Trump Uses Prior Experience, Flexible Thinking, and Even Empathy, to Make Foreign Policy Decisions Fit for Today’s World

US President Donald Trump (above). International Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO have served well in promoting global economic development, international peace and security, and providing responses to threats to democracy and freedom. Still, some countries, sensing they are surrendering a degree of control and power by creating space for the conciliation of such institutions, frequently work outside of them. Doing that well is not easy. Lessons can be drawn from Trump’s efforts at effecting change in other countries’ foreign and national security policy decision making.

Throughout centuries, overwhelming military power, hard power, has been used by empires, countries, tribes seeking to force some modifications in other groups or halt certain actions altogether. Threaded through that history has been the less frequent use of what the renowned international affairs scholar Joseph Nye referred to as “soft power”, the ability to shape the long-term attitudes and preferences of country by using economic and cultural influence rather than force. Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO, have well-served the interests of countries since the postwar era by promoting economic development worldwide, international peace and security, and providing responses to Communist aggression and other threats to democracy and freedom. However, effecting change peacefully since the end of the Cold War has often been a process in which stronger, very capable, sophisticated, industrialized countries, with a goal of “leveling the playing field”, and promoting an Utopian unreality of all countries “negotiating as equals”. Great strain and limitations have been placed on their diplomatic efforts. Indeed, they feel that they have been in a downward spiral in which they are slowly surrendering an ever increasing degree of control and power to create space for the conciliation of international institutions. Hardline political elements of those countries have gone as far as to complain that working through international institutions has resulted in an absolute derogation of their respective countries’ rights and power.In addition, authoritarian regimes have regularly exploited international institutions for their own ends. For example, Cuba and Venezuela, two of the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers, sit on the UN Human Rights Council. China exploits benefits of membership in the World Trade Organization while engaging in unfair trade practices to protect its domestic market.

In response to this dilemma, the US and a number of other countries have begun to engage more frequently outside of those institutions in their diplomatic efforts on major issues. They want to better enable themselves to determine outcomes on those efforts. Moreover, as Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State, explained in a December 11, 2018 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal: “With the international order under siege from actors that would remake it in their own illiberal image, the Trump administration is acting to preserve a just, transparent and free world of sovereign states.” Surely, this does not mean that international institutions are not being abandoned. Efforts are being made to reform them. Abandoning them completely would be a terrible miscalculation for their good offices still have purpose in certain urgent and important multilateral, regional, and global diplomatic situations. Rather, as an alternative, countries can cooperate effectually by making themselves the guarantors of their own domestic freedoms and national interests. Once national leaders become involved in bilateral or multilateral diplomacy outside of the auspices of an international institution, they must be a bit shrewder, more incisive, have an optimal situational awareness, and remain truly dedicated to reaching an agreement or resolution as there will be no “middleman” available to referee or mediate. They must be willing to struggle with an idea until its inception, rather than back away from finding a solution because it takes too much effort, energy, and time. Countries may not be able to insist upon negotiating as equals outside of international institutions, but that matter can be overcome by acting with a heightened spirit of goodwill. National leaders and negotiators must ensure that they are empathetic toward an opposite’s circumstances and positions.

Lessons can be drawn from the approaches taken by Trump aimed at affecting change in the foreign and national security policy decision making of other countries in his first term while working outside the auspices of international institutions. There might be some disagreement with this suggestion, but often from what observers might perceive as crises, Trump has managed to create starting points for new beginnings in relations with other countries. Trump sees potential in everything. As a result, if he sees a better way, an easier route to put the figurative golden ring in his reach, there will occasionally be surprise shifts in his approaches. His critics and detractors insist that there are strictures on foreign and national security decision making to which he must adhere as US President. However, Trump, having been engaged in international business for years, has had time to examine the world using his own lens, and not a political or bureaucratic prism. He came to office confident that he could maneuver well among the galer of national leaders, each with his or her own ideas, goals, ambition, will, and predilections. He indeed exhibits the type of flexibility of thinking and action that an accomplished general would hope to display in war. It is possible that he has by instinct the methodology to do it all well. By identifying and examining patterns in his efforts, lessons become available. From an out-of-the-box perspective, an abbreviated discussion is provided here of the types of considerations behind Trump’s thinking on four salient foreign and national security policy issues set before his administration: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”) denuclearization; Russian election interference in the US; the Russia-Ukraine confrontation in the Azov Sea (Kerch Strait); and, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Khashoggi assassination. The intention here is not to insist that other national leaders should be guided by the meditations of greatcharlie on Trump’s decision making. Rather, the discussion simply outlines what may be some of the new necessities of thinking and reasoning by national leaders and their foreign and national security policy decision makers today as more countries seek to engage in diplomacy outside of international institutions. Further, it is hoped that the discussion here will become part of policy debate concerning the Trump administration. ‘Tu me’ inquis ‘mones? iam enim te ipse monuisti, iam correxisti? ideo aliorum emendationi vacas?’ Non sum tam improbus ut curationes aeger obeam, sed, tamquam in eodem valetudinario iaceam, de communi tecum malo colloquor et remedia communico. (“What,” say you, “are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.)

Trump (left) and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un (right) in Singapore. The Singapore Summit was held on June 12, 2018. in the months since, Kim, nestled in Pyongyang, has likely become comfortable. Just thinking now and then about drawing closer to denuclearization and the future Trump presented, likely disrupts that sense of comfort. Calculating what would actually be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country, may make change a less attractive. Encouriaging Kim to move forward may be a challenge for Trump, but not an insurmountable one.

The DPRK and Denuclearization

Given DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un’s apparent temporizing on the decision to denuclearize, critics and detractors of Trump would want everyone aware of the interactions between the US and DPRK to believe that Kim is using the US President to achieve his own ends. However, even if Kim actually feels that there is something more to the idea of denuclearization, surely he would still be hesitant to advance the matter. It would only be natural for anyone to have a bout with wintery feet facing the enormity of the potential undertaking before Kim. In the chambers where Kim and the DPRK’s most senior officials make decisions on foreign and national security policy, innovative and imaginative thinking would hardly be welcomed and denuclearization is likely accepted unenthusiastically. What has been produced there for quite some time has usually been uninspired stuff, aimed primarily at advancing the ideals of the Worker’s Party of Korea . Kim is surely aware of what happened in Russia economically with the help of “Western experts” after the fall of the Soviet Union. As mentioned in the July 27, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “To Foster Forward Movement on Denuclearization by Kim, Trump Says there Is No Rush, But His Patience Has Limits”, a complete trust in Trump hardly could have sprouted and blossomed exponentially in Kim during the Singapore meeting. Months have passed since Singapore, Kim is some distance away from it all. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have morphed into considerable apprehension since. Kim has been comfortably nestled in Pyongyang. Drawing closer to the world that Trump presented, would require Kim to tear away from the only world he and his people have known. Just ruminating about what would be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country may make it all seem so difficult and thereby a less attractive option.

When mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with another country or countries, the foreign and national security policy machinery of countries as the DPRK will very often move with the same speed as the massive naval dreadnoughts of early and mid-20th century. Wheeling those giant ships port or starboard took real effort. They often moved so slowly that during World War II in particular, they became relatively easy targets for dive bombers and torpedo planes. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan interests can even surpass their enthusiasm over the matter at hand. Decisions are usually reviewed endlessly, as they seek to advance their organizations’ parochial interests in an optimal way. Indeed, the bureaucracies can suffer the paralysis of analysis. Compromise is usually reached as last resort. Yet, “turf battles” can become so volatile on an issue that often in the end, while there may have been some compromise from the different organizations, no satisfactory decision is made at all, no approach truly beneficial to the country is advanced. Another result can be some composite solution that will be ineffectual in resolving the matter at hand in the best interests of their country. Further, there can be a result in which too many points, most of which were found to be too controversial to settle on in the bureaucratic struggle, are left uncovered, making it virtually impossible to proceed in the best interest of their country on a matter. All of this makes encouraging change in the thinking of another countries foreign and national security policy appear insurmountable. Trump and his advisers and aides have taken all of this into full consideration, and remain confident that the administration’s efforts will lead to success. In fact, it remains a goal in Washington to find a way to get Kim to accelerate his efforts at denuclearization. What they would like to do is create an occasion on which Kim to have a second chance to be in contact with the persuasive and assuring Trump. For Trump, there is a type of voluptuous quality about the entire challenge, as it will require the full use of his capabilities along the lines of excellence. Moreover, Trump has the freedom to maneuver in his own unique and often successful ways in the negotiation process. He does not need to be concerned that an international institution might impose limitations on his ability to make deals. Fortuna adversa virum magnae sapientiae non terret. (Adverse fortune (adversity) does not frighten (intimidate) a man of great intellect.)

As a practical matter, negotiating countries should ascribe probabilities of their opposites’ likely actions and reactions respectively. In that vein, national leaders of the negotiating countries must also be a bit more empathetic of each others circumstances. As the negotiation process continues, direct communication must be used to convey and remind what the expectations are for both sides and respective red-lines on trade-offs that neither side will cross. Nothing does more to prove how vested the other is on an issue when one party absolutely refuses to negotiate on it, even when perhaps minor agreements tied to it are reached in the negotiating process. Every country has lines that it simply will not cross. If anything, those small steps that might be achieved should serve to build confidence on other matters as the negotiations continue. If one country feels unduly pressured or imposed upon, some capitals could react in a disproportionately negative way. One-sided outcomes successfully forced down one party’s throat will not last.  One-sided outcomes, even if consented to by the initiating party will rarely survive over time. This was recently observed with regard to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Paris Agreement of Climate Change.

Months have passed since Singapore. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have possibly morphed into considerable apprehension. The foreign and national security policy machinery of the DPRK, mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with the US, is moving very slowly. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan positions undoubtedly far surpass their “enthusiasm” over denuclearization. 

For Trump, as would be the case for any US president, success in such an endeavor would also depend upon the ability to create an outcome that supports balance in the international order; that is compatible with US values and interests. If the matter at hand is urgent enough, substantial resources and energy will be speedily directed to it. That has been the case with DPRK denuclearization; trade with China; and the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. For Trump specifically, there would most likely be a determination to remain stalwart at the side of the US public. Without deviation, he will keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers how he will encourage and initiate the changes he desires. He will also keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers withdrawing from US military commitments overseas. While reelection in 2020 is certainly the goal and the plan, Trump is not in a popularity contest to the extent that he only wants to make the US public happy or get the people to like him. (Many do already.) He wants to do what is best for their true interests, both for the short-term and the long-term. In that respect, Trump cannot always, metaphorically, serve dessert first, but there is always something better coming.

Omnis nimium longa properanti mora est. (Every delay is too long to one who is in a hurry.) As a caveat, one should not become so steeped in the effort to encourage and draw the response from the other side that one would be willing to make concessions that were never even imagined before the negotiation process began. Trading off something a country’s negotiators would prefer not to relinquish, a major concession, may very well be required at some point. It is almost an immutable part of the process of negotiating at the international level. Still, a line must be drawn along the measure at which nothing beyond would be acceptable. To lessen the pain of giving up anything, whatever one might be willing to part with must be determined and enumerated before any diplomatic negotiations begin. When mulling over what to give up, one must use reason to determine what it’s relative value might be to the other side. It must be useful enough to create some sense of equity, balance, and perhaps if a side is lucky, it might represent some real gain. (In that process of determining what would be best to trade versus what might be gained, difficulties can arise internally in many national governments’ foreign and national security bureaucracies.) Concerning the DPRK and denuclearization, the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of the DPRK. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense on where things stand in the DPRK regarding denuclearization. Where explanations are somewhat unclear, there becomes the need to ascribe the probability of success from the interpretations of what has said and even what has not been said during negotiations and in the briefest communications to include pull asides and other less formal discussions away from the negotiating table. Attention would also need to be placed on what is said contemporaneously among officials from the respective countries who may have met on unrelated matters. That would include theories, surmisals, and any offhand comments. When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services.

US Air Force U2 Surveillance Plane (above). When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above.

As greatcharlie explained in its May 31, 2018 post entitled, “An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump”, for intelligence services, getting to know what is happening in a country, regarding a particular event or issue will invariably require having agents who are in the right place, are articulate, can answer questions, and receive instructions. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above. Electronic collection, although very costly, has brought many benefits, by allowing for the monitoring of all manner of communications, discovering plans, patterns of activity and locations of targets. Many have grumbled for years in the intelligence industry that increased use of such surveillance and reconnaissance systems has resulted in the disappearance of the sure-fire agent on the ground with his string of spies and informants and with a willingness to travel the danger route. When this issue became most apparent in the US in the late 1970s and the 1980s, there were efforts to make adjustments, but it is still posited that human intelligence has taken a back seat in favor of technology.  Illud autem ante omnia memento, demere rebus tumultum ac videre quid in quaque re sit: scies nihil esse in istis terribile nisi ipsum timorem. (Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.

