the US President’s weakness of independent thought and policy and has shown the power and influence of the Zionist lobby . . . .”  Jafari stated in September 2013, “We hope that the Americans let go of their intransigence with Iran and become less affected by the Zionist lobby.”  However, Iranian leaders now believe the US has retreated from its aggressive stance toward Iran fearing further military engagement in the Middle East.  Iranian leaders want to believe that the Obama administration has very negative relations with Israel, and has pursued the Geneva negotiation process, despite Israel’s objections.  They are convinced that uncongenial relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served to stymie Israeli plans to take any action against Iran.

In Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the state with predominant military force on the ground and the complete capability to shape events, with the financial support from Russia and China.  Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration hesitated and backed away from military action after very publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.  Iranian leaders’ views of Obama’s unwillingness to take military action anywhere were confirmed when the Obama administration expressed “fears” over placing troops on the ground and was indecisive in choosing targets in Syria for military strikes before eventually declining to act altogether.  That actually compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands.  Suleimani made the following statement about the US: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

Iranian leaders watched as Democratic and Republican Members of the US Congress failed to support Obama’ s plan to take military action in Syria.  They recognized that as being indicative of a greater problem between Obama and Congress.  Iranian leaders feel the Congress would likely deny Obama support for military action elsewhere.  The willingness of opponents in Congress to inflict harm on the US military, the security apparatus, and the US public, through sequestration and a government shutdown, convinced to Iranian leaders that there is outright hostility from Congress toward the Obama administration akin to an animus toward an enemy.  The Iranian view of the Obama administration were supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his now infamous September 12, 2013, New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “A Plea for Caution from Russia.”  Putin’s negative perceptions of Obama’s motives and the US have very likely found their way into Russia’s dialogue with Iran and have had an impact. Russia’s most recent military action in Ukraine demonstrates to Iranian leaders that there is little reason to be concerned or intimidated by a possible response from the Obama administration.  Iranian leaders’ views on the role of the US in the world as a predominant power were also supported by China.  Chinese views were represented in an editorial by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, calling for a “de-Americanized” world.

“Possibilities”

On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich were the main requirements that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when releasing him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  Jafari has stated: “The people expect their officials to demand the complete nuclear rights of the nation of Iran, including the nuclear fuel cycle, complete and official recognition of the right to enrich, and the elimination of all unjust sanctions.”

Given the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Iranian leaders felt it was unlikely the US would agree to Israeli demands for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and to remove all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its Fordow nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak.  They know that the US has engaged in an effort to quell very audible concerns expressed by Israel and other Middle East allies over concessions made to Iran, particularly on sanctions.  Iranian leaders truly believe Zarif is the best diplomat possible to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions.  The popular notion, that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was initially driven in great part by the White House’s desire to establish Obama’s legacy, signaled to Iranian leaders that the US may be willing to make concessions in talks to reach an agreement.  Zarif could deliver success at Geneva on Iran’s terms, exploiting the US desire to make a deal.

It may very well be that Iranian leaders want to use the Geneva talks to gain time to make greater advances in the nuclear program.  Continued progress in the program has been a feature of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the US and its Western partners since such talks`began with the Bush administration despite the ferocity of threats of military intervention and the imposition of sanctions.  From a darker perspective, true conservatives among Iranian leaders may wish to use the diplomatic efforts of Rouhani and Zarif simply to misdirect the US and its European partners, enabling other elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Iran has the possibility to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the US while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements take a path toward accomplishing the military goals of the nuclear program.

Whether through the current course of research or a covert program, Iranian leaders are aware that once a significant level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle and a new situation will immediately exist. Iranian leaders believe that threats of further sanctions or military action against Iran would unlikely be viewed as constructive internationally, other than by Israel.  Iranian leaders believe particularly that it would less likely face any consequences if it achieves nuclear weapons technology when US mid-term Congressional elections occur in 2014.  Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, especially those seeking re-election, would not want to have to explain a new war in the Middle East declared by a president from their party.

What Has Occurred So Far

Under the agreed pause of its nuclear activities, Iran has suspended its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran already produced more than 20,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas that is three quarters of the way to weapons grade material.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, or start up any that were not already operating. Between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s inventory of installed centrifuges increased from 5,500 to 19,000.  Iran agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities.  An undeclared enrichment facility at Fordow, buried inside of a mountain and outfitted with centrifuges over the last several years, was exposed by US and allied intelligence efforts prior to the negotiations.  Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Arachi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.  The entire feed stock for producing nuclear weapons fuel and infrastructure remains intact.  Additionally, the Iranians were able to retain achievements made through their development of a heavy water reactor in Arak which provides a plutonium pathway to producing nuclear weapons fuel.

However, the agreement, more importantly, has reversed the momentum of sanctions and provided some relief from the threat created by the notion of impenetrable sanctions.  Some US policy analysts may believe that Iran may be buying time in order to advance its nuclear program while giving key concessions on the sanctions front.   Yet, what may really be happening is that Iranian leaders are giving new consideration to the Geneva process.  Considering how to proceed against the US and its European partners in the abstract, is quite different from engaging with US officials in actual negotiations.  Information gleaned from US officials and diplomats should provide fresh information about US actions and intentions.  It is difficult to say whether such information from the talks might have an impact on thinking among Iranian leaders.  Nonetheless, while enduring Kerry threats of war, Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24th agreement by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry, himself, told reporters that “Generally speaking, they have done I think everything that they were required to do with respect to the reductions.”  Kerry further explained that “There’s no centrifuge challenge. They haven’t put any in. They … have reduced their 5 percent. They have reduced the 20 (percent),” he added. “They are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

The Way Forward

Khamenei and other Iranian leaders believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests, particularly on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear rights, would be rapidly constructed.  As the negotiation process dragged on, they were recognized as a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which is uncertain.  Khamenei began expressing doubts that an agreement acceptable to Iran could be constructed.  Nevertheless, once an interim deal was reached, and Khamenei and Iran so far have adhered to it.  There is real hope among negotiators that a final agreement can be reached.  However, the talks could also fail, and that would not be a simple matter at all.  Iranian leaders may conclude the US will not attack, given the predilection of the Obama administration to shy away from military action, and speculation on the US included in some analysis of “capabilities and possibilities” developed in the abstract by policy experts in Tehran.  Yet, the US military, in reality, possesses the capability to successfully execute a decisive blow against the Iranian nuclear program and effectively deal with Iran in the aftermath of any strikes.

US military planners develop concepts for operations using their expertise based on a long career in their respective branches of the armed forces that includes continuous military education and training and considerable experience warfighting.  They would be the ones responsible for developing plans for military action against Iran for the Obama administration.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  All tools, both conventional and nuclear, would be available to them.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior US military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.  A plan to put the full panoply of security measures in place not just in the region but in the US and territories of friends and allies to thwart retaliation would also be produced and implemented.  The worst way for Iranian leaders to discover the US military’s capabilities would be through an attack.

