Trump Delivers a Mixed Message on His National Security Approach: Judge His Strategy by Its Qualities and Results, Not Inference

US President Donald Trump (above). On December 18, 2017, US President Donald Trump presented the 2017 National Security Strategy.  It requires the US government to put “America First”. US borders will be fortified, unfair trade agreements will be voided, and US military power will be enhanced. Critics claim a disconnect exists between Trump’s discussion of the new strategy and the analysis in it, consequently confusing the US public and foreign governments over its meaning. Nevertheless, the document is a clear expression of Trump’s vision for his administration’s approach on national security.

According to a December 18, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Delivers a Mixed Message on His National Security Approach”, US President Donald Trump that day presented the 2017 National Security Strategy which warned of a treacherous world in which the US faces rising threats from China and Russia, as well as rogue governments such as North Korea. The December 18th article explains the new strategy requires the US government to put “America First”. US borders will be fortified, unfair trade agreements will be voided, and US military power will be strengthened. However, the December 18th article also proffered that there was a disconnect between Trump’s discussion of the new strategy and the analysis in the new document. The article insists that the breach between Trump’s speech and what is written in the new document attests to a broader challenge his national security advisers have faced in their struggle “to develop an intellectual framework that encompasses Mr. Trump’s unpredictable, domestically driven and Twitter-fueled approach to foreign policy.” Additionally, the article offers the opinion that “The same confusion has confronted foreign governments trying to understand Mr. Trump’s conflicting signals.”

As explained by the White House, the 2017 National Security Strategy builds on the first eleven months of Trump’s action to restore respect for the US internationally as well as renew the confidence of US public in their country. It is directly in line with Trump’s vision statement of “America First” which was first made during his presidential nauguration on January 20, 2017. The term encapsulates his belief that the US can still reach new heights, and is the idea that would guide his transformational initiatives by setting a defined direction for its growth. ”America First” has been explained by top administration officials as signaling “the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas—to use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the US to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world.” Administration officials had already commented that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Trump’s declaration of “America First” was intended “to send clear message to our friends and partners: Where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities.”

Quod cibus est aliis, aliis est venenum. (What is food to some is poison to others.) Although the 2017 National Security Strategy is a clear expression of Trump’s vision for his administration’s approach on national security, many questions have been asked about the document in the US and internationally. Much also has already been assumed, hypothesized, and surmised about it. As illustrated by the December 18th New York Times article, critics of Trump and his administration insist that the validity of the new strategy should be placed in question due to its inconsistency with Trump’s own words and actions on foreign and national security policy. That distorted picture of the new strategy is fully in line with perspectives and positions being propagated by a very emotional and sometimes irrational, counter-Trump milieu. It is presented with such dynamism and high spirit that it creates the impression among many in the US public and internationally that there is some movement forward in the effort to push Trump from office.  It has all become very ordinary, gewöhriche. For the better part of 2017, greatcharlie has been focused on the Trump and US foreign and national security policy. The intention of greatcharlie was not to become a blog that was ‘“all Trump, all the time.” However, US foreign and national security policy is of interest to the US public and is of great importance in all capitals worldwide. This assay looks at the new strategy in a constructive, more balanced, and fresh perspective of Trump’s concepts, intentions, and decisions. Hopefully, it may help, even if only bit by bit, to establish a more positive dialogue on the administration’s new strategy, and the overall foreign and national security policy debate. Post tenebras spero lucem. (I hope for light after darkness.)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left), US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (center), US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (right). The 2017 National Security Strategy is the product of the collaborative process of Trump’s national security team. In Trump’s administration, interdepartmental cooperation is not insisted upon as a bromide for parochialism or for mere appearances. The collaborative process brings together the talents of the extraordinarily experienced leaders of the relevant departments and agencies to produce something better than any independent effort by one.

