NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine Crisis; A Military Response to “Russia’s Moves” Must Exist, But There Is Still Room for Diplomacy

US soldiers (above) training for combat operations. To respond to possible “Russian moves” against its Member States in Eastern Europe, NATO is organizing a new Rapid Reaction Force that will include US units. Political leaders of all NATO Member States must think deeply about situations that the use of the new force may create.

According to a September 7, 2014 Reuters article entitled, “NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine, Iraq Crises”, NATO leaders emerged from a summit in Wales with a plan to protect eastern members from a resurgent Russia, a pledge to reverse the decline in their defense spending, and a Western coalition to combat Islamic militants in Iraq. Ways were sought to use NATO’s military power to avert additional moves by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin against vulnerable Eastern European Member States. Senior alliance officials sought to reassure those countries that there are teeth behind the pledge (contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document) that an attack on one Member State will be considered an attack on all. A key decision made at the summit was to create a new NATO Rapid Reaction Force of some 5,000 troops assembled from existing national high-readiness forces based at home. It would eventually be deployable within 48 hours’ notice, instead of up to several weeks now, to deter an aggressor in a crisis. It will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia. The new force may also be used for expeditionary missions outside the NATO Treaty area. (Such operations would be subject to a unanimous political decision of the 28-nation NATO Council and to national caveats limiting what troops can do abroad.) A “Readiness Action Plan” was also adopted to shield former Soviet bloc Central and Eastern European countries that joined the alliance in the last 15 years by modernizing military infrastructure, further pre-positioning equipment and supplies, rotating air patrols and holding regular joint exercises on their soil.

Before the NATO Summit, seven NATO allies planned to create a new rapid reaction force of at least 10,000 soldiers as part of plans to boost NATO defenses in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The aim was to create a division sized joint expeditionary force for rapid deployment and regular exercises. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to announce the creation of the force at the NATO Summit. The United Kingdom-led force would include an air and naval units as well as ground troops. Countries involved include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, and the Netherlands—Canada also expressed an interest in taking part. Political leaders of these countries apparently became uncertain and impatient regarding US efforts to mitigate the threat of further Russian advances westward. At the summit, the force’s size was reduced to a level short of what Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted. Yet, after US President Barack Obama spoke in Estonia on the eve of the summit, underlining the US commitment to defend the Baltic States, they were accepting of the change.

Yet, the September 7th Reuters article notes that despite ringing declarations of resolve, the US-led alliance cannot fix the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Questions remain about the allies’ plan to create a Rapid Reaction Force and their aim of raising defense budgets to 2 percent of national output over a decade. Both are subject to political caveats. Most analysts say the main security problems on NATO’s eastern flank lie less in a Russian military threat to its allies than instability in non-aligned former Soviet republics between NATO and Russia. Coping with a Russian military push there, may require more than 5,000 NATO troops.

NATO appears to be in a situation similar to what it faced during the Cold War. Yet, continuous draw downs of Member State forces since that time has left it without robust military capabilities and harmed its ability to transmit, by actions, a message that would deter Russia from further advances. Now that Putin and Russia are on the move, it is not feasible for NATO to create an effective defense through a Rapid Reaction Force, the prepositioning of materials, and exercises that could reestablish a deterrent from the new Rapid Reaction Force now as if before the draw downs never occurred. Nunc pro tunc! (Now for then!)   The United Kingdom and France bolstered Europe’s defense with their own nuclear arsenals. As in the past, the mere consideration of the use of force against Russia brings the world closer to World War III. A diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Europe may exist. It would require NATO Member States, despite all that has transpired to date, to engage in a new process of communicating with Russia through diplomacy, not with sanctions and new plans to use force.

NATO’s New Rapid Reaction Force

As US and NATO officials have tried to quickly respond to the evolving crisis in Ukraine, they have noted an alarming pattern of behavior by Putin. While Putin emerged as the dominant power in Moscow, Russia was hardly realistically judged by the West. Indeed, wishful thinking of NATO Member States’ political leaders of a post-Cold War compliant Russia ruled. At the end of the NATO Summit in 1990, there was even hope of establishing a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia. Caution was not exercised. A reversal of such good fortune was viewed as unlikely. With a sense of near certitude over Russian actions and intentions, they made staggering cuts in their forces and NATO Member States failed to meet defense spending goals.   Political leaders of NATO Member States must accept that their assumptions about Russia were wrong. Any plans of working with Russia were scrubbed in May 2014. (The NATO-Russia Council created in 2002 has not been formally shut-down).