Trump has no intention of moving down a blind alley. Regarding the use of his “gut feelings”, intimations backed up with the strength of reports and briefings from intelligence community, military, and diplomatic professionals. Supported in that way, such feelings are less guesses than judgments based on the aggregate of all the information received, tied in with an awareness of seemingly abstract pieces of information to form an orderly and coherent perception. During World War II, German military commanders were known for relying on intimations based on what was occurring on the battlefield and perceptions of what the thinking and planning was in the opponent’s command center. Still, in contemplating what Kim might do, the US will do much more than rely on such hunches. The administration cannot afford to become complacent even to the slightest degree. It will remain vigilant and cautious. Resources have been dedicated to surveilling developments at North Korean nuclear sites. As many analytical resources as possible should also be dedicated to the discernment of signs of a reversal in Pyongyang.

Il ne fait pas l’ombre d’un doute que Trump and his advisers and sides will seek to be read-in on daily assessments, appraisals, and conclusions. Concrete facts, inference, interpolations from data, intimations, hunches based on experience, will all be heard and considered when senior US foreign and national security policy officials meet. Leg work by a secret grey army of US intelligence officers in the region and confirmed reports from agents ensconced naked where detection could mean certain death, serve to confirm possible actions or unsettling activity, even if not immediately threatening, would be rapidly synthesized and provided to decision makers. Those consumers may also have an interest in reading reports from intelligence officers of regional allies and their agents, as well as data streams from technical collection systems of those allies. US allies just might discern something the US might have missed. Despite the most optimistic hopes and projections on the DPRK, Trump remains ready to process in his mind what he sees to surmount what he is hoping for. Looking deeper allows one to see what is lacking. The diplomatic process with the DPRK cannot sit between success and failure in a figurative foreign policy halfway house. Previous administrations submitting to the fantasy that the DPRK wanted peace allowed Pyongyang to establish a pattern of success that very likely helped build Kim’s self-confidence in dealing with US. One can be assured that Trump will not base his decision on an emotional response, and bend too much in an effort to understand the uneasiness of Kim’s position. It is most important for Kim to know that.

Trump (right) and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left). The efforts of Russian operatives were too unnatural, too unusual. Their focus was primarily on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity, and were detected. The fact that Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public was disproportionate to the degree of risk involved with undertaking a political manipulation effort of such magnitude in the US.

Russia’s Ongoing Election Interference

The unique qualities and character of each US President in great part impels the US public to select them on election day. As chief executive of the US Government, the president is required to take certain positions and actions in accord with US values and interests. Yet, it is the unique qualities and character of each which causes the choices of each to diverge a bit or a lot from those of their predecessors. How a president will act on certain foreign and national security policy issues will typically be outlined during an election campaign for the public to read and hear. From what is enumerated, the public will form an opinion on a candidate. Indeed, in the end, it is not what is wrong with a candidate that sticks in the mind of a voter that is so important. It is what is right for the voter which makes the difference. The thinking of the US public generally moves in that direction.

To clarify further on the perception of how a candidate will perform differently to satisfy the voter, there must be the belief that the candidate will make a positive difference in their lives personally such as making them financially better off and more secure, allowing for improvement to their communities by making more services available and life better in general, and in the country by improving its condition, guiding it in a positive direction, and ensuring its status as a world leader and force for good. Negative ideas that might to orbit around a preferred candidate and even a rival candidate, while seemingly important in campaign efforts–every campaign has elements that focus on those matters and to an extent promulgate negative information on an opponent–and in news media stories broadcasted, published, and posted, may remain correlative, even de minimus, in the minds of many voters. In some cases, the negative information about a preferred candidate may drive voters to the polls to ensure their candidate wins.

Although Russian Federation intelligence services may pride itself in having what it believes to be considerable expertise on the US affairs, it surely is not up to snuff when it comes to understanding US politics. While their studies and observations of the US may have appeared to yield a genuine picture of the broad US political scene, certainly when it came to understanding what was happening in the lead up the 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Presidential Election, they completely missed the mark. An immediate impression is that since Russian analysts lacked points of reference within their own society that resembled what was happening in the US, there was really nothing upon which they could found their interpretations and conclusions. As social media was a main focal point on which Russian operatives sought to inflict considerable damage during the 2016 US Presidential Elections, it appears that much of what was collected and extrapolated about the US political scene came from popular, yet incredibly hostile commentaries propagated on social media by emotional individuals across of the political spectrum, political activists, and fringe elements who simply attack and lack boundaries. The Russians analysts could not discern that what was on social media did not reflect what was going on in the mind of the US public. Basing the interference operation on that sort of failed interpretation of US political activity, meant it was doomed from the start. Essentially, it was sabotaged by ignorance. As they performed their mission, the efforts of Russian operatives, being too imitative, too unnatural, too unusual, stood out. It was all nothing more than  a soupy simulacrum of the real thing. Their focus was almost solely on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity. Their efforts  were out of rhythm and rhyme with the stylings of authentic political message of mainstream US political parties. No matter how well Russian operatives may have believed their operation was cloaked, executed, and managed, those who began investigating what was going on could flag their burlesque without too much difficulty. The fact that Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reportedly won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public. The operation’s modicum of success was disproportionate relative to the degree of risk involved in undertaking an extensive political manipulation effort in the US. The interference operation really appears to have been an act of vengeance more than anything else. Passion did not obey reason in the Kremlin.

Added to that, the US intelligence community and law enforcement had the technological means to trace the efforts of Russian operatives all the way home to their headquarters. So successful were the counterintelligence efforts of the US intelligence community and law enforcement that they could determine when and how things happened and who was involved. For example, they acquired complete profiles of those members of the Russian Federation’s Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU involved with the interference operation. They were able to determine the particular role each played in it. Recall that Putin reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, and he was named Secretary of the Security Council. Having observed the US collect such granular information on the operation, it is very likely that Putin had parsed out that someone in Russia’s intelligence services pointed the US in the right direction. He likely began to believe that there was a rotten apple buried somewhere at the bottom of the Russian intelligence apple barrel. One might informally speculate that anger, even rage over the the ability of the US to discover so much might have been one more straw on the pile that has caused Russia to lash out at the West, and those in West’s fold, in ham-handed ways since. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions))

The fact that Russia sought to disrupt the democratic process of the country is what makes the interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election so insidious. A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he is enchanted with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous. This tenuous notion became a story was heavily covered even before Trump’s inauguration, and has received even greater coverage since. The story considered in light of reports from the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, has been posited as the causality for the investigations of the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The reality is that rather finding a national leader as Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about them. In the past year, Trump observed Putin behave in a very disappointing manner. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has closely monitored hostile Russian moves, not only the continued interference in US elections, but also: Russia’s continued interference in the election processes of countries other than the US; Russia’s efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and, Russia’s efforts to tighten its grip on Crimea and the Donbass. As it was explained in the October 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage”, Trump has repeatedly gotten on Putin’s case about the matter, and has publicly insisted that he has done so. Trump also has surely shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world with a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be an honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. It would seem that Trump could publicly snatch Putin’s lunch away, eat it, and pop the bag in his face, and critics would still say he too soft on the Russian leader. There could not be a worse source or gauge of Trump’s interactions with Putin than his critics and detractors.

German troops passing through Ardennes Forest on their way to France in 1940. (above). Trump knows it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirm some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. The failure of consumers to include assessments of situations in their calculations can be unfortunate. Consider how the French military high command failed their government In 1870, 1915, and 1940 by dismissing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments.

Trump knows that it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirms some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. Predictions concerning an action are made more urgent when commingled with existing impressions of a national government or national leader, specifically, based on behavior both at home and abroad. The consequence of insufficient intelligence analyses, the failure by consumers to include valuable forecasts in their appraisals of situations, can be most unfortunate. Consider for example how the military high command of France failed their government 3 times in 70 years by minimizing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments. In 1870, the Supreme Command of the French Imperial Army, with its attitude of debrouillez-vous (“We’ll muddle through somehow”), did not heed signalling that the Prussian Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1918, the French Grand Quartier Général (General Headquarters) did not heed indicia signalling that the Imperial German Army, to avoid French defenses on the Franco-German border, would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1940, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council, relying on the defenses of the Maginot Line, did not heed indicia signalling that the German Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. Even with this history, in 1944, the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe ignored idicia signalling that the German Army might attempt to move via the the Ardennes Forest into Belgium in an attempt to reach Antwerp and cut Allied Forces into two pieces. The result was the Battle of the Bulge in which US forces suffered an estimated 75,000 casualties.

A newly discovered official US Government memorandum has revealed that intelligence collected about the activities of the Imperial Japanese Navy, led to assessments that Japan might attack the US on the West coast, the Panama Canal, and the US naval and military bases in Hawaii some time in December 1941. The Japanese Imperial Navy would eventually execute a devastating surprise, aircraft carrier-based, aerial attack and submarine attack on the US Naval Base and Headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and aerial attacks against the US Army Base at Schofield Barracks and the US Army Air Corps Base at Hickam Field. Most US military commanders were bewildered by the successful attack which they never would have believed Japan could execute before it actually happened. By leaning into those beliefs, they were caught flat-footed by the attack. Their immediate responses were meager and ineffectual.

There were more recent occasions when intelligence was not given primacy required and not sufficiently analysed and integrated in the decision making of a US administration. Boiled down to the bones, in the late summer of 2001, the administration of US President George Bush was remiss in not giving primacy to information indicating the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the US. In fact, Al-Qaeda did strike on September 11, 2001. Failing to become overly concerned over warnings of an impending terrorist attack, the Bush administration did not formulate and implement an effectual response to deter or defeat the threat that revealed itself. As explained in the December 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?”, US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced; Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds.

How a US President might proceed at forks on the road on policy concerning, a countries, or group of countries will typically be based on information provided by the US intelligence community. Sometimes, that information will create a clear path on which the president can proceed with a relatively assured step. In cases in which US responses have been ineffectual or simply wrong, there may have been a failure to integrate information that warned that success was unlikely. Sometimes, “The path is smooth that leads on to danger.” If the US public were kept aware of every occasion in which Russia posed a threat or interfered with US interests, and if the US Government were to react publicly to concerns and intelligence reports about Russian activity, certainly the US would have stumbled into war with Russia long ago. Consider for example that the Russians regularly use their satellites to interfere with US satellites as they transit the Earth. That situation is made more challenging by the fact that there is considerable positive cooperation between the US and Russia on space and it would be disadvantageous to tear it apart. In that same vein, an honest assessment must be made of where incidents fit into the bigger picture of vital US interests and the maintenance of international peace and security. At best, the country must rely on a president’s experience and judgment as each incident arises.

Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources.

Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections. Trump can continue to respond to its behavior by keeping the most effective punitive economic measures in place. However, he also knows that Putin, to the best of his ability has thought through the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. He does not at least publicly appear overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against Russian interests and its allies. Beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, Trump has sought to close the door on Russian election meddling activities against the US as best as possible, build a positive personal relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump, a patriotic US citizen, very likely feels some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from his acting in a measured way. Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown, and keeping it going seems a bit barky. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more enabled US intelligence services and law enforcement are to uncover Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. Perhaps he is on the verge of becoming conscious or accepting of that now.

According to Kiev, the confrontation in the Kerch Strait began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard. (The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway separating the Black and Azov seas.) The Russian Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 sailors are now being held in Crimea by Russia.

Russia, Ukraine and the Kerch Strait Incident

Trump came to office with the intention of assuaging the long standing tension and anger that characterized the US-Russia relations, exacerbated by the Obama administration’s poor stewardship of it. He did not begin by trying the figuratively test the water nervously with his big toe. With boldness, he jumped right in, attempting to find a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between themselves and their two countries and hopefully as a result, a decent arrangement for interaction could be created. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them. With any luck, Putin would understand and appreciate what Trump has been doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. It has been a bedeviling process. At Helsinki, there was an incident that certainly raised Trump’s antennae. Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Putin took the anomalous and very awkward step of presenting Trump with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.” Trump stated that he would give the ball to his son Darren, and tossed it to the First Lady, Melania Trump. One could immediately observe by his visage that Trump would want answers from his team on what Putin’s move was all about.