Iranian leaders must realize that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  To the extent that the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Another realization that must be reached is that rather than focus on comments that are meant for domestic political consumption in the US, Iranian leaders must stay focused on what is best for Iran and what can truly be achieved through the nuclear negotiations.  Relations between the US and Iran are at a new stage as are the nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 Talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Jafari has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  However, Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with such slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement.  Adhering to the interim deal, as Kerry himself has confirmed, is a good first step and serves as recognition by Iranian leaders that a peace agreement has promise.  Although it has been dogma among US policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program, it may very well be that a final decision on how to proceed has not been made in Tehran.  Recall that Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.  If Iran were trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the effort could only be justified by Iranian leaders as a matter of absolute necessity for Iran’s security.  Evidence does not exist that the nuclear program has been militarized.  Whether Iranian leaders truly believe a nuclear weapon would make them more secure is not certain.  With great expenditure, Iranian leaders may be both creating a nuclear energy program, and simply creating the option to weaponize if it became necessary.

If a final decision truly has not been made on developing a nuclear weapon, it may still be possible, in Geneva and through back channel discussions, to convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a weapon would not be necessary.  Zarif, Kerry, and all parties to the negotiations may very well be able to deliver a deal that satisfies Tehran and all parties to the negotiations.  It is certainly worth the try.  If they fail, then a war will likely be declared, if not immediately, in the near future.

As the US Syria Policy Nears Failure, a Top US Syria Hand Offers Some Ideas

At greatcharlie.com, we seek to get beyond the “us-them” simplicities of foreign and defense policy issues and attempt to shed light upon the players and ideas that are moving events forward.  We collect articles, comments, and speeches, and interpret their meaning, determine their relative value to an issue at hand.  We then present our assessments to those who read our blog.  On October 25, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a “not for attribution” presentation of a “top US Syria hand” at a renowned foreign policy think tank and membership organization in New York.  He provided advice on the transition process in Syria.  He was tapped for that role in the Syria process due to his extensive experience in the US Army, in the Defense Department, and in the State Department handling Middle East issues and his direct experience with Syria itself.  The views expressed by the speaker were forthright and at times surprising. They shed light on how and why the negotiation process has reached its current state.

Those attending the presentation by the speaker were informed in advance that the presentation was “not-for-attribution”, and no reference to his identity could be made.  (He will be referred to in this post as “the speaker.”) Arresting my urge to reveal the expert’s name has been made more difficult since I sense the perspectives the speaker offered would be more meaningful for our readers.  Moreover, it would prevent my report of his perspectives as one more recounting of the views of an anonymous, highly-placed, Obama administration official.  It is hoped that the majority of our readers will be able to consider the comments and reflect on the meaning with regard to the US policy on Syria.  Indeed, they allow one to conclude that US efforts would unlikely result in a peaceful resolution in Syria and an agreement on a transitional government in Syria that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. .

The Syrian Civil War

Regarding the Syrian civil War, the speaker noted that the Syrian civil war was appalling in terms of the devastation and humanitarian crisis created.  There are over three million refugees residing outside of Syria. According to figures he acquired from the UN, there have been well over 150,000 civilians killed in the fighting.  On the ground, a de facto partition status existed.  In the western part of Syria, Assad has consolidated power. In the east, localized power centers exist, along with Jihadist linked to Al-Qaida.  In the northwest, Kurds have established a relatively autonomous area which is defending itself mostly from Jihadist groups.

The speaker noted that calling the Syrian conflict a civil war is misleading to most because it conjures the idea of a war of military engagements as in the US Civil War (1861-1865).  Although there are occasional engagements of military units in combat in urban areas, the speaker made it clear that the Syrian Civil War is in fact a war on civilians.  This has led to an enormous humanitarian catastrophe in which ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial executions, detentions, torture, injuries, rape, homelessness, starvation, sanitation, and disease, to name a few problems, were evident.

The speaker explained that a nationalist opposition movement had initiated the protests against the Assad regime and the civil war.  The nationalist movement, he point out, adhered to the idea of a Syrian identity based on citizenship, not religion or ethnicity.  However, this is no longer heard.  According to him, Jihadists have marginalized the nationalist opposition movement that.  He reported that the three main Jihadist units, comprised of many foreigners, were concentrating their efforts against Syrian civilians.  That has included the detentions, torture, and executions, already mentioned and deprivations of essentials for survival have been Jihadist tactics.  Yet, the speaker felt that the Assad’s regime use of lethal military force against civilians has been even more damaging.  The speaker explained that the humanitarian crisis was due to the Assad regime’s policy of using fire from artillery, rocket, jets, and helicopters in the midst of civilian areas without targeting.  It has been nothing but a terror campaign aimed at civilians.  Getting foreign humanitarian aid through to Syrian opposition held territory to deal with the multitude of suffering civilians has been impossible.  The regime will not allow this.

The speaker pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran were providing a great deal of support to the Assad regime.  However, he pointed to the fact that large sums of money were being providing to the Jihadists from Arab states, especially Kuwait at the moment.  Wanting to respond to violence by the Assad against their communities, Syrian men are drawn to opposition units that have sufficient resources to make an impact on the battlefield.  Those units are predominantly the Jihadist units.

To arrest the problem of the jihadist units, the US has initiated an effort to arm the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the military wing of the Syrian opposition.  Its commander in chief, General Salim Idris, would be the recipient of US funds, arms, and supplies, which he would be responsible for distributing the assistance among moderate, secular and capable Free Syrian Army units.  Since that effort began, the speaker noted that 13 Jihadist organizations have declared war on the Syrian National Council, the main political-wing of the opposition. The Jihadists are less engaged against Assad and more involved with establishing Islamist governments ruled under sharia law in areas under their control.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration still wants to focus on the SMC, hoping it will provide shares of aid to responsible groups.  The speaker felt the results of that effort had been lacking.  US officials allegedly revealed to the speaker that it is unknown whether that approach works or will ever have an impact.  Yet, the US insists on this approach.

Diplomacy

The Syrian chemical weapons agreement was viewed by the speaker as a good thing.  He alleged that all parties involved in Syria believed that it was good to see the Assad regime stripped of its inventory.  He saw the real challenge as being how to bridge the diplomatic process on chemical weapons agreement to the political process on Syria.  The speaker felt, however, that Assad regime’s chemical weapons use and stockpile was the top of an ugly ice berg and as long as the Assad regime remained in place and the large scale slaughter of civilians continued, it was hard to see how the diplomatic process could take hold in Syria.

The speaker stated that the Geneva process for Syria has presented as problem for the US Secretary of State John Kerry.  The aims of the process are to produce a negotiated, mutually consented transitional government in Damascus with full governing powers.  Geneva II set for November 23 and 24, 2013 will address transition in Syria.  The speaker, who was present at the Geneva conference on Syria on June 2012, revealed that consensus existed for transitional talks.  He noted, however, that consensus evaporated soon after that. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not mentioned in the June 30, 2012 communiqué of foreign powers among the conference participants. He lamented that this was a critical mistake because in Syria, all powers reside in the person of Assad.  No deals could be made unless they had the approval of Assad.  As of now, according to the speaker, at Geneva II, Assad’s presidency also will not be on the table.  That is problematic because it allows Assad to still hold power.  The speaker indicated that without Assad’s leadership on the table, nothing can be accomplished at Geneva II.  He was certain that Russia will support the Assad regime’s position.  In his opinion, the greatest threat to the Assad regime to date was the threat of US airstrike due to its September 21, 2013 chemical weapons use.  However, the Assad regime dodged that threat.  He felt that the Assad regime now has no interest in transitioning itself out of power any time soon