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, NATO members have taken a number of short-term steps to reinforce the security of allies in Eastern Europe who are worried about Putin’s assertiveness. Putin’s actions have been in line with his vision of a resurgent Russia at the center of an orbit of compliant neighbors. This concept is manifested in his proposal for a “Eurasian Union,” an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, most notably, Ukraine. The words of the NATO Summit declaration pulsate for the education of all both West and East. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the new Rapid Reaction Force “will ensure that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place, at the right time.” Troops would be regularly rotated and equipment and supplies, including weapons, ammunition and fuel, would be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe. Rasmussen explained it would also require command and control and logistics experts, “so this force can travel light but strike hard if needed.” Russia’s “aggressive behavior,” he said, will mean “a more visible NATO presence in the East for as long as required.”

However, much work will be required for NATO to rejuvenate itself. Over the years, several NATO Member States have been nonchalant about failing to meet their defense spending pledges. US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending. This uneven burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.   Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom and the US. France, Turkey, and Greece fell just shy of the 2 percent goal, while other major countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have fallen well behind. The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine.

Longstanding Members of the NATO have cut their military forces dramatically. The United Kingdom and France have reduced warships in their arsenals to the point that they have contemplated sharing a single aircraft carrier. The United Kingdom, traditionally the closest and most reliable US military partner plans to reduce its regular ground forces to just 82,000 troops. Germany is in the process of reducing its armed forces from 250,000 in 2010 to 185,000 active duty planned for in 2017. The Dutch have eliminated their heavy tank forces. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have 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. US Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, stated “Over the last several years we’ve allowed our capabilities in NATO to slip.” He further explained: “So now we have to rebuild those capabilities. We need to understand where they reside, and what countries have which capabilities. We have to have more military exercises, improved [military] interoperability, and we need to reassure our Eastern partners in NATO that we are serious about [our commitments].”

Lessons from the Past

Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to defend against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic as well as Czechoslovakia. In the 1980s, for example, the NATO Alliance filed 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. The objective of the Western defense was to halt any attempt to push westward beyond Germany. It was understood that the Soviets and their partners held a numerical advantage in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under the attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO forces would use units present and, if possible reinforcements from the US, to fight and defeat the advancing force. If they failed, it was also understood that tactical nuclear weapons would be used to prevent a breakthrough beyond Germany. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces ostensibly was also used to deter Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders from believing any successful advance would at all be tolerated and the US was fully committed to Western Europe’s defense. By the 1980s, the introduction of the US AirLand Battle Strategy with its emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of weapons systems that served as combat multipliers, greatly enhanced the possibility for Western success against a Soviet and Warsaw Pact advance. The battle would no longer be confined to the Inter-German border, but deep within Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory. Although Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges from Europe in the same period, there still existed an understanding that tactical nuclear weapons could be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (It should be noted the Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for the use a chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

Western military theorists of the past hardly could have imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient highly-mobile armored and mechanized NATO forces would be not be based in Europe to meet it. While 5,000 NATO troops in a Rapid Reaction Force may appear to political leaders at the NATO Summit to be sufficient to deter or combat Russian forces which could presumably be well reinforced from within Russia. Further, halting any additional US troop reductions in Europe and rejuvenating “Reforger Exercise” (Return of Forces to Germany), that rehearsed the reinforcement of forces in Europe through the deployment of large units from the US, may send a signal that the West is becoming more assertive regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It may deter Russia from possible action against the 15 other former Soviet Republics elsewhere along its border, particularly those that are now NATO Members States. Yet, sending signals to Russia in this way may do little to improve the situation. So far, Russia has been most effective at sending signals to other former Soviet republics contemplating stronger military or economic ties to the West. In addition to acting in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has created fears that it may stir-up “frozen conflicts” in Moldova or between Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop those countries from moving closer to the West.

Some Considerations Regarding the Rapid Reaction Force

It would be counter-intuitive to believe the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or senior officers of security organizations as the Main Intelligence Directorate, considering how to cope with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force, would in an aggressive act, use the same tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. When NATO prepared to offer a path to membership to Georgia in 2008, Russia sent troops to reinforce peacekeepers in the Russian-speaking, breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After a five-day conflict with outmatched Georgian forces supported by the West, Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, where Russian troops remain. Georgia’s potential membership disappeared from the NATO agenda, Late 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to forgo an Accession Agreement with the EU and join Putin’s Eurasian Union. After months of violent demonstrations by Ukrainian citizens, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Putin intervened militarily, sending in “green men” to take control of key points in Crimea, leading to its annexation. Reports from Western news media sources indicate Russian forces similarly infiltrated the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine to join rebel forces of “New Russia”.