Although, with some effort, benign intent can be posited to Putin’s presentation of the ball to Trump. The negative side of Putin may have been on full display. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may very well be that Trump felt vibrations about trouble ahead with him. It was also very surprising because Putin, an acute watcher and listener. should have known by the time he met with Trump in Helsinki that the presentation of the ball would have created more difficulties than inroads with him. Critics and detractors of Putin would surely explain that he did not seek to gain anything from doing such an unorthodox thing and that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President’s churlish thinking. Si animus infirmus est, non poterit bonam fortunam tolerare. (If the spirit is weak, it will not be able to tolerate good fortune.)

The clash between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait makes plain the reality that problems between the two countries are deepening. According to Kiev, the confrontation began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard in the Kerch Strait. The Russian Federation Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. In addition, Russia scrambled jets and helicopters, and even blocked the Kerch Strait with a barge, closing access to the Sea of Azov. Russia claims the Ukrainian ships violated territorial waters. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 crewmen as have been held as of January 2019 by Russia in Crimea. The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway that serves as the gateway from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective, it is most importantly, the waterway between mainland Russia and Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Both countries have the right to patrol the waters in accord with a bilateral treaty. However, the strait is also the site of a new 12-mile bridge built by Russia that cost an estimated $4 billion. Russia has significantly built up its military presence in the region since 2014.

Russian Federation FSB officer (left) escorts Ukrainian sailor (right). Trump indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. In flight, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.”

The incident in the strait alarmed senior US officials. Sharp criticism of Russia’s actions were immediately voiced. For US allies in Europe, the incident was edge of the seat stuff. There were widespread calls for Russia to immediately release the 24 Ukrainian sailors it captured, and some European leaders called for fresh sanctions against Russia. Kiev put martial law in effect for 30 days in Ukraine. The Kremlin scoffed at an appeal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for NATO to reinforce the Azov Sea with naval ships. Russia shrugged off Western pressure. Moscow maintained that the crisis was created by Poroshenko for political gain. When Trump commented on the matter right after occurred, his words fell short of condemning Russia directly by stating: “I don’t like that aggression.” While there was nothing irregular about that, Trump’s critics and detractors, in response, characterized him as being too reticent on the matter. However, the situation was fluid, and Trump wanted to collect all the information available before taking any steps. So profound was his reaction that he reportedly signalled to the Washington Post that he would consider forgoing the meeting with Putin after the incident in Kerch Strait and escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Trump then indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. Early in the flight, however, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.” He added: ““I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Likely swept off their feet over “how well” they were managing their interactions with US and believing that they had a handle on the highly publicized meeting with Trump at the G-20 Summit Meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Putin and his whole cabaret of acolytes were caught completely off guard by his decision. Coming down from their overdose of confidence, their immediate concern would reasonably have been what Trump’s move would mean in terms of future Russian interactions with the US. The Kremlin’s worry seemed to be manifested in the attitude and behavior of Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. At the time, his works lacked a usual sense of certitude. There was a noticeable absence of his normal swagger. He presented a less impressive substitute of himself. Early on November 29, 2018, Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the meeting between Trump and Putin would take place December 1, 2018 around noon. He explained, “We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state.” He added that “Washington has confirmed.” Agitated by Trump’s tweet, Peskov told TASS Russian News Agency that the Kremlin had not been informed separately by the White House of the cancellation. He made the necessary correction by stating, explained, “If this is indeed the case, the president [Putin] will have a couple of additional hours in his schedule for useful meetings on the sidelines of the summit.”

Whatever could have led the Kremlin to think for a moment that they ever had a firm handle on Trump is a bit of a black box. Among the basket of possibilities, one might hypothesize that the vengeful thinking the prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration is now insinuating itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. (Many of former Obama administration officials successfully needle Kremlin’s officials by presenting acidic analyses of Putin’s behavior, antagonistic critiques of Russian foreign and national security policy, and make warlike recommendations on handling Russia for the Trump administration.) There is the possibility that Putin and Kremlin officials, being vexed by Trump’s willingness to bargain on the basis of fairness with them, chose the easy answer of simply continuing to do what they had been doing in response to Obama. There is also the possibility that being unable to understand Trump, and believing that his range of action, ability to do big things, and take on real challenges, was likely restrained somewhat by his domestic political struggles, which they doubtlessly perceive as amusing. If that perchance is the case, there is the possibility that Russian intelligence analysts covering the US political scene have been remiss by conceivably allowing highly politicized commentaries from Trump’s critics and detractors and iniquitous reports in the US news media insinuate themselves in their assessments. It is possible that any penetration by the GRU and the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR in the US may simply be collecting: chicken feed; misleading information grabbed because it was within easy reach of officers, sounded plausible, and would look good in Moscow; or, false reports conjured up by delinquent officers just to look good or prolong their postings in the US. (It can happen even in the best intelligence services.) Additionally, Kremlin officials may have decided to simply leave well-enough alone and remain satisfied with stale, derivative analyses that would serve the bureaucratic requirement of producing some product, but inhibits the exploration or exploitation of opportunities for positive engagement with, and actions toward, the US.

Trump did not make contact with Putin on December 1, 2018 at the G-20 Summit. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the leaders stood for a group photo. Still, having studied the the Obama administration responses to very questionable moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. A conversation finally occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires, organized for the national leaders and their wives. Putin told reporters later that they discussed the “Black Sea situation.”

Having studied the Obama administration’s responses to contentious moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. Putin’s reaction to that approach was adverse and disproportionate. Sensing that Putin may actually have a penchant for destroying progress made with the US, Trump would not set him up with the opportunity to do so again. Moreover, Trump saw no need to move up the ladder of escalation for no benefit, for no purpose. Apparently as an expression of his disappointment with Putin over Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait, Trump did not make contact with him for most of the day, December 1, 2018. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the world’s leaders stood for a group photo. Kremlin officials insisted throughout the day that the two leaders would ultimately meet. Finally, the two leaders had an “informal” conversation. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the conversation occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires’ famous Teatro Colón, organized for the national leaders and their wives. As for its content, Saunders stated: “As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the First Lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin.” Putin told reporters afterward that he indeed met with Trump briefly at the event and they discussed the situation in Ukraine. Putin further explained, “I answered his questions about the incident in the Black Sea. He has his position. I have my own. We stayed in our own positions.”

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s patience has limits. However, he will at least make the effort manage contact with Putin as best as possible to get a successful result. If it should all fall apart, it will not be because of a silly move or the failure to do everything feasible within reason to promote it. Again, Trump is not doing any of this for himself; he has committed himself to this process for the sake of his country and the US public in particular. He will not allow his personal feelings about those he may deal with to get in the way.

Jamal Khashoggi (right) entering the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the Consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Khashoggi Matter

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere. Before the murder, the Turkish Government had been monitoring a 15-person team that arrived at the consulate on October 2, 2018. That team returned to Riyadh the same day. The Turkish Government reportedly provided US officials with both audio and video recordings that confirm Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate.

Omnis enim ex infirmitate feritas est. (All savageness is a sign of weakness.) The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. With the advantage of hindsight, it would appear that the assassination plot was formed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter. On dit, the Khashoggi assassination has also allegedly provided a candid look at how the Saudi Arabian Government has typically quieted voices of perceived adversaries both at home and abroad.

When the furtive “wet work” of an intelligence services is uncovered, the consequences for the national government that sanctioned the mission and it’s operatives, even if they avoided detection and capture if acting in another country, can be severe. This is a unique and not so often discussed area of commonality among national leaders. An affinity could surely develop for others in that same circumstance. Attendant to that affinity is a type of empathy that may insist the one should not be too judgmental or harshly slam another leader, particularly over an intelligence misstep or disaster. That empathy may obviate efforts to claim the moral high road and false claim of innocence after perhaps having similar experience. In international affairs, much as in “ordinary life” only partial version of oneself is offered. The priority of coexistence must be considered in what one might say or do versus what might be gained or lost. Countries may spare the feelings, national pride, or honor of allies and friends or even or avoid provoking or inciting adversaries. To that extent, acting in that way requires a country to circumscribe itself. Typically, a national leader who might sign off on any covert operation will be provided with the ability to plausibly deny knowledge of it. Yet, on top of that, secrecy, albeit deceit, might be used to protect relationship with an ally or friend and to make any act of circumscription by that ally or friend a bit easier.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (above). The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. From all news media reports, it would appear that the assassination plot was executed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter.

Any harsh criticism and expressions of deep disappointment conveyed by the US to Saudi Arabia–which most likely have been made by Trump in his telephone contacts with Riyadh early on during the matter–would never be explicit with an ally of such stature. Certainly, Trump did not shy away from the beastiality of the crime. What Trump and senior administration officials tried to do is bring perspective to the matter. On November 28, 2018, then US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon reminded reporters that as of the moment he was speaking about the Khashoggi matter: “We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun.” He further explained that the US still expected those responsible for the killing to be held accountable. In a November 28, 2018 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expatiated on the matter, summarizing the position of the US Government as follows: “The US doesn’t condone the Khashoggi killing, which is fundamentally inconsistent with American values—something I have told the Saudi leadership privately as well as publicly. President Trump has taken action in response. Twenty-one Saudi suspects in the murder have been deemed ineligible to enter the US and had any visas revoked. On Nov. 15, the administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis under Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. We’ve worked to strengthen support for this response, and several countries, including France and Germany, have followed suit. The Trump administration will consider further punitive measures if more facts about Khashoggi’s murder come to light.” Pompeo went on the explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as a regional ally, by additionally stating: “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the US-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.” Yet, once Trump and his senior officials sought to explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as an ally when discussing the Khashoggi matter, a knee-jerk response of critics and detractors was the hackneyed claim that the US President placed a pecuniary interest in its Middle East ally at greater value than the life of journalist. That claim was stated so often that it became a common observation.

wTrump (left) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (right). An intriguing type of leadership could be seen from Trump on the Khashoggi matter. A US President must keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage, is a role model to much of rest of the world. It is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide. If the US had officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the murder and that a strong response was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken tough steps against it. 

Through Trump’s decision making regarding the Khashoggi matter, an intriguing type of leadership could be seen in him. A US President in considering how to proceed on a matter, must indeed keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage is a role model to much of rest of the world. As such, the US is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide through its actions. The values and interests of the US, of course, will hold primacy in decision making on a matter, the interests of allies and partners will also be taken into account. In the Khashoggi case, the reality is that the murder occurred in Turkey (although the Saudi Arabian Consulate is technically the sovereign territory of Saudi Arabia). As reported, the assassination team that killed Khashoggi came into Turkey through Istanbul Airport and a number of the co-conspirators moved in and around the streets of Istanbul before and after the killing. If the US had immediately and officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for the murder and that some form of retribution was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken some type of steps against it. Turkey may very well have acted unilaterally and swiftly, utilizing its military or intelligence services, to punish those who used its country as the site to slaughter an esteemed and welcomed journalist. Turkey would have unlikely felt that it needed the permission of the US to act, just as Saudi officials, at some level, doubtlessly felt that they did not need to confer with or ask the permission of the US to act against Khashoggi.

As for the US role in mitigating Turkey’s likely desire for retribution, it offered not only words exhorting restraint, but also served as an example of restraint. Consider that there was a preexisting animus between Turkey and Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi murder. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia was angered over Turkey’s support to Qatar and withdraw its troops from the country. That demand caused Turkey to perceive Saudi Arabia as a threat to Turkey’s interests. In Riyadh, Turkey was on the top of its list of enemies. Khashoggi’s murder brought tensions to new heights. Knowing this, Saudi Arabia, days after the murder, made a secret offer to pour billions of dollars into Turkey’s economy and ease its hard-line stance on Qatar if Ankara helped whitewash the scandal. Turkey rejected the proposal. Afterward, Turkey allegedly began producing evidence that indicated Mohammed bin Salman was involved. Nevertheless, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan did stop short of accusing Prince Mohammed directly. He would only posit that responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lied at “the highest levels” of the Saudi Arabian Government. Turkey’s fresh anger against Saudi Arabia also added to decades of animus toward the Arab World ignited as a result of battles of the Ottoman Empire to maintain order. What happened so long ago remains a big part of Turkish history, culture, and psyche. Indeed, the loss of many young Turkish soldiers in Arabia still touches the hearts of many Turkish families. None of this is to suggest or imply that an anti-Arab strain runs through Turkish thinking today. Nonetheless, given that memories of past wars persist, and the fact that emotions were running very high after the Khashoggi murder, convincing Turkey, free to act on its own, not to act, was not an easy thing to do. Turkey, as the guarantor of its own national interests, made the choice to cooperate effectively with US diplomatically, outside the auspices of an international institution.