Kerry will have trouble getting the Syrian opposition to come to Geneva II according to the speaker.  The Syrian opposition sees its constituency pounded by Syrian armed forces.  On the battlefield, the speaker observed that the Syrian opposition was losing in real terms.  The speaker doubted the Syrian opposition would come to the talks only to hear a lecture from Assad regime representatives.  The Assad regime has agreed to send a delegation to the talks led by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem.  To remedy this problem, in part, the speaker explained Kerry developed the “London 11.”  The London 11 serves to assure the Syrian opposition that the dialogue between its representatives and the Assad regime’s representatives will be about transition.  The speaker explained that the purpose of Geneva II must be affirmed by both parties.  However, for these reasons, he felt that Geneva II may not happen if the Assad regime does not reaffirm the purpose of the meeting.  The speaker noted that the Syrian opposition would meet in Istanbul to discuss the talks.  Yet, the Syrian National Council, which the speaker called the main political group of the Syrian opposition, said that it will not attend Geneva II and would not come even if a decision is made in Istanbul for all members of the Syrian opposition to attend.  The speaker noted that if the Assad regime shows up without wanting to discuss transition, and if Russia lends its support to the Assad regime’s position, the Geneva talks will fail.  The Syrian opposition will be more frustrated than it is now.  If diplomacy fails, the Assad regime may continue what it is doing with security assistance from Russia and Iran, as long as it is not using chemical weapons.

Using Military Power

What troubled the speaker about all of this was that the Obama administration was mostly concerned with Syria as an arms control problem which was simply a convenient approach to the issue.  The speaker viewed the problem as being much greater.  He did not believe that there could be some nuanced escape for Obama on Syria.  The speaker believed that Obama was caught in Syria just as US President Harry Truman was caught in Korea in 1950.  The speaker stated Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context.  The speaker claimed this has been a fact since the civil war began.  According to the speaker, within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  He explained by pointing to statements often expressed by officials about Assad: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama a made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  The speaker explained that for the White House, it is important for the president to be on the right side of history.  Yet, he notes that there is also a fear to act.  There is concern that any sophisticated aid, in significant amounts, might end up in the wrong hands.

According to the speaker, the fact that the US effort in Syria was not in the hands of the Defense Department is telling.  The speaker claimed that only the Defense Department could handle the large scale delivery of military assistance to Syrian rebels and their training.  He saw the current effort as piecemeal, with only fifteen to twenty rebels being trained at a time.

Further the speaker pointed to the fact that no clear direction exists on Syria.  A national security directive providing clear objectives has not been produced.  The only objective annunciated so far has been to do whatever may support a decision by Assad to leave.  The speaker believed a national security directive would only put the administration on a road toward intervention that it did not want to be on.  As a political matter, the Obama administration recognized that winning Syria is not a goal of the US taxpayer. The US needs to formulate alternative responses in Syria that do not put civilians at risk.  The speaker believed the best bet for the US on Syria would have been a multifaceted strategy.

The Speaker’s Suggestions on the US Policy on Syria

The Speaker offered five ideas on how to approach the Syria issue.  First, he felt Kerry should pursue Geneva II as far as it goes.  Kerry must keep his eye on the purpose of Geneva II which is to launch political transition in Syria and put Assad out of business.  If Geneva II does not work, the process needs to be abandoned.

Second, the speaker suggested de-escalation as a possible partial remedy to Syria.  De-escalation was proposed before the peace process began.  It was among the preconditions Kofi Annan, the initial UN special envoy to the Syrian peace process, required the parties meet on the ground before a negotiation process could begin.  Those precondition also included mutual disengagement (ceasefire); no mass terror; and, news media access.  De-escalation was also mentioned in the communiqué of the London 11.

Third, while the speaker believed a political solution should be sought in Syria which included Assad’s removal from power.  He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Assad to preside in office for reasons that transcend Syria.  Assad managed to dodge his fall when airstrikes were averted by the Russians.  Russians have pushed the view that Assad did not launch chemical attacks, but the Jihadists in the Syrian opposition were responsible.  Once the US military strikes in response to the August 21st chemical attacks did not occur, Assad felt he would never have to leave.  The point Putin is trying to make is that Russia is on the rise again. Russia wants to be seen as supporting a friend to the end.  The world is asked to compare and contrast this approach with that of the US, with particular reference to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.  The Iranians allegedly confided that to the speaker that they believed Assad used chemical weapons. The speaker claimed that he had a positive relationship with Iran due to his two-track work with Iran on other issues.  The Iranians allegedly told the speaker they were especially dismayed by this because of the terrible experience Iran had with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.  Nonetheless, for the Iranians, Syria provides a land bridge from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s missiles are an important part of Iran’s response to Israel, if it acts aggressively toward Iran.

Fourth, the speaker believed military power could have a positive impact in Syria.  Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime believe there is a military solution in Syria.  Assad feels that he can hold out militarily with Russian and Iranian support.  However, the speaker admitted, the US believes that there is no politically acceptable military solution in Syria and that belief would be difficult to overcome.  He believes that military force could be useful to the extent that it could create a new military balance on the ground.  Apparently, some US officials sense it might be too late.

Fifth, the speaker believed that an effort needed to be made to prepare the Syrian opposition to govern in Syria.  The speaker explained that while the Syrian opposition has been recognized, no effort at all has been made to prepare it to govern in Syria. They do not stand as an alternative to the regime.  Until this is done, millions of Syrians will stay with Assad regime.  The speaker revealed that the Syrian opposition as the incoming leaders of the Syrian government in order to support the meeting in Morocco of the then new “Friends of Syria.”  No new attempt to do anything with the Syrian opposition has occurred since.  At the time the speaker made his presentation and for nearly three years, the current government in Damascus led by Assad is fully recognized by the US and the UN.  All power in Syria resides with Assad.

Assessment

Given the speaker’s comments, it seems the US is not fully committed on Syria.  The removal of Assad and his regime have been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it has not been established as part of a national security directive.  The administration’s efforts to date have demonstrated a lack of interest in Syria’s outcome relative to efforts of Russia and Iran.  That lack of interest not only exists in the executive branch, but also in the legislative branch as evinced in the US Congressional debate on military strikes in Syria in early September 2013.

The US has recognized the Assad regime to this date, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.  The Syrian opposition, among many of its problems, was never politically astute, and could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  The Syrian opposition, with all of its infighting and shortcomings, is not prepared to take power in Syria.  No shadow government has been formed.  It takes weeks for the group simply to organize its meetings in Istanbul, to which members often refuse to attend.  The Syrian National Council, itself, has threatened not to come to the nest meeting in Istanbul.

At times, the Syria effort by the US, EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  Assad was forced to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad’s main concern perhaps is no longer US intervention, but the Jihadist’s hold of Syrian territory.  If there is a break down in the Geneva talks, Iranian generals in Syria, led by General (Sharlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, may ramp up their efforts.  With more sophisticated and determined support from Russia, the Assad regime may be able to keep pace with Iranian forces present and change not only the military balance, but the entire situation on the ground.  (The reduction of Jihadist forces in Syria may be an effort to which Western powers may eventually be willing to lend their support.)

Given all that the speaker said, it appears that Obama administration stands willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort.  It is somewhat unlikely the administration would ever broach the use military force in Syria again.  The situation in Syria may very well just be allowed to linger until the end of the Obama administration.  A new US administration may implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.  That might be the only chance for the Syrian opposition would see the robust US support it wants so badly.  With regard to nature taking its course on Assad, it appears that course has not force him out of Damascus, but rathr, has allowed him to remain in power.