Russia may rush in with troops massed along the border of a neighboring state with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units. However, as a matter of speed and surprise, Russia may rapidly deploy forces from based well inside Russia to key points in a neighboring state. In the best case scenario for NATO, the Rapid Reaction Force, in response to intelligence reports of a Russian threat, would be deployed to a NATO Member State in advance of any significant movement of Russian forces into it. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force would be able to set up its defenses, make use of prepositioned systems and ordinance, and air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Russian political leaders would need to choose whether to clash with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing a multinational NATO troops. Perhaps the Russian decision would rest on how soon and how large would reinforcements arrive to support the Rapid Reaction Force before it could inflict catastrophic losses upon it. In 1999, Russia found itself in this very situation without prepositioned weapons and ordinance in Kosovo in the aftermath of NATO’s Operation Allied Force to expel Yugoslav Army units and irregular forces from the Serbian province. Then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was viewed as a partner of Russia. As NATO ground forces under the command of then British Army Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson reached Pristina, Russian airborne forces that were deployed in northeastern Bosnia as part of the Stabilization Force, rushed ahead to Pristina International Airport to secure the airfield on which several Russian fighters had landed. Jackson did not try to displace the force as ordered by his superior US Army General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (NATO’s commanding general). Jackson famously said, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Jackson established a rapport with the Russian commanders. It was revealed that Russia, blocked from participating in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, decided to create a role for itself. Unable to move or be reinforced, the Russia relented, but it was agreed Russian troops could serve independently as peacekeepers.

If NATO Rapid Reaction Force cannot get to the Member State first, Russian forces would likely try to displace, destroy any local opposition with a superior force before NATO arrived, and quickly secure key points on the territory of a neighboring state. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force must clash with the Russian force if the objective is to displace it from key points or to expel it. Before NATO sent the force in, political leaders of Member States would need to decide in advance whether the Rapid Reaction Force would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending in the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to link up with local forces heavily engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. To get in country, the NATO Rapid Reaction Force would need to hope Russian forces, in preparation for their deployment to a neighboring state, would not destroy air bases and other facilities from which fighter support and transports could land in reasonable proximity to their targets.   Russia would be able to provide air cover and close air support for Russian troops. Russia would surely have air assets available to bring up reserve units and logistical support.

If Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the NATO Rapid Reaction Force on the ground, it might be futile for the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available. The Rapid Reaction Force would at best be able to courageously hold on until a stronger NATO conventional force arrived to reinforce it and strike back and expel Russia from the country under attack. Again, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for reinforcement. To the extent air power might be used against the Russian force, Russia may also use powerful conventional weapons to destroy NATO forces and support capabilities in the area of the neighboring state. If NATO forces were unable to halt and expel the Russian advance, new options would be needed. It would not be acceptable for the allies to simply retreat. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to repel the Russian force might be considered. The Rapid Reaction Force could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Europe would once again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield. The use of strategic weapons in response to Russian aggression could also be threatened.

The Way Forward

Initially having ruled out military action, the West’s primary means to respond to Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and elsewhere has been economic sanctions and political exclusion. However, despite their dependence on Russian gas and the economic consequences for trade with Russia, along with the US, EU countries have adopted a fourth round of sanctions. Through NATO, Western powers now seek to reassert themselves militarily. While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic. He would undoubtedly prefer to establish peace and security in Ukraine and in Russia’s other neighboring states, without further conflict and further economic, political, and military expense. It may still be viable to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. One clearheaded option may be to organize a summit meeting between a delegation of leaders from NATO Member States and Putin in Moscow or some other neutral location. Perhaps not all of the leaders from NATO Members States should attend the summit. The goal would not be to overwhelm Putin with numerical superiority, but to transmit NATO concerns and find some solutions. It might be best if a delegation of leaders from senior NATO Member States. Foreign secretaries could attend. However, as a summit meeting, it might be best if the leaders themselves hashed things out alone in a daylong session. They would have a real opportunity to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had at the highest-level and build confidence. A way to work together to satisfy Western and Russian interests may be found. If that is not achieved, at least leaders would remove any ambiguity about where things are headed.