The Thinking Behind the 2017 National Security Strategy

Respice, adspice, prospice! (Examine the past, examine the present, examine the future!) In analyzing Trump’s thinking and decisions on foreign and national security policy, there is a usefulness in looking at the spiritual qualities of his efforts, the integration of mind and craft into his work. Trump possesses a certain mental agility. His strengths of flexibility, adaptability, and originality, are applied particularly on priority issues. Critics, however, frown upon Trump’s use of those strengths, and they would hardly dub any of his attributes as anything so lofty as “strengths”. Trump may make strong statements to figuratively shake the trees, rustle the reeds, and beat the bushes with the goal of testing a competitors’ metal and getting to the crux of his competitors’ thinking. He may take a stand on an issue off middle ground in order to drive competitors to offer better terms to bring the US back to a mutually satisfying path. Indeed, he has sought to shape his environment. Although he may have expected, and may have been willing to accept, complaints and rebuffs from foreign capitals in response to his efforts, he was undoubtedly taken aback somewhat by the harshness of attacks of critics from home. In many cases, they equalled or surpassed anything expressed by the worst foreign adversaries. An empirical analysis of comments of critics and statements emanating from US adversaries, side-by-side, would cause one to believe those adversaries are feeding off of the critics words. Critics of Trump, whose ranks include US newsmedia members, think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration, have developed a perceptible negative ideation about Trump. That ideation apparently impels them to insist that all reactions to his work, especially on foreign and national security policy, must be negative. However, critics have not stifled Trump’s dreams, his resolve, his will. With a face like thunder on occasion, he powers forward with a sense of zuversicht, a sense of confidence for all to see. His activities are high tempo. Critics often seem shocked by Trump’s pace. With audacity, and at times brashness, Trump is always looking up front, pushing forward, while being well aware of what is behind.

Nemo timendo ad summum pervenit locum. (No man by fearing reaches the top.) Typically on an issue, Trump starts lightly and then extends from his ideas, his moves, his unanticipated actions. He initially summarizes his ideas in speeches, and many times on Twitter, while administration officials may expiate on them a bit in statements, policy briefs, and even op-ed pieces. While taking action, or while engaged in action, he seeks counsel from his top advisers to ensure that there is an effective integration of knowledge and action. Working with them, he polishes those ideas much as marble. Administration policy makers have come to expect and make provision for his swift, decisive moves. Those in the administration who craft foreign and national security policies and strategies accept those strengths as an advantage and not as a drawback. Trump’s interaction with his advisers is akin to that of the renowned 18th century Prussian Army Marshal Leberecht von Blücher–a hero at Waterloo in close second to the Duke of Wellington–and his chief of staff General August Gneisenau. In Clausewitz: (Scarborough, 1979), Roger Parkinson quotes von Blücher’s explanation of his relationship with his brilliant chief of staff as follows:  “Gneisenau, being my chief of staff and very reliable, reports to me on the manoeuvres that are to be executed and the marches that are to be performed. Once convinced that he is right, I drive my troops through hell towards the goal and never stop until the desire goal has been accomplished–yes, even though the officers trained in the old school may pout and complain and all but mutiny.” Parkinson further quotes von Blücher noting that he said after being offered an honorary degree at Oxford University following the Napoleonic War: “Well, if I am to become an doctor, you must at least make Gneisenau an apothecary, for we two belong together always.”

US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R McMaster (above). To the extent that critics might find something false or misleading about the new strategy, perhaps greater assurance that it can be relied upon as an authentic, guiding document on US policy is the fact that McMaster was responsible for its construction. He is an exceptional military officer, who exudes the values of duty, honor, country. It could be said colloquially of McMaster that he is “As straight up as twelve o’clock!” To assert that anything produced by him would be some form of deception would manifest a mindset as distant from reality as east is to west.

Malum consilium quod mutari non potest. (It is a bad plan that cannot be changed.) When Trump acts on an issue, his goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. Even more, Trump does it all avec brio, with a certain panache. This has been witnessed repeatedly in his interactions with foreign leaders. Trump’s discernment of events and situations as well as his planning and execution of actions against competitors greatly resembles what military thinkers define as maneuver. He rushes to place himself in superior position in order to overcome and defeat his opponents efforts. Trump’s approach is very similar to what was once taught at Germany’s Kriegsakademie (War Academy) in Berlin before World War II. It was emphasized that commanders needed a superior understanding of maneuver at all points to ensure they would always be stronger than an opponent at the decisive point, which they referred to as the Schwerpunkt. Military science scholars and historians may recall two classic examples of this being applied by German commanders during World War II: the Battle of Flanders during the German invasion of France in May 1940; and, the Battles of the Minsk and Smolensk Pockets during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. One could surmise that these hints of a pattern of thinking and decision making similar to that of military commanders historically and a pattern of action a tinge in a military fashion on foreign and national security policy issues, that provides current and former military commanders in the administration a unique insight, a special edge, in understanding their president’s choices. Indeed, they can certainly see and better discern far more than any of Trump’s critics.