Trump has made shrewd, empathetic considerations whenever acting on foreign and national security policy. His judgments have been made with circumspection, and are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he develops his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measures what might be lost versus what might be gained short-term and long-term. A great portion of the US public, watching him, feels assured that all will be fine.

The Way Forward

In Act 3, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, King Cymbeline of Britain has married a woman who has made him her puppet. Cymbeline arranges for his beautiful daughter, Imogen, to marry his new wife’s son, Cloten, but she instead marries the poor but worthy Posthumus Leonatus. Angered, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Before he leaves for Italy, Imogen gives him a diamond ring and he gives her a bracelet. In Italy, Posthumus encounters a Iachimo, who vacuously argues all women are naturally unchaste, and bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. Yet, once at the British court, he fails to seduce her. Full of tricks, Iachimo hides in a large chest he has sent to her room; slips out at night while Imogen slept, and steals the bracelet Posthumus gave her, Iachimo returns to Italy and uses both the bracelet and knowledge of the details of Imogen’s bedchamber, to convince Posthumus that he won the bet. Posthumus, furious, sends a letter to his servant, Pisanio, in Britain, ordering him to murder Imogen. Pisanio, believing in Imogen’s innocence, gets her to disguise herself as a boy and get to Posthumus while he would report to him that Imogen was dead.  On the run, Imogen becomes lost in the wilds of Wales, where she meets Belarius, a wrongfully banished nobleman, and his sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. Unbeknownst to them, both were actually Cymbeline’s sons. They would later come to the aid of Imogen and to the aid of Britain against the Romans. The audience first meets Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus as their “father”, instructs them on the nuances of a calm life while climbing a mountain. Belarius states: Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; / Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats. Consider, / When you above perceive me like a crow, / That it is place which lessens and sets off; / And you may then revolve what tales I have told you / Of courts, of princes, of the tricks in war: / This service is not service, so being done, / But being so allow’d: to apprehend thus, / Draws us a profit from all things we see; / And often, to our comfort, shall we find / The sharded beetle in a safer hold / Than is the full-wing’d eagle. O, this life / Is nobler than attending for a cheque, / Richer than doing nothing for a bauble, / Prouder than rustling in unpaid-for silk: / Such gain the cap of him that makes ’em fine, / Yet keeps his book uncross’d: no life to ours. These words, which may appear somewhat cryptic to modern readers, essentially explain that maintaining a balanced, rational view is the best way of examine a situation and will allow for a rational analysis of it. In each foreign and national security policy issue examined here, evidence indicates Trump made shrewd, empathetic considerations as he acted. His judgments were made with circumspection, considering what precedes and what follows, are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he developed his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measured what might be lost versus what might be gained in both the short-term and the long-term. When moving to make changes in the status quo, Trump typically assessed the situation before him much as a half-back in US football searches for openings in the line that may allow him to breakthrough and do some open field running. Trump has also exuded a confidence on the world stage. Trump knows where he is and what he is doing, and a good portion of the US public, watching him work, feels assured that everything will be alright. Presenting oneself as confident and assured in itself is an art of leaders. When taking risks one naturally feels risk. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte explained of himself: “There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with a child. Once I had made up my mind, everything is forgotten except what leads to success.”

In each case presented here, Trump, in seeking to manage and influence the actions of other national leaders, was allowed the freedom to act in his own way, and unshackled by what administration officials might call the limitations of an international institution managing some collective action under its auspices. Countries that would like to work effectively outside of international institutions should feign nothing, and make a wholehearted effort at it. As Trump continues to evolve as US President, other national leaders are provided with an example on how they might approach foreign and national security policy decision making for their own countries. Perhaps most leaders would have small interest in the ministrations of greatcharlie on this matter. Of course, there are rarely situations that arise that are so uniform in nature that lessons from one leader would allow a cookie cutter approach to resolving them. However, smart people are able to find solutions to problems. If national leaders would like to work outside of international institutions more frequently, new more thoughtful and empathetic perspectives must be allowed to arrive in their thinking on their diplomacy with other countries.

Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?

The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.

There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.

The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced, Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.

The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)

The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US  forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.

US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.

There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.

Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.

The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.

The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)

As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the  commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.

There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)

The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.

If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.

The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!”  If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.

With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.

Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.

Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”

Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess: Unfit for Counter-Trump Narrative, Critics Dismiss Story

A column of the 1st Tank Guards Army at the Borisovsky range during Zapad 2017 (above). During Zapad 2017, a military exercise, Russian Federation forces in Belarus and in Russia near the Baltic region were joined by forces in the Arctic and Far East, the Black Sea, close to Ukraine’s borders and in the Abkhazia region of Georgia, to rehearse defensive tactics against a “terrorist force.” Critics of US President Donald Trump, who have tied anything Russia related to an alleged nefarious link between him and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, hardly reacted to Zapad 2017. Moral relativism seems to be at play in their thinking.

According to an October 1, 2017 New York Times article entitled “Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess”, details were provided on a major military exercise named Zapad 2017, held jointly by the Russian Federation and Belarusian armed forces from September 14 to September 20, 2017. Reportedly, Russian and Belarusian troops in Belarus and Russian troops near Russia’s Baltic region were joined in the exercise by Russian troops in the Arctic and Far East, the Black Sea, close to Ukraine’s borders and in the Abkhazia region of Georgia. Western military officials discerned from the exercise that Russia had made significant strides in their ability to conduct the sort of complex, large-scale operations, using drones and other new technology, that would be part of any all-out war with the US in Europe. The October 1st New York Times article explained that the military exercise, planned for many months, was part of a larger effort by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to showcase Russia’s military prowess as it tries to reassert itself as a world power. Before Zapad started, US and Baltic military officers expressed fears that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The commander of US Army in Europe, US Army Lieutenant General Frederick Hodges was quoted in the article as saying: “Zapad forced us to get smarter about how to share intelligence.”

The October 1, 2017 New York Times article, albeit was one of the few in the mainstream media that recognized that the massive exercise even took place. Synoptic reports about Zapad appeared in the US newsmedia, particularly in print. Many newsmedia houses simply reprinted stories via Reuters and the Associated Press. There was very little mention of Trump in stories. At first blush, one might argue that newsmedia coverage, stories and commentary, should focus upon what sells papers, magazines, and advertising space, what stories can grab interest and gain traction. Stories that support a popular counter-Trump narrative that Trump lacks the competence to be president and with the advent of his administration, tyranny’s bloody banner has been raised, have been selling for a long season. One could hypothesize that most US newsmedia houses believed Zapad 2017 was not a story that would sell, and was not an event of great consequence in the big picture even given the enormity of the seven-day Russian exercise. What makes the tepid coverage or lack of coverage of the exercise especially intriguing is its variance from the the now normal massive US newsmedia coverage of Trump’s alleged ties to Putin and Russia, to include secret back channels to Moscow, to questionable contacts, and worst of all, to secret deals and promises to perform favors for foreign leaders if Trump reached the presidency. The purported rationale for that alleged activity was to lay the foundation for lucrative business deals for Trump’s business concern in Russia as well as to acquire Russia’s help to win the 2016 US Presidential Election. Beyond such efforts to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential Election results, Russia’s armed forces have in recent years captured Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, deployed troops to Syria, rattled the Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia with snap exercises, and buzzed NATO planes and ships. The question, ‘What about Russia?”, has been written and spoken countless times when critics have sought to find fault with Trump. The modus operandi has been to look for wrongdoing, some fault, to hover at his elbow once he awakes every morning. On Zapad 2017, critics resembled a referee missing a foul in a championship match. Moreover, Trump, with the goal of stirring things up and ending the status quo, has been tough on NATO Members and creating some grievances among them, one might expect critics would turn the issue, despite Trump’s ostensibly noble intentions, into something akin to  a pocket full of firecrackers.

What appears to have influenced the manner in which critics covered Zapad 2017 was their recognition of the exercise as an incongruency, failing to fit their typical narrative on Trump. Indeed, critics mostly chalked up Zapad 2017 as being outré; outside their vision of the alleged, nefarious lien d’affaire between Trump and Putin. In fact, Zapad 2017 contradicts it. Rather than just label it all brustschmerzangst, strange and just wrong, one could assess from the tame response of critics to Zapad 2017 evinces that a sort of moral relativism is at play in their thinking. That moral relativism has allowed critics to cherry pick matters that solely support what they perceive as “Trump the Bad”, whose thinking and actions are well outside the country’s sensus communis, the society’s basic beliefs and values. In that vein, they have focused so intensely on surmised ties between the Trump administration and Russia. They have argued the existence of those ties with such certitude that they, perhaps unconsciously, ignore the reality that Russia has not fully relaxed its posture militarily toward the US, or the West since Trump was elected. Looking at Zapad 2017 a bit closer reveals alleged illegal foreign contacts and secret deals, real or not, did nothing to temper Moscow’s behavior toward the US. Looking at Zapad 2017 closer one might also be better able to discern that given Moscow’s attitude and behavior toward the administration of US President Barack Obama and the generally acknowledged steps Moscow took to impact the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, only now, with Trump, is there a real possibility to create positive change in the US-Russia relationship as well as ignite an authentic bolstering of European security. Ab actu, ad posse valet illatio. (From what has happened we may infer what will happen.)

Looking at Zapad 2017 closer reveals alleged foreign contacts and secret deals, real or not, did nothing to temper Russia’s behavior toward the US. Rather, looking at Zapad 2017 and matters surrounding it closer, one can discern that given Moscow’s resulting attitude and behavior toward the administration of US President Barack Obama after interaction with it and bold steps apparently taken by Moscow to impact the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, only now, with Trump, is there a real possibility to create positive change in US-Russia relations as well as bolster European security.

The term “moral relativism” is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but rather, relative to the moral standard of a person or group of persons. Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with how one should think about or act towards those with whom one morally disagrees. The most common position is that one should tolerate them. The view that there are some objective moral truths is one of a variety of philosophical arguments against moral relativism. Other arguments against relativism includes the idea that arguments offered in favor of relativism are simply flawed, shortsighted. Various ways of understanding moral relativism exist. Under metaethical moral relativism it is understood that objective grounds for preferring the moral values of one culture over another in reality do not exist. Individuals tend to believe that the “right” moral values are the values that exist in their own culture. Indeed, moral choices made by societies are shaped by their unique beliefs, customs, and practices. Under descriptive moral relativism, often referred to as cultural relativism, it is recognized that moral standards are culturally defined. Certainly, there may be a few values that seem nearly universal, such as honesty and respect. However, evaluations of moral standards around the world indicate many differences appear across cultures. Normative moral relativism is the idea that all societies should accept each other’s differing moral values. However, if one society accepts political corruption, another society does not need to accept it. In fact, the other society could rightfully condemn that corruption.

Since US news media houses have taken such a firm stand against Trump, one is more likely to observe even experienced and formerly reliable journalists posit and argue things that simply cannot be. Self-serving explanations, opinions are relied upon. It is all actually outside of standard practice and norms within the US society. In the US, under the law, one is supposedly presumed innocent until proven guilty. While that concept may hold true in the legal system, in the so-called court of public opinion, individuals are often presented as being bad or guilty in a deliberately entertaining way through surmisal, guesswork, with supporting evidence of rumors, innuendo, equivocation, and occasionally outright lies. Hours of airtime and volumes of commentary are spent by the US news media analyzing hypothetical situations, unreality. Critics who may have the US public’s ear must respect and honor, not abuse, the public trust. In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. Taking the tack of reporting only parts of the story, promoting a particular viewpoint, hoping to shape in agreement with it, is never right. There are no special circumstances which would make it correct to do so. Moral relativism should not guide, impact journalists thinking and behavior. Journalists should report the truth as they encounter it, not as they want it to be. When stories such as Zapad 2017, they must still be energetically covered, especially when they cast doubt of their perspectives of Trump. There has been a dearth of such stories so far. The US public is not only reactive to opprobrium, invective, banal amusement, but is also open to eloquence.