For leaders of NATO Member States in particular, decisions would no longer need to be based on an understanding of “where Putin’s thinking is” in the abstract. For those leaders, speaking face to face, leaders would be given a chance to sense the other’s thinking and feelings. Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know. Every inflexion, tone, and change in the other’s voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind. Speaking by telephone, when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is not the best option. Without seeing the other party, the call can become tense. Animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of terse comments. The result would not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

Pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem. Political advisers of NATO leaders would explain that a summit with Putin would allow him to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. The meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people and that Russia that he was a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that he had control over the Ukrainian situation.  If the summit were held in Moscow, Putin would likely receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Yet, whatever public relations benefit or image boost Putin might gain through a summit would be trumped by the having the leaders reach a satisfactory diplomatic outcome.

Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings. Such Cold War meetings between US presidents and their Russian counterparts may have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo. However, leaders understood that maintaining a constructive relationship was not a personal matter; it was their duty. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts along the course of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not. With a strong diplomatic action taken now, hopefully the issue of mutual annihilation will not become a major concern all over again.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.

US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk, and Prolonged “Peaceful Coexistence” with Rogue Islamic Militants

As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.  The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action.  The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted.  Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes.  Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable.  US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  .

However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria.  Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria.  Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally.  Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated.  Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily.  Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent.  While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace.  Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters.  Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants.  Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond.  Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action.  The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.

Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence

As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic.  Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.  He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.”   Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th.  McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “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-Qaida 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.”  Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.  This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 greatcharlie.com post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”) 

Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”  However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.  A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government.  Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.”  Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”

Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence

In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war.  Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity.  The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes.  They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime.  They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.  Yet, they are now known best by their rogue acts.   Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start.  There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters.  Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released.  The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels.  This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad.  Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s  transition toward a democratic form of government.  Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway. 

Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces.  The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future.  In the greatcharlie.com post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units were accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents.  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies.  So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory. 

Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria.  Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present.  Pakistani Taliban bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years.  The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces.  In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia.  Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May.  By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600. 

Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”

As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war.  However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war.  It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians.  Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them.  Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.  Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions.  Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting.  A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions.  If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply.  Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government.  They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria.  This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council.  If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants.  Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants.  However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond.  It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government. 

The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war.  The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia.  This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government.  It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed.  However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so.  They married Bosnian women and became part of the society.  Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present.  The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended.  Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so.  As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon.  Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians. 

If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go.  It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced.  It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers.  Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands.  Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability.  Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states.  They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia!  Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them.  They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.

Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward

In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements, although he did not say how that could be accomplished.  He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”  Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria.  As was also explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening, covertly if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.

If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join.  However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave.  It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government.  The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition.  Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy.  The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts.  Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested.  The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective.  All Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted for strike.  Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.  Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted.  Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed.  Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.

A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians.  If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria.  Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region.  For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria.  For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.

Assessment

Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria.  However, it does not address the issue of their presence.  The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants.  Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate.  Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks.  Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem.  True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority.  Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria.  The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.

Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks.  Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence.  Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage.  Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them.  They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war.  By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

(Over the past three months through blog posts, greatcharlie.com has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria.  Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)

Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind

According to a July 12, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call,” President Barack Obama told King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that he is committed to providing US support to Syrian rebels who have been waiting for shipments of arms that have been stalled in Washington.  Reuters indicated the quote from President Obama’s July 12th phone conversation was integrated into the text of an official statement confirming “the US continued commitment to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council and to strengthening the opposition.”  That White House statement further explained the two leaders discussed the civil war in Syria and expressed strong concerns about the impact of the conflict in the region.  The Reuters article also revealed that US arms have not reached the Syrian rebels, who are struggling to hold back an offensive by the Syrian government.  Moreover, it explained that US weapons have been caught in a Washington impasse as some members of the US Congress fear the arms will end up in the hands of Islamic militants.

However, the timing and level of US aid to the Syrian opposition forces was not very likely the main issue on the mind of King Abdullah when he spoke to President Obama.  The entire enterprise of training, arming, and directing Syrian opposition forces to bring down the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is in jeopardy.  As the Friends of Syria group (organized by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government) explained after its June 22, 2013 meeting in Doha, Qatar, a stark military imbalance exits between the Syrian opposition forces and the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies.  However, divisions and rivalries between mainstream rebel groups and Islamic militant factions have fractured and hobbled the fighting force.  Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that financially supported and armed Islamic militant factions in particular in Syria, are culpable for this predictable outcome.  They seem to be adhering to the specious argument that US military arms aid will place the situation back on track.  Yet, US military hardware will not improve the situation.  Rather, as it is feared by the US Congress, the US aid could very well make matters far worse.      