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Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above).  He directs Iran’s efforts in Syria from Damascus, coordinating with the heads of the Syrian armed forces, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militia commanders. The failure of the Geneva II talks would present Suleimani with the opportunity to use all the military power available to him to destroy the Free Syrian Army and Jihadist units without the threat of US military intervention.

Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria, Focusing on Forces, But Strikes Could Be Further Calibrated to Meet Obama’s Goals

According to a September 5, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria with a Focus on Forces,” US President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria. The decision was reportedly in response to intelligence reports that suggested the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been repositioning troops and equipment necessary for employing chemical weapons. while the US Congress has been debating whether to authorize military action, however to gain authorization for military action.from Capitol Hill, the Obama administration would need to accept restrictions on the military response. In order to make the strike meaningful, the article suggests that the administration expand its scope. The worst outcome, explained the article, would be to come out of the current struggle with Congress with authorization for an attack that made little difference. Doubt within the Congress over US military action in Syria greatly mirrored doubt projected by the Obama administration in its handling of the issue.

While the US has the capability and capacity to carry out calibrated strikes against the Assad regime, Obama has had great difficulty in publicly articulating what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to do it, and how he would get things done. With his decision to defer military action until Congress voted on the matter, he opened himself up to an onslaught of criticism. The argument could be made, or rather the excuse could be given, that if Obama had been better served by the White House staff, none of this would have occurred. The president should have been provided with options for an appropriate response to the chemical attacks. His effort to present his case for military action should have been far better organized. An examination is provided here of Obama’s drive for military action against the Assad regime for its August 21st chemical attacks. His public statements are examined and an analysis of those very statements is used as guidance to propose elements for a plan for military action in Syria that would better meet Obama’s needs as well as achieve his desired outcome. A transformational opportunity that the US might capitalize on to find some advantage in reaching a secure and sustainable peace agreement in Syria is also duscussed.

Obama’s “Distressed” Approach to Military Action in Syria

Through Obama’s initial statements, it seemed that military action would almost certainly be taken in response to the Assad regime’s August 21st use of chemical weapons. The US newsmedia pundits practically insisted that an attack was imminent. Still, nothing happened. Immediate perception caused most to believe that Obama wanted to take action in response to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Yet, as time moved on, there was a palpable sense through his statements that Obama was not very confident about doing anything. Obama appeared indecisive and greatly concerned about possible negative outcomes, such as embroiling the US and the region in a larger conflict. He also appeared greatly concerned with the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against the Assad regime. Through their boasting and posturing on how aggressively they would respond to US military action, their rebuffs of validity of US intelligence on the source of the chemical attacks, and their hostile taunts about Obama’s courage, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iranian military leaders sought to exploit what they perceived as Obama’s insecurity over taking military action and his uncertainty about its aftermath. Obama’s advisers failed to do enough to assist him in articulating a clear concept and intent for action based on his “nuanced”  thinking. For several days, there was a rather sloppy, piecemeal presentation of ends, ways, and means for using military force in Syria voiced publicly without a clear indication of the Obama administration’s goals, except hitting Assad for using chemical weapons and deterring his regime from using them again. Apparently, White House advisers provided Obama with a plan that represented something far from decisive action, far less than determined deterrence against further chemical use by Assad. The plan for action better resembled some panicky plan for the pre-emption of additional chemical attacks with the guiding concept being that the US must steer clear getting involved in the Syrian civil war. Language Obama was presented to use in his public statements, plans he was provided, indicated that his staff was not truly in touch with Obama on Syria. They were only in touch with Obama’s thinking to the extent that they tried to meet his desire to be transparent with the US public on the use of military force. Explanations to the public of how the new plan would achieve US goals were inaudible. Explanations of how military action in Syria would fit into overall US strategy in the region were nonexistent. However, once the rather incomplete plans were exposed via the media, opponents of the US would naturally make assumptions that there was little to be concerned about and they could proceed with their own plans in Syria.

All of this being considered, Obama, despite all initial appearances, does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. Still, it was Obama’s own use of the term “military action” that was understood to mean “war” among many Members of Congress, the US public, commentators, rivals, and detractors. It stirred great concern over long list of terrible possibilities. The US Congress and public, in particular, fully recalled the ventures of the administration of US President George W. Bush into Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, military intervention, while proffered by the Bush administration to have been well-considered, had a clear cause–weapons of mass destruction, and would have firm goals, led to tragic losses of personnel and relatively meager results. When Obama and his officials speak of military action, there is concern that the US would find itself once again committed militarily overseas to a far greater extent than anticipated.

Interestingly, during the Cold War, when a balance of power was maintained and a modus vivendi was established to assure global peace and security, while the threat of nuclear conflict loomed, measured steps were more often used to respond to trespasses upon the interests of the US and its allies by the Soviet Union and its client states. Some have yet to be unclassified. While the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Syria were very much apparent in the media, the plan for a US response of any type did not need to be publicized. It would have been best for Obama to have made it absolutely clear that the US would respond, but keep vague  his response the how, when, and where of the response. The Congress could have been informed of a plan for action by the Obama administration in camera. Military action was not the only means the US had available to deliver a punitive response against Assad. If solitary engagement had been Obama’s choice, the matter might have been best handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency is already steeped in the Syria situation as the lead US agency coping with the training and arming of the Syrian rebels. The military would be brought in to the extent it could provide air assets and provide highly-trained special operations forces to conduct missions in support of the Agency’s plans.

Obama’s Concept and Intent for a Response

Granular details on Obama’signed thinking on military action in Syria certainly could be found in minutes of meetings, memos, and other records of the dialogue on the matter. However, guidance on Obama’s thinking to a significant, or indeed sufficient, degree can also be gleaned in significant amounts from open-source reporting on the White House’s decision making on Syria. For example, a healthy amount of information was revealed in a CNN interview aired on August 23, 2013, during which Obama discussed potential US response to what was then called an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. It could be discerned that Obama’s thinking on military action was guided by the idea that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Indeed, Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.” Obama did not indicate, even then, an intent to have US forces engaged in any long term action in Syria. It was also apparent in the CNN interview that Obama’s thinking was influenced by his background as a legal scholar, expressed concern about international law. In his discussion, Obama revisited his failure to respond when the Assad regime’s crossing of a chemical weapons use “red line” he had declared in 2012. Obama explained that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response. He went on to state, “You know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.” Further, Obama was seemed to be concerned with what the genuine interests of the US were in Syria. While Obama admitted that there was some criticism and pressure from some Members of Congress for robust military action at that time, he explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?”

Obama’s statements on CNN  did not contrast at all with his speech in the White House Rose Garden on August 31, 2013, during which he further expressed his concept and intent for US action in Syria. In that more detailed and refined presentation of why and how he intended to proceed, Obama stated: “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.” Hearing and reading that statement, one could believe Obama, without a shadow of doubt intended to take military action against Syrian regime targets. The US military operation he envisioned would not require “boots on the ground” and would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. Obama went on to explain: “I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.” In order to execute the operation, Obama further stated that “Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.” Obama clearly wanted any military operation to be punitive in nature, limited to being a response to the August 21st chemical weapons attack. In no way was it to be part of the ongoing efforts to remove Assad by forcing him to negotiate an agreement for peaceful transition to a democratic form of government. A US response to the chemical weapons would be unrelated to diminunive US efforts in support of Syrian opposition and change the military balance on the battlefield thereby supporting them. Obama’s publicized military plans did not appear muscular enough to accomplish any of the anyway.