The Construction of the 2017 National Security Strategy

The 2017 National Security Strategy is saturated with meaning and purpose. It reflects Trump’s concept and intent on formulating and implementing his administration’s foreign and national security policies and strategies, and his overall vision on US national policy. Indeed, in its published summary of the new strategy of December 18, 2017, the National Security Council explained that the document “articulates and advances the President’s concept of principled realism.” It was further explained: “It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that strong and sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interests. It is principled because it is grounded in advancing American principles, which spreads peace and prosperity around the globe.” With these ideas in mind, the administration seeks to authentically gain and retain the initiative in advancing its concept of principled realism while reestablishing a strong, positive image of the US worldwide.

Trump’s national security team at Camp David (above). Before taking action, or while engaged in action, on an issue, Trump seeks counsel from his top advisers to ensure that there is an effective integration of knowledge and action. Working with them, he polishes those ideas much as marble. Administration policy makers have come to expect and make provision for Trump’s swift, decisive moves. Those in the administration who craft foreign and national security policies and strategies accept those strengths as an advantage and not as a drawback.

Trump has a good idea of what is “out there in the dark” that might harm the US, its interests, and its allies. It would appear that Trump’s examination of those threats worldwide has been of biographical nature, with a focus on national leaders, political leaders, and nongovernmental actors such as terrorist leaders and organized crime bosses. Indeed, the National Security Council’s summary of the new strategy takes special note of: “regional dictators”; “jihadist terrorists”; and, “transnational criminal organizations.” While not mentioning Chinese President XI Jinping and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin by name, the strategy notes “revisionist powers, such as China and Russia” present challenges to the US. He wants to cope with their past and present actions and threats posed by adversaries to the interests of the US and its allies. In a way, as US President, coping with the behavior of mankind has become Trump’s business.

The new strategy is the product of the collaborative process of Trump’s national security team. In Trump’s administration, interdepartmental cooperation is not insisted upon as a bromide for parochialism or for mere appearances. The collaborative process brings together the talents of extraordinarily experienced leaders of the relevant departments and agencies to produce something better than any independent effort by one. A density of knowledge, power of intellect was brought to bear during the strategy’s development given the participation of .senior officials such as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, and US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R McMaster, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn. To the extent that critics might find something false or misleading about the new strategy, perhaps even greater assurance that the document can be relied upon as an authentic guiding document, is the fact that McMaster was responsible for its construction. In addition to his impeccable qualities and the amazing capabilities he brings to his job, he is an impressive individual, an exceptional military officer, who exudes the values of duty, honor, country. It could be said colloquially of McMaster that he is “as straight up as twelve o’clock!” To assert that anything produced by him would equate to some form of deception, a hoax, or a fig leaf, as some critics have, would manifest a mindset as distant from reality as east is to west. McMaster could be accepted as a measure to understand all other members of Trump’s national security team. Nullum saeculum magnis ingeiius clausum est. (No generation is closed to great talents.)

US Navy aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan (bottom), USS Theodore Roosevelt (center), and USS Nimitz (top) in the Pacific. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is not simply a long range plan for the development and use of US military power and other security elements. As crafted, the new strategy encompasses all tools of US power available and brilliantly integrates them into a seamless web with a single, defined goal: the advancement and prosperity of the country.

The Four Pillars of the 2017 National Security Strategy

The 2017 National Security Strategy is not simply a long range plan for the development and use of US military power and of other security and law enforcement elements. As crafted, the strategy encompasses all tools of power available to the US and brilliantly integrates them into a seamless web with a single, defined goal: the advancement and prosperity of the country. The new strategy identifies four vital national interests, or “four pillars” as: 1) “Protect the homeland, the American people, and American way of life”; 2) “Promote American prosperity”; 3) “Preserve peace through strength”; and, 4) “Advance American influence.”