What May Trouble the Saudi King about the Syrian Enterprise

While the President Obama was explaining the US commitment to the Syrian opposition, the Saudi king was unlikely surprised by the fact that the president had to seek Congressional approval before moving forward.  King Abdullah undoubtedly understands the workings of the branches of the US government system of checks and balances.  Under tacit rules followed by the executive branch and the Congress on intelligence matters the White House will not send arms to the Syrian opposition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council and its fighting force, the Free Syrian Army if both the Senate and House  intelligence committees or just one, expresses serious objections.  Both Democrats and Republican expressed concerns that the weapons would reach Islamic militant factions.  (Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federal Security Service have expressed similar concern that sophisticated weapons, particularly shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles brought into Syria, will find their way into Russia and Europe.)

The matter took on another layer when both Senate and House appropriations committees which also routinely review secret intelligence or military aid programs, voiced their concerns.  The issues that have stirred concern within the Congress over sending military hardware to the Free Syrian Army are most likely what concerns King Abdullah the Saudi king over the continued participation of the US in the arming effort.  The US commitment Syrian opposition is not open-ended.  Under current circumstances, the US may eventually need to terminate it.  What the Saudi king most likely has begun thinking is what that decision, if made in the near future by President Obama, would mean for Saudi Arabia and the region.

Indeed, the Saudi king is astute enough to know as a result of rogue actions by Islamic militant factions, the entire enterprise of training, arming, and directing the Free Syrian Army in an effort to bring down the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been put into doubt in the minds of all involved.  Those rogue acts include attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.  Islamic militant factions have attempted to impose their strict conception of sharia or Islamic law on local residents in the territory held by the Free Syrian Army.  At times, they have even carried out summary public executions.  Further, they have monopolized wheat and fuel supplies in towns creating even greater shortages for residents.   Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying day by day.  As Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities could reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  At that point, the goals of the mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, to create the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Syria, would be supplanted by the goals of the Islamic militant factions, which is to create an Islamic state there. 

All of this falls on top of the fact that the Free Syrian Army’s capabilities, under any realistic assessment, cannot be ramped up and the force cannot fight in a size and strength great enough, in any short period of time, to confront the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies, Iran, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shi’a militia, and Russia.  Assad’s powerful allies are ready to support it with money and weapons, and commit substantial numbers of their forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces as already proven at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus.  The promise of the Friends of Syria to shift the military balance in favor of the Free Syrian Army will not be quickly or easily realized.

The Formidable Islamic Militias in Syria

While the US and Arab states claim to have only trained, armed, and supported vetted and moderate groups in the Free Syrian Army, what is occurring on the ground in Syria contradicts that claim.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  Jabhat Al-Nusra or as they are now known, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, was active in Syria under their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) auspices for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Ever since the  formation of Al-Qaida in Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a busy beehive for Al-Qaida activity since its inception following the US-led coalition’s initiation of  Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Salafist/Jihaddi factions working in concert with it, have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Jabhat Al-Nusra has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes.  They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime.  They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.

Arab State Culpability For the Fracturing of the Free Syrian Army

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 Free Syrian Army.  The Arab states were emboldened by their success in Libya.  Many Arab state officials suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya.  Qatar which took the “lead Arab role” in the NATO-led intervention, Operation Unified Protector, rushed to throw its financial wherewithal into the support of the Syrian opposition to take the lead Arab role in Syria, too.  Though this effort, Qatar was perceived as trying to use its financial power to develop loyal networks with the Free Syrian Army and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime.  Yet, the Qataris had little experience in strategic maneuvering at the level required to positively influence events of Syria’s scale.  Attempting to create loyal support was a very difficult undertaking.  Many groups in the Free Syrian Army would move from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms.  Islamic militant factions were particularly adept at this.  In the end, Qatar’s approach to shaping events served, albeit unintentionally, to strengthen and embolden Salafist/Jihaddis among the Islamic militant factions in the Free Syrian Army.  That outcome was contrary to the goals of Qatar’s Arab neighbors in the Gulf and especially the US and EU.  Accusations began to rise that Qatar rather than supporting the formation of the Syrian National Council, divided it.  Qatar’s efforts to create unity in the Free Syrian Army were said to have led to its fracturing. 