Military Plan of Attack So Far

Open source data provided by US officials to the New York Times revealed the goal of a US military strike against Syria, to “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons, has expanded. A new target list goes beyond the fifty or so major sites that were part of the original one developed with French forces before Obama delayed action to seek Congressional approval of his plan. The strikes would not be aimed at the chemical stockpiles themselves risking a potential catastrophe, but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. According to the September 5, 2013, New York Times article, military officials said Thursday. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the New York Times, stated that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals — air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons. Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military. The bulk of the American attack is still expected to be carried out by cruise missiles from Arleigh Burke-class destroyers within striking range of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship carries about three dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles, a low-flying, highly accurate weapon that can be launched from safe distances of up to about 1,000 miles. But military planners are now preparing options to include attacks from Air Force bombers, a development reported on September 5, 2013, by the Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon was initially planning to rely solely on cruise missiles. Bombers could carry scores more munitions, potentially permitting the United States to carry out more strikes if the first wave does not destroy the targets. Among the options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry air-launched cruise missiles; B-1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry satellite-guided bombs. The Navy in recent days has moved the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Syria. But Defense Department officials said Thursday that the USS Nimitz, and its squadrons of F-18 Super Hornet fighters, as well as three missile-toting destroyers in its battle group, are not likely to join any attack unless Syria launches major retaliatory strikes.

More Could Be Done to Give the President What He Wants

What Obama wanted from military action was to show the Assad regime was held accountable by punishing regime elements and assets determined by the US to have been involved in the chemical weapons attacks, deter the regime from further chemical weapons use, and degrade its capacity to do so. True, the latest target list includes the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. However, that list could be refined using the intelligence collected on the chemical attacks, released in truncated form to the public on August 30, 2013.

Command and Control of the Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Attacks

US government states that it intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21st, and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. Additional information collected indicated that on the afternoon of August 21st, Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the twenty-four hour period after the attack, the US claims to have detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. There were indications of sustained shelling in the neighborhoods up until the morning of August 26th. There were follow-on communications confirming that the chemical attacks had occurred. Through intelligence, the Obama administration has indicated that it has identified those commanders who issued orders for the activation of chemical ordinance.

Those commanders and their most immediate subordinates who were unmistakably identified as being involved in the chemical attacks and those who most likely would have been aware of those activities, should be targeted for precision attacks. In line with Obama’s desire not to shift the military balance in the field with this particular punitive action, strikes should be calibrated to hit those individuals alone, not simply their headquarters. The goal is not to decapitate military command of Syrian forces altogether, but to strike them specifically for the chemical attack. Destroying headquarters might have the effect of degrading their units’ capability in the field affecting military balance. Field grade officers would be very likely be available to rise up to replace those leaders. The hope is that after witnessing precision attacks on their commanders, the new commanders would be unwilling to use chemical weapons in their military operations. Cutting that layer of leadership off the Syrian chain of command may have the positive collateral effect of weakening Russian and Iranian links, relationships with those commanders and allow new leaders to emerge and consider their own place and the future of the Syrian Armed Forces. Syrian officers of all branches do not want to find themselves in a situation similar to their Iraqi counterparts a decade ago when the Coalition National Authority disbanded the Iraqi Army.

Targeting the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21st chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, manages Syria’s chemical weapons program. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21st near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, to include using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.

Members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that provided combat service support for those units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes, not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but remove them from the equation in Syria and help destroy the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where rogue elements with the Syrian opposition forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Syrian Military Units That Utilized Chemical Weapons

Three days prior to the attack, the US collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams indicates that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately ninety, minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

US military strikes should hit those specific units and the systems identified as firing chemical weapons attacks in Syria. All those in Syria who are aware that those units were involved will realize the US is truly following all matters in Syria closely through technical means. Future movements by officers and men of any other Syrian Army units that appear to have the aim of preparing to launch chemical attacks will also be monitored by the US. The officers and men of such unitsinvolved must face the same consequences.

Assad

According to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program. A body of information has led the US to conclude that regime officials were witting of, and directing, the attack on August 21st. Obama has made it clear that he does not want to use this punitive attack to remove Assad from power. However, it would be meaningful to let Assad feel some consequences, “discomfort” for his regime’s actions. Rather than attack Assad, strikes could be launched to remind Assad of his vulnerability as a leader. A precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. That might require the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in their vicinity. However, if the destruction of power stations by airstrike or cruise missile strike can get that task done faster, and effectively, then attacks using those resources should be made. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger and the attack should not present or produce any possibility that harm might come to them, it should impact their daily lives. That calibrated attacks would literally bring the consequences of the chemical attack home to Assad. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity, their confines area space living space came as a result of not as a result of Assad’s effort to defend them but the use of chemical weapons. They may realize that greater consequences could come if Assad insists on further use of chemical weapons.

Maintaining the Military Balance in Syria While Taking Action Against Assad

The front page of the New York Times, on September 5, 2013, included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels. This horrific scene brings the home some grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad. Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups. The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Jabhat al-Nusra, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government. As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. US airstrikes and missile strikes against  Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra would if not destroy them, degrade or displace them to a degree as to take them out of the Syria equation. By purging rogue Islamic militants factions from the Syrian opposition, from Syria, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organization of its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and permit their combat power to be enhanced with better arms. As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition. Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them. Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low. The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe. As discussed in the August 27, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them. An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army. The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency. Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified. All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect. Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory. The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces. The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

The Door Opens to a New Opportunity in Syria

Relations between Russia and Iran with the US have been uncongenial. Both countrues, against US wishes, have supported the Syrian Armed Forces. Russian support has mainly taken the form of arms and supplies and rather vociferous support in the international community. Iran has provided Syrian Armed Forces with training, equipment, and Iranian troops as reinforcements. However, their support has never included attacks against specific elements of the Free Syrian Army with airpower, other deep strike assets, or raids. Such action has very likely been avoided as a result of concerns over likely US reprisals overt such action. Yet, perhaps in discussions with the Russians and the Iranians, the US could inform them that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are not part of the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army. Both states could be informed that US itself has undertaken an effort to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy, and attacks against those organizations would be made separate from any US activity concerning Syria. The US could also request assistance from Russia and Iran, including intelligence, in conjunction with US airstrikes and missile strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Russians might be particularly pleased for within the Kremlin there are concerns that Islamic militants who arrived in Syria from Dagestan might gain possession of a portion of Assad’s chemical weapons and use it in Russia.

Undoubtedly, hearing about US efforts to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Al-Nusra would likely surprise, yet please, the Russians and Iranians. If any cooperation on that effort could be established, there is a chance that step could be a basis on which a joint effort between those countries on Syria could be built. Mutual strength of US, Russia and Iran could shift from military or intelligence cooperation to a diplomatic effort. Advocating for their respective sides among parties to the conflict, they might be able to find an acceptable compromise. From that, a new peace effort on Syria could potentially be ignited. For Iran, such an effort would mean working with US and Russia, as an equal partner, and as a power player in its region. That is something it greatly desires. For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue its interests in Syria. For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in Iraq and placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government.