Facts Concerning Zapad 2017 Trump’s Critics Ignored Likely Due to Moral Relativism

Zapad 2017 was an exercise that was designed to have a sound educational effect on the Obama administration and a prospective administration of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That in itself seems worthy of news media attention at the present. Moscow was very concerned that troubles with Washington would continue with the advent of an administration led by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indeed, as part of an assessment completed by the US Intelligence Community on the possible effort by Russia to influence the US Presidential Election of 2016, it was concluded that Putin took affirmative steps to avoid the nightmare scenario of Clinton victory by ordering an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency. The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. Praetenta mutare non possimus sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Zapad fits neatly into the story of US-Russia relations for nearly a decade. The whole matter also looms large in the story of the Obama administration. The genesis of Zapad 2017 was the desire by Moscow to take steps in the midst of a descending spiral of uncongenial relations with the US against Russia’s interests. Indeed, there was nothing ambiguous then or now about Moscow’s approach to the US. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion by the West into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine. Upon returning to the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2011, Putin began the process of increasing Russian military manpower by 25 percent to 850,000 between 2011 and mid-2014. Russia supposedly has about 2.5 million active reservists out of a total population of 143 million. It ranks second, behind the US, on the list of countries with conventional warfighting capabilities. Expenditures on defense, and the related category of national security and law enforcement, accounts for 34 percent of Russia’s budget which is more than twice in comparison with 2010. The US only spent 18 percent, or $615 billion of its budget in 2014 on defense and international security. Explaining his concept for achieving this growth, Putin told senior military commanders and defense industry executives at a meeting in Sochi on May 12, 2015, “We can and must do for the defense industry what we did for Sochi.” Putin was referring to the $50 billion spent in to host the 2014 Winter Olympics there. He went on to state, “All questions relating to adequate resource allocation have been resolved.” Putin would seek to exert pressure against the West where and when he felt it would pay dividends.

The Obama administration approached Russia with the idea that the relationship between the two countries could be “reset.” The reset with Russia was one of the administration’s major foreign policy initiatives. Relations with Russian Federation President Dimitry Medvedev were positive. For three years, a relatively smooth and business-like tenor existed in relations with Russia. That contrasted with the contentious relations that followed the Georgian War in 2008 while Putin served as president. It boded well for Obama’s legacy over which White House officials publicly admitted being absorbed. With its Russia policy on track, the administration was comfortable enough to turn toward an even greater priority at the end of 2011 which was referred to as the “pivot to Asia.” Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained it all in an edifying discourse in the October 11, 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The very substance of the ambitions is merely the shadow of a dream. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these Europe’s force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. As noted in the greatcharlie.com post entitled “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama’s Doing Just Fine”, in 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. When Putin received the Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces, he may have discerned that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. Putin rejected the administration’s proposals.

Putin (left) and Obama (right). When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose. The actions and reactions of the Obama administration to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel regarding US-Russia relations. Hell called Hell. One misstep led to another.

Cuiusvis est errare nullius nisi insipientes, in error perseverare. (To err is inherent in every man, but to persist in error takes a fool.) Having taken on Putin on the nuclear issue, Obama kept pushing into more troubling waters. His administration moved along the path humiliate him. It was hard for Obama administration staff, perhaps due to their youthful exuberance, to recognize that words cannot return. The administration predominantly staffed with eager, youthful officials who very often displayed an arrogance that seemingly drove them to convince the world they were the center of the cosmos. One should not allow one’s ego to run away from one. One certainly should not make choices with a confused ego. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. The actions and reactions of the Obama administration to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel regarding US-Russia relations. Hell called Hell. One misstep led to another. It all seemed a bit barky. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose. On the world stage, Putin will never allow Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. He would resist and counter pressures. One matter to which Putin gave primacy to getting the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues.

In Ukraine, Putin insisted that he was only acting in response to Western behavior toward Russia. Speaking at a conference in Moscow on April 16, 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.” The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov stated at the same conference, “Considering themselves the winners of the Cold War, the United States decided to reshape the world to fit its needs.” He further explained, “It’s clear that measures taken by NATO to strengthen the bloc and increase its military capabilities are far from being defensive.” Nonetheless, nothing Russian officials might say would dissuade most in the US and EU from believing Putin is driving events forward. After alienating Putin by preventing him from further participation in the G-8, and hitting many of his close associates, their business interests, and Russian industries with sanctions, the US and EU expected him to back off of Ukraine and Eastern European states. Yet, those who believed sanctions and other coercive means, and deploying small sets of US forces to the Baltic States and Poland would modify Putin’s behavior were in the cradle intellectually. Sanctions from the US and Europeans, which posed a serious economic threat to Russia despite any heroic claims otherwise by Putin, put relations between Russia and the West, built largely on economic cooperation, at considerable risk. It is unlikely the administration foresaw things would go so badly. It has been proven that humans cannot control events too long. This is not without application to the circumstances examined here. Historia magistra vitae et testris temporum. (History is the teacher, the witness of times.)

A Newsweek map of Russian Federation armed forces deployed against the West (above). By 2015, NATO Members acknowledged that Russia posed a genuine threat to the well-being of their countries. The RAND Corporation prepared a study for the US Department of Defense on the outcome of Russian military move against the Baltic States. The study was based on war games played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days.

NATO Responds?

NATO Members were flabbergasted by their gross miscalculations about Putin and Russia. By 2015, they were willing to acknowledge that Russia posed a genuine threat to the well-being of their countries. The RAND Corporation prepared a study for the US Department of Defense on a possible Russia move against the Baltic States. The study centered on several tabletop war games played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014 and 2015. The games incorporated tactics used Russia when it deployed forces into the Crimea. The games ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces deployed to the Baltics were small, and lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. The study indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. More specifically, regarding the outcome reached under the study’s scenario, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. RAND asserted that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, it was RAND’s judgement that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.”

Initially, Europe’s requests for support from the US to counter a perceived growing threat from Russia were met by mediocre responses by the Obama administration. The world witnessed the vicissitudes that hammered the Obama administration on foreign policy. The situation in the Middle East was particularly dire then. The Obama administration often failed to acknowledge how bad problems really were. It settled upon bromides, with a seductive kind of superficiality, to very challenging situations, which later prove to be shallow entrapments. At the NATO Defense Ministers Meetings on June 24, 2015, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components of an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force (NRF). Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making, including authority for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to prepare troops for action as soon as a political decision is made. Ministers approved a new concept of advance planning. They also finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “They will each consist of around 40 people, and will play a key role in planning, exercises, and assisting potential reinforcement.” Ministers additionally decided to establish a new Joint Logistics Headquarters, to facilitate the rapid movement of forces when necessary.  Directly on Russia, Stoltenberg stated, “We are carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities.” He added that NATO is working on how to deal with hybrid threats, including through close cooperation with the European Union. To avoid misperceptions of NATO’s actions, Stoltenberg explained, “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race.” He stressed, “we want to keep our countries safe… this is our job.”

True, increases in defense spending were seen even during the Obama administration in 2016. That year, a majority of delinquent countries spent their required share in the face of Putin’s build-up and enhancement of Russian forces and his operation in Ukraine. Yet, even then, allies agreed to spend only the required 2 percent of economic output on defense every year by 2024 and reverse a trend that saw military research spending in the European Union fall by more than 20 billion euros ($23 billion) since 2006. Still, only four of NATO’s 27 European members–Greece, Britain, Poland and Estonia–met the spending target in 2016. Romania would also do so in 2017, followed by Latvia and Lithuania in 2018.

Troops of the new German Army (above). At a NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in June 2015, in response to Russia’s move into Ukraine, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components for an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force. Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making. Ministers also approved a new concept of advance planning, and finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.

What Is the Zapad Exercise?

Deterrence is created when the doubt of success or fear is generated in the mind of an adversary over a potential response to a attack. In addition to the doubt and fear created, there must be an ample demonstration of the capability to respond efficaciously. The Zapad exercise was first conducted by Russia in 2009, and again in 2013. Traditionally, during Zapad, Russia displays new tactics and technologies. The expressed reason for Zapad 2013 was the rehearsal of Russia’s defense against armed terrorists moving in from the Baltic. The Zapad 2013 exercise was called a counterterrorism training exercise. However, tying Zapad 2013 to counterterrorism was a public relations farce, akin to dressing up a clumsy stumble as a brisé volé. In 2009, the exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike on Sweden. In 2013, the exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike on Poland. In Zapad 2017, ended with the test launch of RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles–two were real, one was an electronic simulation.

However, when Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu announced Zapad 2017 on November 21, 2016, he did not outline it in a way that made it resemble counterterrorism exercise. Indeed, he stated that the joint exercise, which would be the “main military event of 2017.” During Zapad, he stated Russian and Belarusian armed forces would cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken. Shoigu words reflected Putin’s intent of never allowing Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. Putin and his advisers were also compelled to resist and counter pressures. He wanted the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues. Zapad 2017 would be emblematic of that perspective, full of sound, fury and ferocity that would cause trembling in the capitals of European powers. Interestingly, the raison d’etre settled upon for Zapad 2017, however, was counterterrorism and it was finally labelled as a counterterrorism exercise. Yet, after the inauguration of Trump on January 20, 2017, Zapad 2017 then became an exercise directed at an administration that was already out of power and a prospective administration that never took power. Indeed, the exercise was a response to a feud that has ended. Inevitably, there was a change in thinking in Moscow in response to Trump’s approach of seeking to improve relations with Russia was made. Nevertheless, Moscow was unable to fully discern what the change from Obama to Trump on not only European defense, and redesign Zapad 2017’s to meet immediate circumstances, reduce cost, and the size and scope of the exercise early on. Obama certainly did not leave matters in Europe better than he found them in 2008 or in the best shape possible when Trump entered the White House.

Putin holds binoculars while observing Zapad 2017 exercises with senior commanders (above). The genesis of Zapad 2017 was the desire by Moscow to take steps in the midst of a descending spiral of uncongenial relations with the US. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. Putin never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. Putin pushed backed against what he viewed as the West’s intrusion into territory surrounding Russia’s borders.

A Brief Review of ZAPAD 2017

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense claimed that around 13,000 service personnel participated in Zapad 2017. However, most observers believed the exercise was quite a bit larger. London’s Royal United Services Institute reported some independent estimate around 70,000 troops were involved. Boiled down to the bones, the drafted drill scenario for Zapad 2017 was a covert, foreign incursion into western Belarus, which some Western military analysts such as Mathieu Boulègue of the Chatham House, say greatly resembled Russia’s tactics in Crimea, while combat involved a series of measures honed in Syria. In the very early stage of Zapad 2017, the aim was to raise combat readiness among the deployed force groupings, moving troops, deploying command-and-control assets, as well as organizing interactions among these forces and affording force protection. Under that scenario, Russian airborne units are sent for reconnaissance and to repel the enemy incursion. Indeed, reportedly, aviation and air-defense units from the 6th Army Air Force and Air Defense in the Western Military District conducted various tactical episodes aimed at repelling “massive air strikes” by a conventional opponent. Pilots also worked on striking ground targets and providing escort for bombers. Operational-tactical and other tactical missiles were used during this process. The Russian Federation Aerospace Forces conducted sorties mainly using Su-27, Su-35, Su-30SM and MiG-31 fighters to destroy enemy aircraft, while Su-34 bombers struck infrastructure, columns of armored vehicles, and enemy command-and-control nodes; an Su-24MR jet was used for reconnaissance to transmit the coordinates of ground targets. Newly observed in this phase of Zapad 2017 was use of a suite of high-tech equipment to support the arrival of paratrooper forces, to include radio and electronic capabilities and the integration of drones. Drones were regularly spotted in the sky during Zapad 2017. The speed and reliability of its own data links and communication systems was tested in a scenario where speed was primary requirement, as opposed to the need in the past for greater forces.

The Russian Federation Army then prepared for ground attack with aerial and naval support. This type of multidimensional warfighting, tying an artillery-enabled ground assault with air support, is now called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. A multilayer air-defense bubble, similar to the Russian A2/AD assets used in Syria, was constructed. Russian air-defense systems were forward deployed from their bases in the Western Military District, including S-300s, S-400s and Pantsir-S1s. The simulation that ensued targeted enemy cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft. In Kaliningrad, similar activity among Russian naval assets was reported.. Corvettes in the Baltic Fleet were used to strike aerial, naval and coastal targets, implying an A2/AD mission. In this case, the air attack was simulated by Su-24 attack aircraft alongside Ka-27 anti-submarine-warfare helicopters. Other Russian A2/AD components featured in this phase of Zapad 2017 included the Iskander-M, a nuclear and conventional tactical ballistic missile. Iskander strikes were reported at training ranges, including a 480-kilometer strike against a target at a training range in Kazakhstan from units in the Central Military District, as well as a variety of cruise missiles fired from air, land and sea. The Missile and Artillery Troops, a Branch of Arms in the Ground Forces, serving as the primary means of destroying enemy forces by conventional and nuclear fires, were in action throughout Zapad. Those forces also used the older Tochka-U system, which is in the process of being fully replaced by the Iskander-M. The Iskander’s appearance in Russian exercises is assumed to indicate the rehearsal for a tactical nuclear weapons strike. In Zapad 2017, the Iskander was mainly conventional in its support of A2/AD. Moreover, the Russian missile forces appear to have rehearsed the use of a cruise missile that can be mounted on the Iskander platform, greatly extending the system’s strike range well beyond 500 km. Then, as mentioned, all of these activities during Zapad 2017 were squeezed between 3 test launches of the RS-24.