1) Protect the Homeland

Patria et communis omnium parents. (Our native land is the common parent of us all.) The new strategy reiterates the administration’s determination to stand up for our people and our way of life. Trump has been unequivocal in declaring that the primary interest of the US government is the safety and security of its citizens.  Before the UN General Assembly, on September 19, 2017, Trump stated: “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.” Administration officials believe that the display of that commitment deepens the respect of friends toward the US. Vital US interests will be protected and advanced while greater cooperation will be fostered, and relationships will be strengthened, with our allies and partners.

Under ”Protect the Homeland”, the National Security Council’s summary of the new strategy explains the following actions will be taken: “We will strengthen control of our borders and reform our immigration system to protect the homeland and restore our sovereignty. The greatest transnational threats to the homeland are: Jihadist terrorists, using barbaric cruelty to commit murder, repression, and slavery, and virtual networks to exploit vulnerable populations and inspire and direct plots. Transnational criminal organizations, tearing apart our communities with drugs and violence and weakening our allies and partners by corrupting democratic institutions. America will target threats at their source: we will confront threats before they ever reach our borders or cause harm to our people. We will redouble our efforts to protect our critical infrastructure and digital networks, because new technology and new adversaries create new vulnerabilities. We are deploying a layered missile defense system to defend America against missile attacks.”

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (left) and White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn (right). Senior Trump administration officials have emphasized that US economic prosperity is critical to the country’s national interests. They have explained that a strong economy will protect the US public, supports their way of life, and sustain US power.

2) Promote Economic Prosperity

Culpa par odium exigit. (The offense requires a proportional reaction.) Senior Trump administration officials have emphasized that US economic prosperity is critical to the country’s national interests. They have explained that a strong economy will protect the US public, support their way of life, and sustain US power. The administration has sought to breakout from under lopsided agreements and do some open field running, showing what it can really do and get not only fair but better deals. The country will come first, hence “America First”. Trump does not want the US to get bogged down on bumpy roads with competitors, mired in one slug fest negotiation after another in an attempt to rectify the bad deals made by the prior administration. In 2017, the administration secured defense investments that would strengthen regional and American security and create American jobs. Efforts to solidify relationships with other countries included getting them to stand firm against all unfair trade practices and foster a truly level playing field.

In its summary of the new strategy, under ”Promote American Prosperity”, the National Security Council stated that the administration would pursue the following: “We will rejuvenate the American economy for the benefit of American workers and companies, which is necessary to restore our national power. America will no longer tolerate chronic trade abuses and will pursue free, fair, and reciprocal economic relationships. To succeed in this 21st century geopolitical competition, America must lead in research, technology, and innovation. We will protect our national security innovation base from those who steal our intellectual property and unfairly exploit the innovation of free societies. America will use its energy dominance to ensure international markets remain open, and that the benefits of diversification and energy access promote economic and national security.”

A US Air Force B-2A “Spirit” Stealth bomber (above). The Trump administration has promised to greatly increase the capabilities and capacity of the US military. Additionally, it has sought to bolster US power by strengthening its alliances and its partneships with economically thriving partners. It has done so while ensuring  that those alliances and partnerships are based on mutual respect and shared responsibility.

3) Preserve Peace through Strength

Qui desiderat pacem praeparat bellum. (Who desires peace [should] prepare [for] war.) In 2017, the Trump administration explained that taking the lead internationally and advancing US military, political and economic strength is a third vital US interest. To that extent, the Trump administration has promised to greatly increase the capabilities and capacity of the US military. Additionally, it has sought to bolster US power by strengthening its alliances and its partnerships with economically thriving partners. It has done so while ensuring that those alliances and partnerships are based on mutual respect and shared responsibility. This approach was evinced when Trump reconfirmed the US commitment to NATO and Article 5. At the same time, he challenged NATO allies to share equitably the responsibility for our mutual defense. Regarding partnerships, in Israel, for example, Trump affirmed that a secure, prosperous and democratic Jewish state is central to US interests in the region. In an effort to be equitable, the administration also explained to the Palestinian authorities that it fully intends engagement in the pursuit of a historic peace deal between them and the Israelis. As for those countries that may choose to remain or become US adversaries and to threaten vital US interests, the US will become their worst foe.