Assessment

For many members of the Assad regime, US military action against Syria will mean the end of life. The lives lost would be a severe consequence of their participation in the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. If all goes as Obama plans, the attacks, optimally calibrated, will have a sound educational effect on the Assad and other rogue leaders and deter them from future chemical weapons use. Ironically, in the calculus of Obama, the lives lost in the attacks will assure countless more lives would be saved from the scourge of chemical weapons. Given what Obama feels is at stake, failing to attack does not appear to be an option. Yet, there may be other opportunities created by the use of force in Syria. The opportunity exists for the US to support the Syrian opposition in the field and US Counter-terrorism policy by taking punitive action against those who have committed despicable acts against innocent Syrian civilians and Syrian Army conscripts. Rogue Islamic militant factions, affiliated with Al-Qaida, should be purged from the Free Syrian Army, Syrian opposition, and Syria.

For the Obama administration and the US Congress, supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime was viewed as a chance to pressure Assad to the negotiating table and influence a decision by him to accept a settlement by which he would step down. Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate them from the pressures placed on them by the rogue Islamic factions. The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip Syrian opposition members. In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition, supporting its interest as best as possible. US policy would be on track. There have been indications that a quid pro quo of increasing training and arms for the opposition forces in return for support from Members of Congress on military action.

While it may be undue optimism to suggest this, it may be that if the US, Russia, and Iran cooperated or cordinated in some way against rogue Islamic militant factions, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria. They might urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. The steadily stream of Islamic militants going into Syria is a genuine problem that must be immediately dealt with. Units of such foreign fighters have made the situation in Syria, far more violent, far worse. The US, Russia, and Iran should continue to place joint attention on the transnational threat the Assad regime poses with it chemical weapons. Russia’s late decision to throw its support behind US Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-hand suggestion that Assad move Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile outside of Syria, or a determined point in Syria, and create a form of international custodianship of it until can be destroyed is being considered in the US. However, moving, guarding, and eventually destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile does not respond to Assad’s use of those weapons on August 21st. It also does not prevent a rogue regimes such as Assad’s from secreting weapons for future use, even against its current. By working together to resolve such issues, the US, Russia, and Iran might lay the ground work for real cooperation in finding a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, and perhaps beyond that.

White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, and Weighing Military Options

According to an August 24, 2013, Washington Post article entitled, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, US Forces Toward Syria,” US President Barack Obama received a detailed review of requested options for the US and its international partners to use against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, if the fact-finding process concludes it engaged in deadly chemical warfare.  The White House was quoted as stating Obama discussed the situation in Syria with British Prime Minister David Cameron.  It was said to be Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the report that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by an alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb.  The Assad’s regime denies the claims.  It has warned the US against taking military action, stating such a step would “set the Middle East ablaze.”

The August 24th, Washington Post article also reported that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated that the Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria but declined to discuss specific force movements.  However, certain Defense Department officials, speaking under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ship movements publicly revealed that the US Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, but without immediate orders for any missile launch against Syria.  As the Washington Post article explained, the Navy warships in the Mediterranean were capable of a variety of military actions, to include launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011.  Hagel was also quoted as saying, “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options—whatever options the president might choose.”

While the chemical attack issue is urgent, and military action of some type is most likely, Obama’s national security team’s meeting on August 24th was perhaps similar to many others in which they discussed contingencies for Syria..  Options for intervention in Syria have been continuously considered at the highest-levels of the Pentagon since the civil war there began, and at times they have been outlined publicly.  Most recently, in a letter to Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, presented a concept and intent behind possible military action in Syria and its likely sequalae.  A month prior, in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey discussed the matter in greater detail, presenting options and their likely costs.  On the one hand, since Obama set a red-line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Assad’s regime has decided to cross it apparently more than once, US credibility is at stake.  Any military effort should have a sound educational impact on Assad and promote US credibility globally.  However, any military strikes against Syria should in some way promote US policy goals of supporting the opposition and prompting President Assad’s departure.  Perhaps military action at this juncture should not be limited attacks against the Assad’s regime.  Conceivably, it could include a covert effort in support of mainstream elements against extremist, yet effective, Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria that are adverse to Syria’s transition to a democratic government.  Such an effort just might allow the US and its allies to stop treading water, shape events in Syria, and get their efforts moving forward.

Military Options Presented By the Pentagon

Dempsey’s letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, dated August 19, 2013, has been used by policy experts such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to glean insight into the Obama Administration’s thinking on military action in Syria.  The letter was written in response to a correspondence from the Congressman regarding the resources required and the risk of applying US military force against the Assad regime.  Dempsey explained “there were certainly actions short of tipping the balance of the conflict” in favor of the opposition that could “impose a cost on Assad’s regime for unacceptable behavior.”  Yet, he made it clear that using military force to change the balance “cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling the conflict.”  Dempsey expressed that the crisis in Syria was “tragic and complex.  He called it a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s role ends.”  To that extent, Dempsey noted, “The effectiveness of limited military options must be evaluated in this context.”

However, Dempsey’s letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, to which he referred in his letter to Congressman Engel, and which was reported on by Reuters on July 22, 2013, provided an unclassified assessment of the options for using U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict.  According to General Dempsey, the options provided, developed in consultation with the Joint Chiefs and the US Central Command, would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime.  Even at that time, Dempsey explained, “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

Dempsey went on to reveal that training, advising and assisting the opposition, which could include weapons training, tactical planning and intelligence and logistics assistance, would cost an estimated $500 million a year.  Limited stand-off strikes, using air and missile strikes to attack Syrian air defenses, military forces and command structure to damage the Assad government’s ability to wage war, Dempsey claimed, could cost a billion dollars a month and risk retaliatory strikes and civilian casualties.  Dempsey stated that establishing a no-fly zone would require hundreds of strike aircraft and support units. The cost could be a billion dollars a month and would risk the loss of US planes while potentially failing to reduce violence because Syria relies mainly on surface arms rather than air power.  Establishing buffer zones, Dempsey explained, would mean the use force to create and maintain safe zones inside Syria where the opposition could train and organize while being protected from attack by government forces. He stated the cost would be over a billion dollars a month and could improve opposition capabilities over time, but the zones, themselves, could become targets for Syrian attack.  Directly on the point of controlling chemical weapons, Dempsey stated that lethal force could be used to prevent proffer proliferation of chemical weapons and to destroy Syria’s “massive stockpile” of the weapons. However, at that time, he explained the option would require hundreds of aircraft as well as personnel on the ground and could cost over a billion dollars per month.  Clearly, these military options are not quick and easy and would dramatically increase US costs and risk of loss in Syria.  Yet, the guaranteed party to incur costs and loss will be the Assad’s regime. 

The US Military Can Still Act Decisively in Syria

Any attack on Assad’s forces whether to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles or degrade his command and control capabilities will have a significant impact on their capabilities.  In an effort not to shift the balance, the key would be not to act decisively against his forces.  During the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, supporting the movement of rebel forces with tactical support and attacks in depth, resulted in the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime.  During the 1995 NATO-led intervention in Bosnia, Operation Urgent Fury, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against Bosnian Serb forces around Sarajevo and throughout the country, facilitated the movement of Muslim and Croat forces of the Bosnian Federation.  Limiting strikes to a degree that will prevent them from having a decisive impact while being sufficient enough to achieve the desire effect upon the Assad forces will not be easy.  However, perhaps at this juncture, failing to act decisively in Syria, and that does not mean acting solely against Assad’s forces, would be a mistake.  What would be best effect of the military action in Syria would be to create opportunities for the US to pursue more than one political goal in Syria.