Russian tanks and BRDM-2s (above). Although Zapad 2017 was called a defense drill and a counterterrorism operation, in a very overt way, the tactics switched into an offensive against a conventional military force on its heels. The ground air operations rehearsed in Zapad 2017 were an expression of Russia’s objective of establishing dominance to prevent long wars, thwart and deter strikes at new points, and avoid escalation. The drill was all about NATO, and it really showed.

Although Zapad 2017 was called a defense drill, in a very overt way, the tactics switched midway into an offensive against a conventional military force on its heels. As mentioned earlier, it was not a counterterrorism operation. The ground air operations rehearsed in Zapad 2017 were an expression of Russia’s objective of establishing dominance to prevent long wars, thwart and deter strikes at new points, and avoid escalation. Boulègue of Chatham House told Newsweek: “The drill was all about NATO, and it really showed.” In the end, the whole cabaret of Zapad 2017 competed for attention of general staff with Al Nusra attack in force in Syria requiring heavy use of Russian air assets. Ironically, that was a more authentic counterterrorism operation.

Where Does All of This Leave Trump?

Clearly, in his last spell of contact with the US, Putin found no joy. The commitment to resources to Zapad 2017 despite the benign intentions expressed, is worthy of note given emphasis made by US newsmedia of how Russia wanted to make Trump look good. The forward movement of Russian Federation armed forces in a westward direction, in a military exercise translated into English means “west”, was of concern for US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, and US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and all other senior members of the Trump administration’s national security team. In September 2017, while Trump’s national security team was heavily immersed on North Korea, supporting partners heavily engaged on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and dealing with the implication of events in Charlottesville, they were also closely watching Zapad 2017. They worked with NATO allies and other European partners on the matter, and conducted significant multinational drills that coincided with the Russian exercise. The October 1st New York Times article explained that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered that a wider array of European partners have access to classified US information during the exercise to simulate conditions during combat. The sangfroid shown by the Trump administration has allowed to engage in sober analysis of Zapad 2017 and all of its elements.

By letting Zapad 2017 come and go from the scene, Trump made it clear that he did not see the need to stoke the fires between the US and Russia that were set during the Obama administration. He preferred to let those fires die out on their own. Trump’s response to Zapad 2017 was also a manifestation of his desire to soften anti-US sentiment in Russia and anti-Russian sentiment in the US. Trump’s believes hope was that normative behavior and positive relations between the US and Russia could be established by working to surmount contentious issues. Trump came into the Oval Office believing the moment had arrived to create positive change in US-Russia relations. Rebus angustis animosus atque fortis appare; sapienter idem contrahes vento nimium secundo turgida vela. (Appear strong and firm in steep affairs; likewise, you will wisely shorten your sails swollen in a too favorable wind.)

Trump (left) and Putin (left) at G20 in July 2017. The sangfroid shown by the Trump administration in response to Zapad 2017 has allowed for a sober analysis of all of its elements. Trump made it clear that he did not see the need to stoke the fires between the US and Russia that were set during the Obama administration. He would prefer to let those fires die out on their own. Trump wants his administration to focus on creating positive change and congenial ties between the US and Russia by surmounting contentious issues.

All of this draws focus to Trump’s intriguing, positive duality on Russia and Europe. Trump fully understands that NATO is absolutely necessary, contrary to the song and dance of wondering if he knew what NATO was and whether he thought it was truly obsolete much as he gestured essentially out of political expedience during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign. Trump wanted to stir things up, draw attention to the issue, and express ideas favorable to his political base, which is what politicians do when campaigning. Once he became US President, Trump’s intended to be constructuve, not destructive via his criticisms about NATO. Trump apparently never intended to truly signal that he did not support for NATO or understand its importance. Though his “constructive criticism”, Trump ostensibly sought to hone thinking among leaders of NATO Member States and encourage the polishing of their best ideas in support of collective defense.

Yet, Trump, before and after becoming US President, also expressed his genuine belief that NATO allies have been “coddled” by the US for too long, causing leaders of NATO allies to feel comfortable repeatedly missing the agreed spending target of 2% GDP on defense. On April 12, 2017, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Trump in Washington to discuss his concerns about NATO. Stoltenberg was able to convey that a new spirit of unity and commitment that prevailed among NATO Members. Stoltenberg, in turn, would discover that Trump’s sentiments were noble contrary to what critics were stating. In an hour long meeting in the Oval Office, Trump and Stoltenberg discussed ways in which the NATO Secretary General planned to get member countries to increase military spending to bolster the alliance. Stoltenberg listened to Trump’s concept to accomplish the same, and saw no mysterious elements to Trump’s approach. It was at that Oval Office meeting that Trump explained that NATO was a “bulwark of international peace and security.” He went as far as to say that the alliance was increasing cooperation to stem terror attacks, among other steps. During a news conference with Stoltenberg, Trump added: “I said it [NATO] was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete.”

Rerum concordia discors. (The concord of things through discord.) Invited to the unveiling of a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US at the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels, on May 24, 2017, Trump intensified his accusations that NATO allies were not spending enough on defense. Trump did say during the ceremony that the US “will never forsake the friends who stood by our side.” However, he focused far more on Europe’s drop in defense spending since the end of the Cold War. Standing before a piece of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Trump stated: “Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying for their defense.” Trump added before the leaders of other NATO countries: “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States, and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.” Stoltenberg, having previously talked with Trump in Washington, was not surprised by anything Trump said. In fact, Stoltenberg defended Trump, saying that although he was “blunt” he had “a very plain and clear message on the expectations” of allies. Trump had the impact both he and Stoltenberg apparently wanted upon NATO Members. While critics ratcheted up reports and commentaries on how Trump embarrassed himself and was tearing NATO apart, Stoltenberg explained that Trump ignited a new drive in NATO to authentically build up defense.

Trump (right) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left). Invited to the unveiling of a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US at the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels, on May 24, 2017, Trump intensified his accusations that NATO allies were not spending enough on defense. Having met with Trump in Washington, Stoltenberg was not surprised by anything he said. Stoltenberg defended Trump, saying although he was “blunt,” he had “a very plain and clear message on the expectations” of allies.

Speaking in Brussels a month later on June 28, 2017, Stoltenberg explained that 23 of NATO’s 29 allies planned to lift spending that year. He would add that for the first time, NATO governments will produce national plans showing how they would reach the 2024 spending pledge, focusing not just on spending increases but also monitoring troop contributions to missions and acquiring technology such as precision-guided munitions. The new figures were part of a broader rise in military spending in Europe. The US committed billions more in dollars to return troops and heavy weaponry to the continent to deter Russia. The EU sought to do its part by setting up a multi-billion-euro defense fund. Stoltenberg explained: “We have really shifted gears, the trend is up and we intend to keep it up.” On the nature of the force build up, Stoltenberg stated: “It’s more about high-end forces, heavier forces and more ready forces, meaning we need forces that are fully equipped, fully manned and fully trained.” Beyond increasing the levels of heavy weapons and gear for troops in strategically positioned bases and standing watch on NATO’s borders, Stoltenberg further stated that the increase in funds would be spent on more military exercises, training and equipment and to allowing NATO troops to deploy at ever faster notice, as well to pay salaries and pensions. There remained a curiosity for where Trump stood in response to Putin’s attitudes and expressions toward the West. Some confusion and bewilderment resulted particularly from ideas publicly expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Trump was unwilling to stand with Europe against Russia. While still disagreeing with Trump on some policy areas, Merkel has since expressed far more positive perspectives regarding him and European security. Post proelia praecima. (After the battles came the rewards.)

Trump reiterated his support of NATO on July 6, 2017 in Krasiński Square in Warsaw, the site of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis. In that magnificently melodramatic setting commemorating resistance against a cruel foreign occupier, Trump suggested that a lack of collective resolve could doom the transatlantic alliance which had endured the Cold War. Trump painted a picture of the West facing existential challenges and needed to “defend our civilization” from terrorism, bureaucracy and the erosion of traditions. As an example of resolve, Trump pointed to Poland, which in the last century endured occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union twice. Trump explained: “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never forgotten who they are.” It was noted in the European newsmedia that in his speech, Trump for the first time “stood by” Article V of the NATO Charter, a provision requiring NATO Members to come to each others defense once under attack.  Yet, Trump kept up the pressure on those NATO Members who were “failing to meet their full and fair financial obligations on defense spending.” Trump expressed the view that his tough criticism of NATO Members who had not met the target of raising defense spending to 2% of GDP was paying off, with billions more being committed to defense across Europe. In a powerful expression of the need for alliance unity through use of the rhetorical technique of anaphora, Trump stated: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to defend our borders? Do we have the desire and courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” What should have been of particular interest to the US newsmedia was Trump’s criticism of Russia. He accused Moscow of “destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere,” and declared that Putin was supporting “hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.” It is worth noting that all of this transpired before Zapad 2017. Trump’s leadership of NATO and his demand for Europe’s vigilance in the face of military threat from Russia is certainly worthy of attention. By ignoring such facts, critics lend credence to the allegation that they display a consistent disregard of genuine facts about Trump’s efforts which are inconsistent with their counter-Trump narrative. Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?)

Trump reiterated his support of NATO on July 6, 2017 in Krasiński Square in Warsaw. In his speech, Trump suggested then that a lack of collective resolve could doom the transatlantic alliance which had endured the Cold War. Trump painted a picture of the West facing existential challenges. Critics noted that in his speech, Trump for the first time “stood by” Article V of the NATO Charter, a provision requiring NATO Members to come to each others defense once under attack.

The Way Forward

In Act II, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, Iago, the ensign of the Venetian General Othello, delivers his first soliloquy, declaring his hatred for Othello, his suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, and his determination to destroy him. He lays out his plan to cheat his supposed ally, Roderigo out of his money, to convince Othello that a loyal soldier, Cassio has slept with his wife, Desdemona, and to use Othello’s honest and unsuspecting nature to bring him to his demise. Iago states: “I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him: if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.” Former US President Jimmy Carter was quoted in the New York Times on October 21, 2017 as saying: “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about.” He added: “I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation.” Indeed, at the present, the opportunity to attack Trump is rarely missed by his critics. Their ranks actually extend well beyond the US newsmedia to include: think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration. That has had a multiplier effect when advanced alongside the efforts of journalists among his critics, ensuring that through prose, and even verse, there would be a more than ample stream of bdelygmia. Critics seem determined to throw Trump into loneliness and pain. Yet, they may ultimately discover that Trump has reserves of strength unlike most men which was proven through his business career. Indeed, much as Nebuchadnezzar brought Sgadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace, stunned by their impunity in the face a tremendous flames, critics may discover in the end, that Trump will endure, survive, and overcome the flames of their best attacks. Trump’s ties to Russia, real and imagined, are a primary focus of attacks by his critics. Yet, Trump’s critics did not try to tie him to Zapad 2017, despite the massive display of Russian military power. Zapad 2017 should have transmitted the idea that Putin is not a new friend of the US, Trump in particular. Regarding Putin, he undoubtedly notices is the atmosphere of pure hatred and rejection propagated by the counter-Trump milieu. He surely recognizes that there is an effort to separate Trump from the US public and create turmoil and frustration which he, for certain, does not have his hand in.

In alio pediculum, intericinum non vides. (You see a louse on someone else but not a tick on yourself.) However, the contradiction that Zapad 2017 presents has not left Trump’s critics figuratively cold and muddled intellectually. Rather, moral relativism seems to be in play. The Catholic priest and theologian Father George Rutler explains that “It does not require genius to sense that all relations in the creation are harmonious. Only because of celestial harmony is there a human intuition that wrong is wrong and right is right. Beyond that intuition one must animate the intellect, use natural law, to parse things out. In classical philosophy, natural law is the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men and binding them to do good and avoid evil. The renowned Greek Philosopher Plato considered ignorance and confusion as the opposites of harmony. The goal of the torrent of anger from critics is certainly not bring a happy harmony to a dissonant world. Having promoted themselves figuratively as the defenders of US wisdom. They must find out for themselves who lives within them. Rather than follow the pack and do what is wrong, surmount that impulse and have the courage to do what is right. There appears to be a purpose to Trump which the majority of his many critics do not understand but will ultimately discover. Indeed, by God’s chance, as he toils, performing his duties as president in peace and in war, Trump’s intended course will no longer be a mystery to those who have been bewildered by the counter-Trump milieu.  Opinions expressed by critics about his efforts could also eventually change. In the face of staggering contradiction, an internal discord might obtain within quite a few critics. Many critics may become uncertain as to their true ends. Some may discover that their feelings of indignation and despair over Trump were inauthentic.Consideration may come and whip the offending Adam out of them. All that was said and done by critics may be looked upon curiously as a type of avant-garde expression. Perhaps then critics might finally offer a gesture of goodwill for the moment, and their efforts to hurt may slowly fall off and be replaced by righteous efforts to be constructive. In commenting on self mastery and the good or virtuous life, Aristotle is quoted as stating: “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is the victory over oneself.”