For Qatar, engaging in an effort to arm the Free Syrian Army without a secure, steady supply of arms meant Qatar had to scour 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 such as Croatia and flew them to Turkey.  In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver them into Syria.  Qatar worked with Turkey for a short while to identify recipients.  As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the Free Syrian Army supply hub at Qusayr.  As the conflict progressed, Qatar turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support.  As a result of that effort, Qatar’s support of the Farouq brigades began.  (Later there would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra.)  Qatari unconventional warfare units were also tasked to go into Syria and find additional factions to arm and supply.

It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to its rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization.  The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia had harmful consequences on the unity of both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition.  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 Supreme Military Council led by General Salim Idriss.  Yet, it is being reported that Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to work independently.

Fund raising within other Arab states for Islamic militant factions in Syria is typically conducted privately during an evening event known as diwaniya.  In Kuwait in particular, fund raising activity must be conducted under special permit.  Money received, which has been substantial, is brought into Syria by luggage.  The recipients of the funds are given freedom to spend the money as they wish.  That might include, recruiting mujahedeen to engage in jihad in Syria.  The US is greatly concerned that the money may help strengthen Islamic militant factions with links to Al-Qaida such as Jabhat Al-Nusra.  The US would prefer that this funding stream would also pass through the Supreme Military Council.  However, that would require those providing the funds to cooperate with the US, which is somewhat unlikely.

Islamic Militants Continue to Pour into Syria.

As infighting continues, more Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis pour into Syria.  The latest development, likely resulting from the rapid increase in size, strength, and confidence is the decision by Pakistani Taliban to set up a base in Syria, assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions there.  The bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years.  The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces.  In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia.  Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.

Vetting the Islamic Militants

When Jabhat Al-Nusra, using Qatari arms and money, began gaining ground against the Syrian Armed Forces, it troubled Western governments to the extent that the US placed Jabhat Al-Nusra on the global terrorist list. The US also instituted a consultative process to reign in Qatar’s activities. Two operations rooms were set up, one in Turkey and the other in Jordan, to oversee weapons deliveries.  However, arms and money found their way to the Islamic militant factions even with the offices.  There can be no doubt that the US knows much about the Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis operating in Syria.  That information would include family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources tradecraft, recruiting tactics.  What they need to know is who they can rely upon in the field with sophisticated weapons, and participate in larger operations against Assad’s forces and allies. They want to know whether the factions or individual supports Syria’s transition to a democratic style of government.  The US Congress wants to require Free Syrian Army groups and members meet its criteria on human rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation of arms.  However, actions speak louder than words.  Jabhat Al-Nusra may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes.  Yet, by all accounts, the Jabhat Al-Nusra and Salafist/Jihaddi factions associated with it have engaged in ugly behavior toward the people of Syria and the mainstream Free Syrian Army groups.  Clearly, they would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Free Syrian Army groups to create a secure and sustainable peace in a post-Assad Syria.  Under any vetting process Jabhat Al-Nusra would need to be rejected for support, as would any Salafist/Jihaddi factions associated with it.  

The US possesses considerable know how when it comes to training and equipping forces to defeat rogue regimes.  However, the US does not possess magic.  Arab state leaders such as King Abdullah must understand that even with a commitment by the US on Syria, operations such as the one ongoing to support the Free Syrian Army could fail.  Similar operations have failed in the past.  Among the notable failures are Operation Haik in Indonesia in 1958, Operation Zapata in Cuba (The Bay of Pigs) in 1961, and Operations Modular and Hooper in Angola in 1987 and 1988.  The operation in Syria may eventually fall into this category.  The destruction of the Free Syrian Army’s cohesion caused by uncooperative Islamic militant factions makes it more likely the Syria operation to train and equip will fail.  Arab states, having a myopic perspective and driven by hubris resulting from success in Libya, only saw the potential of pursuing their own interests in Syria.  They ignored the interests of other powerful states supporting Assad’s regime, such as Russia, Iran, and China.  The strong ties of those states to Syria were matched by their efforts to support it.  