Islamic militant factions continue to impede US efforts to support the Free Syrian Army, the loose knit umbrella organization of around 1200 groups, which is the fighting force of the Syrian opposition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government.  Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, not necessarily the best of friends, may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes, however, the group would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Free Syrian Army units in a postwar Syria.  Further, Islamic militant factions, particularly ISIS, have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  

Purging rogue Islamic militants factions, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organize its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and let their combat power to be enhanced with better arms.  As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  In a July 20, 2013, the New York Times report, this view expressed by greatcharlie.com, was echoed by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.   Shedd pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic militant factions, noting that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.” He further stated, “The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger.”  Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. Shedd did not say how that could be accomplished.  

Likely Outcome of Purge

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them.  Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low.  The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe.  As discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources.  Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them.  An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.  The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency.  Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them.  Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified.  All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.

Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect.  Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory.  The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces.  The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

Assessment

If Assad has sought refuge in a bunker at some undisclosed location, he should not check out any time soon.  Military action of some type is certainly coming his way.  To have a sound educational impact on his regime, the US does not need to act decisively against Syrian forces.  True, as a result of an attack, the regime’s military capabilities will be greatly damaged, but those forces would still be able to fight.  Moreover, it is very likely that Russia and Iran would mitigate the effects of most damage, outside of replacing his chemical weapons capabilities and stockpiles, which would be in their interests.  Russia might replace destroyed and damages weapons systems and send in “civilian technicians” to to train Assad’s troops to use them.  Iran might go as far as to reinforce Assad’s forces in the field with additional Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps or Iranian Army units.  Moreover, It is possible that the full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies might finally be brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army in a large scale offensive, potentially overwhelming it.  That would certainly mean the end of the effort to promote a “gentler look” for Syria and its allies, evinced by arguments made by Russia, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war” and “provocations.”

While the US and its allies may still choose not to act decisively against Assad, it can seize this opportunity to act decisively in following with its policy goals in Syria by striking against rogue Islamic militant factions that effectively have thwarted its efforts.  (Striking against rogue Islamic militant factions in Syria may also meet US Counterterrorism policy goals, as Al-Qaida and its affiliates are still at war with the US.)  Foreign fighters attempting to go into Syria to join certain Islamic militant units may find them displaced, reduced, or destroyed.  That may have a sound educational impact on them.  Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate the Free Syrian Army freed from the pressures the rogue Islamic factions placed on the organization. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip its members.  The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced.  US policy would be on track.  In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition.  With civilian deaths well exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, the Syrian opposition must be allowed to get on with its task and end this conflict.  This is the moment to act.  Time is of the essence.

The Extent of US Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition May Be a Lackluster Investment of Arms

As a result of a finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. A classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with allies.

On Thursday, June 13, 2013, the White House announced that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had crossed a “red-line” US President Barack Obama set by using chemical weapons, sarin gas, against Syrian opposition forces, albeit in a limited fashion, on multiple occasions. This declaration was based on a US intelligence community assessment. As a result of the finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. The Wall Street Journal reported a classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies. For General Salim Idriss, commander of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), this news should have inspired his fighters. Finally, US arms were being sent to them. Yet, the Syrian opposition, which includes General Idriss’ SMC, as its military wing, and the Syrian National Council (SNC), as its political wing, apparently already feels quite secure in its position with the international community against Assad’s regime. Moreover, the SNC and SMC behave as if they were an indispensible part of the Syrian issue for the US, the EU, Arab states, as well as with the UN. It would seem that the many problems of the SMC and SNC which are manifested in their attitudes, behavior, and capabilities, would make them far from certain about their standing with their benefactors. The willingness of some in the international community to ignore the opposition groups’ problems and continually reward the SNC and SMC has likely imbued them with such confidence in their situation.  The time may have come for them to stop feeling so certain about their position.  This is true not only because of their relative competencies, but because the Syria conflict seems to be aggravating existing rifts in US-Russia relations. The danger of a potential conflict between these major powers over Syria should cause benfactors of the SNC and SMC to better assess the potential impact of their support. It might be best now for the SNC and SMC, themselves, to consider how they truly fit into the foreign policies and national interests of their friends. Their cause and actions need to be more in sync with those interests. An immediate change toward a more appreciative and responsive approach to the efforts of the US, EU, and Arab states, and an effort to negotiate a settlement, should seen.

Recent reports on the SNC and SMC point to: disunity and disagreements; demands of preconditions for negotiations; the considerable weakness of the SMC’s force in the field the Free Syrian Army (FSA) relative to the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies on the ground; and, a presence and influence of Islamic militants in its ranks. As Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as stating, “The extreme fragmentation of the opposition makes it impossible to do business with.” Understanding how the SNC and SMC were ever found by some in the international community to be worthy of an investment in money, personnel, and materiel in support of their struggle with the Assad regime, requires understanding the origins of the Syrian opposition movement. From the start, the international community greatly exaggerated the real potential of the SNC and SMC. This approach was driven by intelligence reports produced in the capitals ot the US, EU, and Arab states indicating that the Syrian conflict would not last long. The German intelligence service, the BND, for example, predicted the Assad regime’s imminent collapse in 2012. Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune, at the time, the US believed that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary. Despite the fact that there were armed militants in its number, the Syrian opposition movement, originally, was never prepared to overthrow President Assad and his regime through military action as a rebel group. The spiral toward war began in 2011 with protests for reforms and for a halt to violence against prisoners held by the Assad regime. It erupted into armed conflict. There were attempts to stem the violence with referendum on single party rule, but there was little confidence in the regime’s promises in the ever-growing opposition. By the end of summer, the SNC was formed in Istanbul as the main organization of the opposition. The SNC called for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and rejected dialogue. Meanwhile, another organization that formed, the National Coordination Committee, supported talks with the regime believing that bringing down the regime would lead to further chaos and conflict. These organizations included political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, mostly divided along intellectual, ethnic, and sectarian lines. In December 2011, the organizations were finally “united” against the Assad regime by agreement.

The FSA was cobbled together in 2011 with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Its ranks grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, the organization had serious problems. Joshua Landis has explained that “the militia heads on the ground in Syria don’t look up to or obey the civilian opposition leaders.” Even more, the SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination during operations. The many groups at best displayed tolerance toward each other. Some Islamic militant groups steadily began functioning more independently. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Al-Nusra Front eventually became forces the SMC would have to reckon with. These problems were compounded by the fact that the FSA lacked real military power, in terms of fighters, heavy weapons, the ability to maneuver and authentic military acumen among its commanders. That meant the force would hardly be able to march on Damascus to remove Assad. What it could do is roam the countryside attacking the Syrian Army “guerilla-style” and take control of territory when the odds were in its favor.  However, the Syrian Army, rather than chase the rebels around the countryside, fell back to strongholds in order to minimize casualties and build up its strength with the assistance of its allies.