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks: Can Russia Shape Those Talks on the Ground?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin remains confident about Russia’s intervention in Syria. He has outlined Russia’s objectives there and is providing the Russian Federation Armed Forces what they need to achieve them. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 calls for talks, but leaves the matter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency open and allows for continued action against ISIS and other Islamic militants. That leaves Putin able to use the forces of Russia and its allies in Syria to help Assad remain in power.

According to a December 18, 2015 New York Times article entitled “After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks,” the UN Security Council, by a vote of 15-0, adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the Syrian civil war. It was reportedly the result of a long term effort of the US and Russia to find common interests to stop the violence in the war-torn country. However, although a plan was agreed upon unanimously on December 18th, sharp differences remain between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. For the US, removing Assad from power in Damascus is a requirement. The resolution makes no mention of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. In truth, what the plan will mean on the ground is uncertain. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with humility on December 18th at the UN Security Council, “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated. But this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”

UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially calls for the following: a ceasefire must be established and formal talks on a political transition must start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusra, are excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, can continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under US supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led. As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to November 18th Syria meeting was essential, but hardly prosaic given its ties to Syria. As a matter of fact, Russia has a congenial relationship with the Assad regime unlike other Permanent Five Members. Russia has been working closely with Iran to provide the Syrian Government with military support. Indeed, Putin went into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. While the administration of US President Barack Obama has been engaged in a desultory effort to remove Assad since 2012, Putin recognized the US would keep working against Assad regime until it fell or ISIS, too strong for the Syrian Opposition to contend with, took control in Syria. Putin has not forgotten the results of the Obama administration’s support of rebels in opposition to Libyan President Muammar el-Gaddafi, a friend of Moscow. Multinational forces under NATO command, mandated to impose a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, exceeded their mission, destroying pro-Gaddafi forces as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell; he was killed. To Putin, it was a cunning deceit and dark tragedy. He does not want anything similar to occur in Syria.

Long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might establish among themselves common facts, presuppositions, and policies for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to lengthen Assad’s tenure as president. Russia, is a very capable military superpower. Indeed, Russia could shape the situation on the ground by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Deliberate progress is being made toward that goal. A large military offensive, purportedly being organized, may allow Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces to regain control of a large portion of Syrian territory. The Syrian Government might work to “ensure” the political perspectives of local political leaders, administrators, and the civilian population, in reclaimed territory were supportive of Assad. Diplomatic efforts at the UN Talks by Russia and Iran would be conducted in conjunction with the military activity. Perhaps UN Security Council vote, rather than create an agreement for Assad’s removal and transition to a government favorable to the US, EU and some Arab States, may have instead convinced Russia and Iran that shaping events on the ground militarily in Syria is the best way to secure their interests. Principiis obsta (et respice finem). Resist the beginnings (and consider the end). Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched the international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and the possibility for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. He will not become subsumed by Syria. If Russia were to act with more force and increase the pace of its operations in Syria, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would become a decisive factor in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks.

Russia on the Ground in Syria

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, wrote in De Vita Caesarum that Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Augustus Caesar) abhorred haste and rashness in a military commander.  He preferred that actions be taken with an appropriate balance of urgency and diligence. Rushing through to execute tasks often led to mistakes and sustained results are not achieved. Accordingly, one of his favorite sayings was festina lente (hasten slowly). Many in the West complained from the start of operations by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria that they were ill-fated, immediately bogged down, or inappropriately conducted. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” At a December 18, 2015 news conference, Kerry stated in an effusion of sentiment that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting Syrian Opposition groups fighting Assad’s forces and not hitting ISIS forces. Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and possibilities for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Putin in no way wants support Syrian Opposition forces in their effort against Assad so it would make sense for Putin to pace Russia’s actions against ISIS, to learn the landscape and ensure the Syrian Opposition gained no advantages. To that extent, it should have been expected that he would not hesitate to disrupt the Syrian Opposition’s activities where he could. Regarding costs for the Syria operation, so far, Putin has well-managed them. Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Center for Analyses of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, explained: “All available data show us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget.” Senior administration and intelligence officials in the US, in anonymity, agree with that assessment.

Once in Syria, Russia began using many of its latest weapons systems. New systems used have included: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 900 miles away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Reuters quoted Putin as saying: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” However, Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Putin seemed to imply that Russia may ramp up the size and speed of its operations in Syria. By acting more robustly and increasing the tempo of its operations, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would certainly be the decisive factor on the ground in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks. Both the ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught organized by Russia and its allies. Seizing the maximum amount of land possible may very well enable the Syrian Government to influence the political landscape thus furthering Putin’s goal of keeping Assad in power. Heartened by the Syrian Armed Forces ability to fight back, some Syrians living in towns and cities reclaimed by their government might find cause to support Assad, lessening the possibility of his removal a bit more. Protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem. (Protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection.)  A Russian Federation Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H Bomber (above) fires a KH-101 air launched cruise missile at a target in Ildib, Syria. By supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria, Russia might shape the situation on the ground there. If a massive offensive is eventually conducted by Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, in territory taken, the Assad regime may try to “ensure” local political leaders and administrators, and local residents were supportive of Assad.

The Importance of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

Per sequar! (Do your part, I will do mine!) Concerning its diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Russian-Iranian military cooperation was decided upon much earlier. An agreement for a joint Russian-Iranian military effort in Syria came into effect in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria to include: IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Hamadani; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hadi Kajbaf; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Reza Khavari; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Mohammad Ali Allahdadi; Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Hamid Mokhtarband; and, IRGC-Quds Force Colonel (Sarhang-e Yekom) Farshad Hasounizadeh.

On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani then took control of the Syria operation, flying often into Damascus. Once the decision on the joint Russian-Iranian effort was made, Suleimani visited Putin and Shoigu in Moscow in July 2015. He outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces, but also explained time remained to reclaim the initiative. Putin decided that it was time to act. Suleimani took on a central role in the coordination of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian activities on the ground. Reportedly, Suleimani was injured by a TOW missile fired by Syrian Opposition rebels on November 12, 2015. In diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 23, 2015 pictured above. Russia and Iran will pursue a singular policy designed to benefit Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

Military Action

According to Russian defense and military officials, Russia’s airstrikes have targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck throwing the process of directing ISIS units into confusion. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS positions in front of the Russian allies have been degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. Presumably they will provide close air support for an eventual ground offensive by Russia and its allies. (Ground forces utilized would primarily be Syrian and Iranian though.) Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets have conducted almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. Russia has also conducted night strikes with damage assessment by drones.

Reportedly, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces believe the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. It would take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Allawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet then Russian Federation Navy port that is important to naval operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies might turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could push farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies may press eastward. A key objective would be to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Another key objective would be to push beyond Aleppo to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, which is the official capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Moving that far out, some believe Russia may seek to co-opt the Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) to help assist in the offensive. Russia has begun to increase the intensity of its attacks in all of the locations mentioned. Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers have primarily been used on command posts, stores of weapons, oil products, and workshops where weapons for suicide bombers are made that are situated along prospective axes of advance of Russia and its allies. Bunker busting BETAB-500 bombs have been dropped from Su-34s near Raqqa with the goal of eliminating command posts along with underground storage facilities for explosives and munitions. Large numbers of ISIS fighters have been eliminated due to such strikes. The above map from the renowned Institute for the Study of War reveals the general pattern of Russian airstrikes and cruise missile strikes in Syria. Both ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught by Russia and its allies. Putin likely wants pro-Assad forces to take the maximum amount of land possible west and north in “Useful Syria” and eastward in Raqqa and Palmyra, to broaden the Assad regime’s area of control and political influence.

To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s were first delivered to the Syrian Republican Guards 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s younger brother, General Ali Maher Assad. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are mostly Russian T-72s which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters. The pace of the deliveries will be determined by the time needed for Russian instructors to train Syrian tank crews on the T-90. Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems have also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment includes: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Russia and its allies have placed a steady onslaught of fire from those systems and from tanks on their opponents’ positions daily. If a major ground offensive gets underway, artillery attacks will surely intensify. Quae non prosunt singular multa iuvant. (What alone is not useful helps when accumulated.) To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters.

A Future Syrian-Iranian Fretwork

With the intermeshing of Iranian forces with the Syrian Armed Forces and the National Defense Front, a picture emerges of what Syrian Armed Forces and what Syrian communities along the axis of the Iranian-Syrian ground attack might look like in a year. One might recall what occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina once the war ended in 1995. Particularly after 1994, members of the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, Iranian Army and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, referred to as “volunteers,” were folded into the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, a few thousand Iranians became part of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power. The Iranian troops settled in many towns and cities in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The extraction of foreign fighters from the postwar Bosnian Federation Armija, and the Federation in general, was mandated by the national government in Sarajevo about a decade after the war due to international pressure. In Syria, the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security will do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents.

The Assad regime likely has a limited degree of influence within the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win. Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. They likely believe that they can cope with that issue in the coming UN Talks. If Assad’s presidency is not viewed as legitimate by the international community following an election, due to any administrative difficulties that may arise or due to actions by the Assad regime or its allies on the ground, the impact on Assad would be minimal. By now, Assad has become inured to the hardship caused by UN sanctions and isolation stemming from the international community’s scorn. Moreover, Assad is, albeit, the “ward” of Russia and Iran. If problems arise, they will cover him. If Russia and its allies can gain control of a good portion of Syria, future threats of an externally orchestrated regime change by force will be precluded. Amicus certus in re incerta. (A sure friend in an unsure matter.) Expectations for talks established under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 may not be based in reality. The picture painted at the UN Security Council was of a factionalized, difficult Syrian Opposition that has suddenly become homogenized. Putin anticipates nothing satisfying from the UN Talks. He sees there is a danger that Russia’s interests will not be served. Rather than wait to be disappointed, Putin will likely seize the opportunity to shape the situation Syria to meet Russia’s interests and those of Tehran and Damascus.

The Way Forward

Fantasies of a future that is desired can become a substitute for reality. Somehow, those on the UN Security Council have anesthetized their consciences to the realities, difficulties, of working with the Syrian Opposition Movement. Indeed, things antecedent have been forgotten. The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, very rapidly, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered the entire taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. Now, new talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The UN Security Council now paints a picture of a Syrian Opposition that has become homogenized and is ready for talks. One should anticipate a future that is reality based. Perhaps what the UN Security Council is waiting for regarding the talks will not be worth waiting for. Sero venientibus ossa! (Those who are late get the bones!)

The art that moves Putin’s mind is not easily deciphered. His intuition likely tells him there will be plenty of debate and confusion at the UN Talks. Yet, he is likely more concerned that the process will not serve Russia’s interests. Putin will not standby for that and will try in advance of UN monitored elections to shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests and those of Iran and the Assad regime. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, offensive and defensive actions by the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition and Russia can continue. For Putin, that means Russia and its allies will be able to act “unimpeded” on the ground. Russia’s moves in Syria will not bar it from working on the talks alongside the other Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council. Rather, Russia will be involved fully. With matters such as Libya in mind, its’ diplomats will narrowly focus on what best suits Russia and its allies. If Putin gets his way, there will be little left in Syria for the US to be satisfied with. The drama of the Obama administration’s failed interaction with Putin is nearly played out as the end of its second term nears. Kremlin observers allege Putin feels the administration has been marked by weakness. He will try to take advantage of the situation while it lasts.

Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting “Terrorism” Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus; But Animus and Past Blunders of Powers Propel the Three-Way War!

The Syrian Air Force fighter jet, above, is bombing a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Ironically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the goal of “saving” his country from the Syrian opposition movement, destroyed nearly every major city and town in it. After four years of conflict, US policy, instead of forcing Assad from power, has resulted in a three-way war with no end in sight.

According to a January 28, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting ‘Terrorism’ Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian opposition movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. While expectations of a breakthrough at the January 28th Moscow meeting were low, Russia hoped the talks would give impetus to a long-stalled peace process in the four year conflict. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.” However, the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime are more interested in fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic militant groups. Their mutual animus was also evinced when both sides failed to commit to the peace plan of UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that seeks to establish local fighting freezes throughout Syria. The fighting freezes would allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to be delivered.