In the National Security Council’s summary under, ”Preserve Peace Through Strength”, steps the administration plans to take were outlined as follows: “We will rebuild America’s military strength to ensure it remains second to none. America will use all of the tools of statecraft in a new era of strategic competition–diplomatic, information, military, and economic—to protect our interests. America will strengthen its capabilities across numerous domains–including space and cyber–and revitalize capabilities that have been neglected. America’s allies and partners magnify our power and protect our shared interests. We expect them to take greater responsibility for addressing common threats. We will ensure the balance of power remains in America’s favor in key regions of the world: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.”

Trump (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right). Under the new strategy, US diplomatic and development efforts will compete to achieve better outcomes in all arenas–bilateral, multilateral, and in the information realm–to protect our interests, find new economic opportunities for Americans, and challenge our competitors. The US will seek partnerships with like-minded states to promote free market economies, private sector growth, political stability, and peace.

4) Advance American Interests

Clara pacta, boni amici. (Clear agreement, good friends.) The Trump administration would explain that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. To that forum, the US brings unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration embraces that reality, rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs. The administration has already let adversaries know that the US will not only take their measure, but will deter conflict through strength, and will defend US interests and values. Still, at the same time, the US will look for areas of common interest that allow us to work together to solve problems and explore opportunities. Indeed, those countries that may prove to share our interests will find no friend more steadfast than the US. As two senior administration officials explained in a May 30, 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “We engage with the world not to impose our way of life but to ‘secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.’ “

Under “Advance American Influence”, the National Security Council summary indicates the administration will act accordingly: “We must continue to enhance our influence overseas to protect the American people and promote our prosperity. America’s diplomatic and development efforts will compete to achieve better outcomes in all arenas–bilateral, multilateral, and in the information realm–to protect our interests, find new economic opportunities for Americans, and challenge our competitors. America will seek partnerships with like-minded states to promote free market economies, private sector growth, political stability, and peace. We champion our values–including the rule of law and individual rights–that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. Our “America First” foreign policy celebrates America’s influence in the world as a positive force that can help set the conditions for peace, prosperity, and the development of successful societies.”

Trump (right) and Chinese President XI Jinping (left). The Trump administration recognizes that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. The US brings to that forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. The Trump administration seeks to embrace that reality, rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs as the previous administration had.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s play, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, Henry is at the English camp, before the Battle of Agincourt. Wrapped anonymously in a borrowed cloak and pretending to be an ordinary soldier, Henry sits by the common campfire,and talks with whoever wanders by. Eventually he encounters John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams at the campfire. Henry discusses with them the English troops’ odds in the coming battle. They also discuss the righteousness of the king’s cause, whether they should give consideration as to whether the king is right or wrong side of the war, and nature of their obedience to the king. Still disguised, Henry offered a defense of the king’s position. However, experienced in war and understanding what the experience of war can amount to in the hearts and minds of some soldiers in its aftermath, Henry states the following: “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.” The 2017 National Security Strategy presented by the Trump administration is not the water and milk of the previous administration and does not merely regurgitate on paper what was useful from earlier strategies without real intent to implement provisions. The ideas within the new document are those to which one can take a firm grip upon and to which one can dedicate oneself. The strategy was developed by those who truly understand first hand what it means to execute actions required under the strategy, and have freely offered their own lives in service to their country. That priceless massing of wisdom and experience gives extra meaning to all of the strategy’s aspects. Those contributors want to ensure not only that the US is prepared and protected, but that those who are now asked to commit themselves to the country’s security know that their cause is righteous and not based on political expediency. In foreign capitals, it would behoove those stewards of their nations foreign and national security policy to take heed of what is actually provided in the strategy and to examine the plethora of negative critiques of the new document with caution, and even suspicion.