Rather than simply push the US to fix the situation, Arab states could look to themselves to gain control over it.  For example, Arab states could exploit the control they have over the Islamic militant factions that comes with being their main supplier of money and arms.  The fear of retribution by Islamists and Salafists/Jihaddis at home makes this an unlikely approach for Arab governments to take.  Yet, they would need to evaluate for themselves whether they were committed enough to the success in Syria to that degree.  Arab states could support, even propose, a Western-sponsored purge of Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar Salafist/Jihaddis in the Free Syrian Army.  To bolster that effort, Arab states could quietly provide granular information about the Islamic militant factions they possess.  They would be required to stand aside whenever direction might be taken.  Yet, their full support would be needed to strengthen remaining mainstream groups in the Free Syrian Army.  Arab states could commit their intelligence services and unconventional warfare units to aiding and advising the Free Syrian Army on the ground in Syria.  Just as Qatar had its unconventional warfare units in Syria seeking Free Syrian Army units to support, they could work to police the lines between disputing groups and factions, use techniques to create unit cohesion and cooperation.  They could also support Free Syrian Army operations by instructing unit commanders and senior leaders in maneuver tactics and unconventional warfare.  When necessary, they could fight alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s forces and allies.

These options are among some that may reverse the downward trend for the Free Syrian Army.  Yet, again, there is no guarantee on their effectiveness.  Something must be done.  if no decision is taken, perhaps the Saudi king should keep asking President Obama about his commitment to the Syrian opposition.  Eventually he may hear a different answer.  It will be the very one the king knows he should hear.

When Exactly Will CIA Crack Down on its Own to Stop Leaks?

On June 26th, the Associated Press reported Director John O. Brennan was launching a new campaign aimed at pressuring Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers to keep the intelligence agency’s secrets secret. The article entitled CIA Cracks Down on Its Own to Stop Leaks, by Kimberley Dozier, discusses a memo written by Brennan to the Agency’s workforce.  Brennan reminded employees of the Agency’s “Honor the Oath” campaign, which was intended to “reinforce our corporate culture of secrecy” through education and training.  He explained in his memo that the campaign stemmed from a review of CIA security launched last summer by former director David Petraeus, and followed what Brennan stated were “several high-profile anonymous leaks and publications by former senior officers.”  Brennan’s memo has arrived on the heels of a number of very recent and fairly significant news reports based on leaks of information on CIA covert operations, particularly in Syria.  Interestingly enough, the very memo, that Associated Press had acquired, was marked unclassified, “for official use only.”

With regard to stories about CIA covert operations, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other US newspapers of record have explained that their sources of information on CIA, particularly on its assistance to Turkey and Arab states in arming Syrian opposition fighters, has come from interviews with officials from several countries, accounts from rebel commanders, and air traffic data. Yet, to be fair, CIA officals have reason to be skeptical of this. The information in news reports of CIA operations in Syria is of such granular detail and clarity that it is difficult to imagine anyone except one fully steeped in such an intricate arms supply and training operation, could fully grasp and discuss all of its aspects with such certainty. The information is seemingly flowing week after week to the US news media.  Examples include a June 21st Los Angeles Times report that CIA was using covert training at bases in Jordan and Turkey.

In both countries, CIA operatives and US special operations troops have allegedly been secretly training Syrian opposition insurgents with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year. Accoeding to a US official, the training reportedly has involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose confederation of insurgent groups that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance.  The US official  discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.

The number of FSA fighters given US instruction in Jordan and Turkey has not been determined by the Los Angeles Times.  However, an FSA commander cooperating with CIA, leaked that in Jordan, the training involves 20 to 45 fighters at a time. The training, he explained, conducted by US, Jordanian and French operatives, involves rockets and anti-tank and antiaircraft weaponry.  The commander also revealed the training began in November at a new US base in the desert in southwestern Jordan.  To his knowledge, US special operations teams selected the trainees over the last year when the US military set up regional supply lines into Syria to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid.  So far, according to the commander, about 100 FSA fighters from Daraa have attended four courses, and fighters from Damascus, the Syrian capital, have attended three. Between 80 and 100 FSA fighters from all over Syria have gone through the courses in the last month, he said, and training is continuing. Those who complete the course are sent back across the border to rejoin the battle.