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then candidate Senator Barack Obama admonished the administration of George W. Bush for engaging in military adventurism under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. Yet, early on, the administration of President Barack Obama found itself unable to yield to the temptation of responding to some clarion call to cleanse the world of all ancient evils, ancient ills. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the opposition which blossomed during the so-called Arab Spring. However, its commitment to the opposition has proven to be a snare and quite unsatisfying. The US public has become inured to perfunctory ramblings from administration officials that typically descend into specious statements about victory being attainable. Now those officials speak about Syria with enigmatic faces on. They do not register despair, but they are likely internalizing plenty of it over their long-unproductive Syria policy. The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration. In an August 18, 2011 written statement, Obama said “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” However, after established a purpose, no genuine effort was made to achieve that purpose. The Obama administration’s actions indicated a lack of commitment to Syria.   Its approach was inchoate. A number of formulaic protocols for assisting such movements were followed. There was never any intimation among officials that change was near. Rather, the Obama administration displayed a lack of situational awareness.

The Obama administration was remiss on many aspects of the Syria case. When success is possible, waiting with patience and fortitude, is reasonable. The record on Syria makes questionable any decision to wait any longer to achieve success taking the same course of action. Experienced eyes have grown weary over time waiting for some declaration of triumph, signs of progress, or the proposal of a genuine solution. Looking back at the approach on Syria with “young (alert) eyes” shows its true course and reveals much of the “failure” has been self-inflicted. The Syria policy should take a new turn. Some regrettable but necessary choices need to be made. Conscientia mille testes! (Moral self-knowledge equals a thousand witnesses!)

Going-in with the Syrian Opposition Movement: The First Mistake?

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 Free Syrian Army (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 FSA was placed under the military-wing of the opposition, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), commanded by Salim Idriss. FSA’s ranks quickly grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination among the mixed-bag of FSA units. The units did not admire or obey civilian opposition leaders. Groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra progressively functioned more independently.  Oddly, Western governments monitoring the situation closely saw no danger. Rather, they began to examine the SNC and SMC as the core of a new political and military leadership in Syria. States such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia even began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. After UN and Arab League joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, failed in his effort to create a ceasefire, more states, the US included, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA.  International military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League. However, Assad was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and an expansion of the Syria monitoring mission was proposed. Assad rejected these proposals, but SNC and SMC rejected them also. In the midst of a considerable international response in their favor, SNC and SMC members argued over policies and approaches. Arguments became a regular feature of opposition meetings.  Yet, the shortcomings of the opposition had no discernible impact on international supporters. Conferences held by the US, EU, and Arab states to decide how to aid them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Even 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. The US demanded that Assad not be allowed a place in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West in direct support of the opposition. It was believed within the Obama administration that Assad would simply fall away. Officials expressed statements such as: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” Yet, that delusion did not touch reality at any point. Western analyses that evenly matched FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces were wrong. The situation was always tilted in Assad’s favor. Culpa lata! (Gross negligence!)

The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched

The FSA’s size, relative to Assad’s forces was meager. It was not organized for decisive action, lacked real military power, possessing no high-tech or heavy weapons, and was unable to march on Damascus to remove Assad. The Syrian Army had considerable size, strength, and capabilities. At the civil war’s outset, the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared Syrian Army forces stood at 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analyses, taking into consideration the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and paramilitaries/street gangs (shabiha), the number rose 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), the 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, further enhanced the force. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians were ready to fight alongside the Syrian Army, and did so at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah alleges it went into Syria from Lebanon with 4,000 fighters once Iran began to commit forces. In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July 2013, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with varied support from Russia and Iran, would capture major FSA strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO concluded that during the spring, the FSA’s military campaign had failed.  A dramatic deterioration of the FSA’s Syrian component reportedly began in April 2013. The point was reached where it was difficult to distinguish who wanted to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  More importantly, NATO claimed then that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  The majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters of Islamic militant groups, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.  NATO’s assessment impacted the decision by leading NATO countries to suspend lethal weapons shipments for the FSA.  In mid-July, the United Kingdom and France, once the most vocal supporters for arming the FSA, signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria fearing the shipments might end up with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.  De fumo in flammam! (Out of the smoke, into the flame!)

The February 2013 photo of Homs, Syria, above, provides a snapshot of the destruction that exists in Syria’s cities and towns. The Syria of 2011, when the civil war began, no longer exists. No matter who in control Syria whenever peace comes, they will face a colossal reconstruction effort of astronomical cost.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed

On March 21, 2013, it was revealed to the New York Times that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was playing a covert role in the air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria. A former US official confirmed in anonymity that in early 2012, CIA Director, General David H. Petraeus, was instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and urged various countries to work together on it. Many journalists in 2012 had heard rumors about CIA’s activities.  The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but expanded into a steady and much heavier flow.  By the end of that year, it included more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. By facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, CIA was supposed to provide the US a degree of influence over the process. From offices at secret locations, CIA case officers helped the Arab states shop for weapons. Saudi Arabia acquired a large number of infantry weapons from Croatia. CIA tried to vet FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrived. CIA was tasked to steer weapons away from Islamic militant groups, persuading donors to withhold weapons that could have severe consequences if they fell into their hands. Those weapons included portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. Yet, CIA relied on Turkey to handle the majority of oversight activities for the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey was very large. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments.  CIA, itself, declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. Further, information on CIA’s Syria operation was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26, 2013.  According to the June 26th article, in addition to moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses, CIA was engaged in a train and equip program for small groups of vetted, mainstream, FSA fighters. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. At the time, it was hoped that the supplies, related training of a few hundred of the FSA fighters, along with a push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, would allow the FSA to organize a unified offensive in August 2013 which was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui! (Beware what you say, when, and to whom!)

Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS

As the civil war in Syria got underway, the US and EU involvement was very low-key.  However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan since 2012, enthusiastically delivered arms and support to the FSA.  The Arab states that participated in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, were emboldened by its success.  Officials in many Arab states suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya.  Qatar, which took the “lead Arab role” in the Libya operation, threw its financial wherewithal into supporting the opposition and take the lead Arab role in Syria, too.  It rushed to develop loyal networks with the FSA and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime.  Yet, acquiring the “loyal support” of FSA units was a very difficult undertaking.  Many groups in the FSA, particularly Islamic militant groups, moved from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms.  Qatar, much as other Arab states pursuing their own interests, had a myopic view of the Syria landscape.  They lacked experience in strategic maneuvering at a level required to positively influence events in Syria.

For Arab states, engaging in an effort to arm the FSA without a secure, steady supply of arms meant scouring around for light weapons such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, and ammunition.  Qatar bought arms in Libya and Eastern European countries and flew them to Turkey as part of the FSA arms supply program set up by CIA.  In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver the arms into Syria. Qatari unconventional warfare units were tasked to go into Syria and find factions to arm and supply, but Qatar also received assistance from Turkey in identifying recipients for a short while. Qatar’s distribution of arms aligned with the tide-turning FSA campaign in the northern province of Idlib and the campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts that drove Assad forces from parts of the countryside. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the FSA supply hub at Qusayr.  Qatar eventually turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support, leading to its ties with the Farouq brigades.  It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to a rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization.  The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to further divisions within the political and military wings of the opposition.  There would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. By September 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were creating separate military alliances and structures.  It was then that the two countries were urged by the US to bring the parallel structures together under the SMC, but that did not occur.  Crce credemus, hodie nihil! (Tomorrow we believe, but not today!)

This photo of Islamic militant fighters in Syria preparing to execute Syrian Army prisoners appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 5, 2013. While Obama administration officials were predicting the Syrian opposition’s victory over the Assad regime, journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations were reporting ISIS atrocities and the realities on the ground.

ISIS Emerges

What has stirred the Obama administration the most about ISIS is the hostage taking and murders US citizens and citizens of other countries. The matter actually brought Syria back to the forefront among foreign policy issues. After failed effort to secure massive ransoms by negotiations, US and other European, Asian, and Arab states’ citizens have been videotaped being beheaded. The whole process seems to be more of an amusement for ISIS members than anything else, forcing leaders to negotiate prices for the release of their people. Rescues have been attempted, and they have failed more often than not. Then there was the ISIS juggernaut that rolled through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. That land was included in the Islamic Caliphate straddling the border of Syria and Iraq that ISIS created. ISIS did not always pose such a threat to global security and stability.   In early 2012, there were many Islamic militant groups active underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Western and Arab states allowed for their growth.  ISIS was initially active in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity.  In addition to being the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the FSA for the balance of the civil war, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra led FSA assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were also responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials.  They became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.

Despite the best efforts to minimize the impact such acts were having on their Syria policy, it was eventually accepted by Western and Arab states that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces were directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups only sought to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory. Indeed, before the Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of the large segments of Syria that ISIS and other Islamic militant groups’ controlled, the society was transformed by the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrians. The groups were particularly harsh with Syrian women. Journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations reported ISIS atrocities.  Captured Syrian military personnel and regime supporters were rarely spared. ISIS and the other groups were still viewed as FSA members until their intermittent clashes with mainstream units became open warfare.

While it was initially reasoned the FSA, with US supplied arms and training, would advance against the Assad regime and force him to the negotiation table where he would supposedly step down, the added pressure of the struggle with ISIS derailed the Syria effort of the Obama administration.  The administration, nonetheless, pressed this issue with US Congress. The Obama administration sent its senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill its tangled Syria policy with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of its “approach.” US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” however, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions. At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul further stated, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Although captivating and satisfying, Kerry’s figures even then seemed questionable. Using them, the administration took an approach that allowed the Syrian situation fall into a three-way conflict. Assistance continued to reach ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. SMC did not unify FSA units into a cohesive fighting force or devise plans for their effective use. Assad remained in power. Caveat consules ne quid detriment republica capiat! (Beware consuls that the commonwealth is not harmed!)

Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack

The story of Obama’s August 23, 2013 response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is well-known. After making very shrill accusations that the Assad regime had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renowned decision to back away from military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. Russia, Iran, and China were as joyful as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing his cause any good. True, Obama had the Pentagon provide options for calibrated military strikes in Syria. Airstrikes most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. However, Obama was driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through. Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed. Obama was paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled with his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Obama strayed away from a path of assertive and decisive action. Many challenging foreign policy problems facing the administration became more difficult to manage as a result of his decision. Opponents of the US, including ISIS, became convinced that Obama was averse to using military power. Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem! (It is not goodness to be better than the worst!)

In July 2012, the Za’atari refugee camp, above, opened in Jordan. Of the 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 20 percent are now housed in the Za’atari and Azraq camps. Syrians situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, or trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, desperately desire a sustainable and secure peace in their country.

The Way Forward

What Obama and other Western leaders should know by now is that in coping with ISIS, they are dealing with real evil. It must be defeated. From the start, leaders of ISIS as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been treated by the US as William Shakespeare’s “Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority.” They should have been made to shrivel under the weight of robust US military might. ISIS’ leaders instead were given the time, the space, and the resources to rehearse the implementation of their perverse notions of social order. The fight against ISIS is actually the result of the failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down at the negotiating table. A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been established with the opposition in the beginning of the civil war and still cannot be established with it now. Without support, the opposition might continue to fight the Assad regime, but its efforts would not be fruitful.   Similarly, the US effort to juggle three, albeit related, conflicts in Syria will never bear fruit. The Assad regime, the opposition, and ISIS, have each contributed to the destruction of the lives of the Syrian people. Assad is on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court. Given the choice to deny, attack or embrace the Assad regime, the US may choose reluctantly “to embrace (tolerate)” it incrementally. The war has transformed Syria, politically, militarily, economically, socially, and culturally. The Syria of 2011 no longer exists. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable and secure peace in their country, would be the best solution. Ad verecundiam! (Appeal to modesty in an argument!)

Assad is not immortal. His regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, may not survive in the long-run. Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran may eventually grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancement of their cause. To the extent that Assad would face heavy battles with ISIS, the watchful eyes of Israel, and the prospect of a decades-long, very expensive, reconstruction effort wherever he is able to regain territory, his regime will be contained. More so than the opposition, the Assad regime can contribute to the fight against ISIS in Syria. Contact with Assad regarding ISIS may kindle genuine cooperation from him on other issues. Assad stated contact already exists on US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria via Iraqi officials. Perhaps that is the best way for the Obama administration to handle the situation considering the primacy the US must give to, and role it must play in, the ISIS fight.