Western states, allegedly monitoring the situation closely, somehow saw these developments as very positive, and policy and decision makers oddly began to assess the SNC and SMC as a viable core for a new political and military leadership in Syria. Thinking of that type gained momentum, and eventually some states such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. When UN and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan effort to create a ceasefire failed, more states, including the US, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA on the ground. Military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League, but Assad also was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and it was proposed that the monitoring mission in Syria be increased. Assad rejected all of that, but the SNC and SMC rejected it, too! As a newly formed movement and organization, it should have been considered foolhardy to reject the peace efforts of its benefactors. However, that is exactly what the SNC and SMC did. Despite the positive international response in favor of the SNC and SMC, arguments over policies and approaches among the diverse groups in the SNC became a regular feature of their meetings. It was well-observed in meetings established by the US, EU, and Arab states concerning the delivery of aid to them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. Still, the divisions and shortcomings of the SNC and SMC had no negative impact on international supporters. Rather, at the same time, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco recalled their ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey issued a statement declaring it was running out of patience with Assad’s regime. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to create the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Further, in a Geneva meeting, a UN communiqué was drawn up that agreed to the creation of a transitional government and what it would look like. It would include members of the opposition and former members of the regime based on consent. Most intriguing was the US demand that there would be no place for Assad in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West firmly behind the burgeoning SNC and SMC.

In addition to the belief that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary, international perspectives to the Syrian conflict were biased by the Libya episode. In Libya, a determined rebel force, supported by airpower for the US, EU, and Arab states, defeated the government forces of Muammar Qaddafi. There were also analyses that found the Syrian Armed Forces and the FSA somehow evenly matched, except the FSA lacked high-tech and heavy weapons. The truth could easily dispell this illusion. The opposing forces were not balanced at all, but rather, greatly tilted in the Assad regime’s favor. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities. While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabiha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200,000.

The combat power of that force has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or IRGC-Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China further enhance the force. The size of the Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 rocket systems or any other advance weaponry their country allegedly has provided the Assad regime. Reports exist that say Russia will sell MiG-29 fighters to Syria and the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, will soon be stationed in the Mediterranean. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and IRGC-Quds Force were on the ground. Iran stated, however, it would deploy 4,000 IRGC troops to Syria. The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside and within the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Indeed, what may eventually be observed is Iranian units folding into Syrian Army units and placed under the command of Syrian Army officers. Hezbollah is already in the fight, with nearly 4,000 fighters in Syria, particularly within provinces bordering Lebanon. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, vowed to propel Assad to victory.

There is no evidence that the SNC and SMC have evolved in any way that would cause one to assess that they were ready to take down Assad. The long-term bickering and in-fighting certainly is disconcerting. However, there are other issues. The commander of the SMC, General Salim Idriss, put his own character into question during a surprise visit to Syria made by US Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). At great personal risk, Senator McCain, a US political icon, went into Syria to observe the operations of the FSA and to enhance his ability to advocate in support for the organization with his colleagues in the US Congress. As the guest of General Idriss, Senator McCain should have been protected from any controversy or problems. Yet, General Idriss allowed Senator McCain to be photographed with Mohammed Nour, commander of the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade. Nour had been implicated in the kidnapping of Lebanese Shi’a pilgrims in 2012. While denying Nour the opportunity to meet with Senator McCain may have put General Idriss in a difficult political situation with one of his commanders, he did not hesitate to create potential poblems for Senator McCain by doing so. General Idriss displayed an incredible lack of courtesy and respect toward the US Senator, and questionable judgement. Senator McCain, a gentleman, has shrugged off the incident. Yet, many Americans were incensed by his treatment. General Idriss’s behavior becomes a bit more understandable given feelings the FSA’s rank and file have openly expressed about the US. As an FSA member was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “We will accept support even from Satan to finish the Assad regime.” At the same time this was occurring, in Istanbul, the SNC and SMC, once again were engaged in considerable bickering and arguments over issues such as how many seats each group deserved. This was done, despite of the tireless work by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the Russians and the Assad regime to the table to talk. Some have called the SNC and SMC failure to respond to Kerry fully as Kerry’s flop. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is not Secretary Kerry and his tireless work to establish a peace agreement. The problem is the SNC and SMC which the US supports, and now arms.

The CIA will have its hands full trying to arm the FSA. Its continued work in support of their cause will likely be met with further ingratitude. Having received arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which the CIA helped deliver, General Idriss very publicly complained about the quality of the weapons his forces were receiving. He pleaded for “Western” anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles saying the weapons the FSA had were no match for the Syrian Army’s modern tanks and weapons systems. It was a rebuff to the Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish efforts. Those states were not selling the arms supplied, but giving them to the SMC and FSA. In any event, the present reality regarding military assistance is that the Russians and Iranians, through their military assistance to Assad’s regime, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US, EU, and Arab states to do anything substantial with high-tech or even heavy weapons at this point. General Idriss, in spite of the revolutionary zeal of his forces, should have been pragmatic enough to have recognized this fact. Perhaps to create some benefit for themselves, SMC leaders seek to collect Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles now in order to sell them later on the black market after victory or defeat. This would be one way in which the concern of Russian President Vladimir Putin about the weapons provided possibly surfacing in Europe, might be realized. Certainly, the CIA will successfully carry out the task of delivering US arms as assigned by policy and decision makers. Yet, providing US arms directly to the opposition arms in a way that would dramatically change the situation on ground would just be asking too much. The SMC, General Idriss, and the FSA fighters would still complain vehemently about not getting the right tools to win. (They are already saying small arms from the US will not be enough. Clearly these men, particularly their leaders, are not mature enough, and worldly enough, to understand that the US owes them absolutely nothing.

There is a real “Russian factor” in Syria of which Western capitals and Arab states, soon enough become most apparent. The Russian factor for now should outweigh concerns regarding the opposition. No matter the rationale behind it, the planning for any sort of military intervention could not be conducted without consideration that airstrikes or even a no-fly zone might result in harm to Russian advisers and other personnel. No clash with them should be an outcome of US efforts. The Syria conflict simply does not rise-to-a-level high enough as an issue over which any rational policymaker or decision maker in the US, EU, or Arab state to consider fighting with Russia. While the SNC and SMC may believe that their cause is the only one of real importance and urgency in the world, they need to know that perspective is wholly unrealistic. They would be greatly mistaken if they remotely thought that their situation in Syria warranted placing the security of the US, EU, or another Arab state at stake. For the US, maintaining positive relations with Russia within the parameters of its own national policies, and regarding their respective activities is very important.

As President Obama’s chemical weapons red-line has been crossed, the SNC and SMC will now receive US military aid for its forces. Some policy makers in the Obama administration apparently believe Syria, on the basis of being as a humanitarian crisis, is very worthy of some type of intervention. However, this is not 2011, but 2013, and things have changed in Syria. The FSA lacks the ability to achieve great success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. It is unlikely that FSA capabilities could be ramped up to reach a size and strength great enough in any short period of time to confront the Syrian Armed Forces and allies as they are amassed. Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the FSA at this point would be a foolhardy and reckless. Syria is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. A clash with the Russia must be avoided. US Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to have the opposition meet with the Assad regime representatives in Geneva and come to some agreement on a transitional government. Now is the best and, perhaps, final chance for the SNC and SMC to organize representatives and go to Geneva to reach an agreement. The SNC and SMC can eventually lead Syria into the future. The failure to reach an agreement may result in a situation, created through military moves by the Assad regime, which the US, EU and Arab states, might not be in the best position to halt. Those states have dealt with Assad regime for years, and can easily tolerate it a few years more until some truly viable solution to it is found. However, for the SNC and SMC, such military action by Assad’s forces may be something their FSA fighters on the ground may be unable to cope with, and, perhaps, may be unable to live through.