The two-week courses include training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons, according to a FSA commander in Daraa province who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked that his name not be used because the program is secret. Since last year, the weapons sent through the Daraa FSA military council have included four or five Russian-made heavy Concourse antitank missiles, 18 14.5-millimeter guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82-millimeter recoil-less rifles. The weapons are all Russian or Soviet-style models but manufactured in other countries, the commander said. Such weapons allow the FSA fighters to easily use captured munitions from the Syrian army, which has a large arsenal of Russian and Soviet-style arms. While engaged in training activities, CIA officers would sit and interview trainees during breaks from sessions, and afterward they would try to collect specific information on the situation in Syria based on intelligence requirements.

CIA’s covert role in the allied air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria, which many journalists heard rumors about in 2012, was confirmed and fully exposed in the New York Times on March 21st.  It was revealed by a former US official that General David H. Petraeus, CIA director until November 2012, had been instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and had strongly urged various countries to work together on it.

CIA’s role in facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, gave the US a degree of influence over the process, including the opportunity to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. This has made the operation far less plausibly deniable than US covert operators and policymakers would desire.

The New York Times stated that CIA declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. However, informants close to CIA officers engaged in these activities have revealed that from offices at secret locations, US intelligence officers have helped the Arab states shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year.  It has grown to include 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.

Regarding details of the CIA operation, it was informed that Turkey was relied upon for ovesight of much of the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey has been very large, according to US officials familiar with the supply route. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria, US officials said.

Qatar had denied providing any arms to the rebels. Yet, US officials, as well as FSA commanders, have confirmed that Qatar has been an active arms supplier–so much so that the US became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed. It was not made clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting shabiha militias from parts of the countryside. In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, which was the genesis of what would become a robust Jordanian and Saudi role. Within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi Arabian purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile. Jordanian Ilyushins, bearing the logo of the Jordanian International Air Cargo firm but flying under Jordanian military call signs, made a combined 36 round-trip flights between Amman and Croatia from December through February.  Jordanian planes made five flights between Amman and Turkey this January.  As the Jordanian flights got under way, the Qatari flights continued.  The Royal Saudi Air Force made at least 30 C-130 flights into Esenboga from mid-February to early March this year.

The most recent information about CIA’s covert train and equip effort in Syria was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26th and concerned the Agency’s movement of weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and its plans to start arming small groups of vetted FSA fighters within a month. That will expand the US support of moderate forces in the FSA. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. The US officials also confirmed that shipments, related training, and a parallel push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, were being timed to help organize a unified offensive by the FSA, starting by early August. Incredibly, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, US officials volunteered details of the new covert plan authorized by President Barack Obama and disclosed earlier this month.  Further, it was revealed that talks are under way with other countries, including France, about pre-positioning European-procured weapons in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide manpads, which are shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, to a small number of handpicked fighters, as few as 20 at first, officials and diplomats explained. To ensure the matter is covered, CIA will try to eliminate the risk that the manpads would be given to Islamist militant groups such as the Al-Nusra Front.  CIA has put in place what officials have described as an “elaborate” vetting procedure for the FSA fighters they train. Yet, officials acknowledged the difficulty of getting reliable information about the backgrounds of individual FSA fighters in a country where CIA has limited intelligence-collection resources.

A few hundred of the FSA fighters will enter Syria under the program each month, starting in August, according to diplomats briefed on CIA plans. At that rate, US officials believe it would take four to five months before there are enough rearmed and trained moderate fighters to make a meaningful difference against the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies, according to diplomats and US officials. To accelerate the effort, CIA is said to be considering placing US special operations units under agency authority to conduct some of the training. CIA is also considering using special operations teams from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to enhance the training effort, US officials said freely. Sources have informed the Los Angeles Times that such joint operations were already underway.

When newspapers of record present reports on CIA activity, every effort is made by editors to ensure that accurate information is collected from reliable sources.  Online stories from those newspapers are often edited after they are published to ensure that facts reported have the greatest accuracy possible.  For example, a recent New York Times article was edited to reflect the difference in meaning and activities of CIA officers, who are Agency employees, and US intelligence agents, who are contracted by the CIA.  Fortunately for Brennan, he will unlikely need to work too hard to control further leaks from CIA.  Keeping secrets is his organization’s business and individuals determined to work outside Agency regulations are relatively few in number. However, he must act fast to defeat the growing perception that the walls at CIA are falling down.  The US news media will always be open to receiving new stories on CIA.  That being the case, for those who leak, whether over ideology, conspiracy, excitement, self-importance, celebrity, or any reason from among dozens, there will be a place for their stories to be heard.  This has always been a “dilemma” for those running a secret intelligence agency in a free society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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