Qui nimium probation, nihil probat. (One who proves too much, proves nothing.) Interpretations of Trump by critics do not appear to be softening. Critics do not want to make Trump’s life easy. Yet,. having been proven wrong on occasion after occasion, critics have been left, time and time again, grasping at thin air. There will likely be frustration and despair for the majority of Trump’s critics in the end. Unless they decide to go as far as to believe some deus ex machina will be suddenly introduced that will provide a solution of their very liking to their insoluble difficulty, the grand illusion, that Trump somehow will be deposed, will be shattered. At some point, critics must take a comprehensive look at what has transpired so far. After placing so much emphasis on Trump’s defeat, destruction, and defenestration, critics must consider why their path has been one of confusion, bewilderment, and missteps and why Trump, as with time, marches on. They must examine their motives, and look into their own personal and private histories. The time has come for many to change their ways. In a recent essay, the Catholic priest and theologian Father George Rutler reminds that the famed US novelist George Orwell presented the idea of “doublethink”, which means holding out contradictory beliefs simultaneously and accepting both of them. The intolerance of Trump’s critics is called tolerance but it is the false kind of tolerance which, as the renowned English writer G.K. Chesterton said, is the virtue of the man without conviction. In changing one’s ways, one must go through a psychological transformation. In previous posts, greatcharlie has suggested that many of Trump’s critics consider changing their approach to him and his administration, not only because their efforts have brought little success–and have actually done some harm to US diplomatic efforts, and not to merely surrender, but to redirect their energies to the more positive pursuit creating positive change. They could try to offer real solutions—and not old, failed ones—that may be useful to the very dedicated officials of the administration. As Individuals, they must assume the responsibility of making things better. If they can work together, as a group, they can focus their combined energy to actually make things better. A wealth of goodness would certainly be created by constructive behavior bent on bringing success to the US via worthy endeavors as opposed to engaging in actions to defeat the administration’s efforts. The eminent US civil rights leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, once said “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.” Spero melior.  (I hope for better things.)

Obama: No Military Solution to Iran’s Nuclear Program; Perhaps It Is a Challenge Netanyahu Can Crack

Pictured above is an Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16I Sufa fighter jet. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to attack Iran’s nuclear program, jets such as this one will fly the mission. While some military analysts may view the prospect of a successful attack against Iran unlikely, IAF planners and pilots may be able to find a handle to problem. Netanyahu and the State of Israel will be counting upon them.

According to a June 1, 2015 Associated Press article entitled “Obama: No Military Solution to Iran’s Nuclear Program”, US President Barack Obama stated in a June 1st interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that military action against Iran would not deter its nuclear ambitions and that a verifiable agreement was the best way forward.  He explained, “I can, I think, demonstrate, not based on any hope but on facts and evidence and analysis, that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons is a verifiable, tough agreement.”   Obama emphasized, “A military solution will not fix it. Even if United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.” The Channel 2 interviewer asked Obama about the possibility of Israel taking military action against Iran without informing the US in advance. Obama responded by stating: “I won’t speculate on that.”

Despite what has been said and done during the nuclear negotiations, Iranian leaders may feel they must do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of their nation and its interests. Support for that perspective comes from the Iranians who in reality were not disinclined to building a nuclear weapon and have not been completely compliant with the international community. There is likely a belief in Tehran that Obama lacks the will to use the type of force necessary to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. However, Iranian leaders must look past the Obama administration to Israel’s possible actions.

The Israelis have been the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake. Netanyahu speaks as if he has a type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception. Indeed, Netanyahu might decide to take military action with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) due to fears Iran might eventually develop a nuclear weapon. Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views and may have found Netanyahu’s behavior to date to be more frightening than desperate. Some may believe taking military action against Iran is Netanyahu’s default state of mind. However, if he attacks Iran, he will believe that his decision was made with prudence. Netanyahu most likely does not feel a need to defend his beliefs, but he has tried hard to get others to understand the danger that Iran poses to Israel. The stewardship of Israel’s security falls mainly on his shoulders.

An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a daunting task even under the best of circumstances. Russia has agreed to sell Iran its S-300 air defense system which would make the Iranian nuclear program even tougher for Israel or the US to strike. Yet, making it tougher to strike may not be enough to deter Israel from acting. Convinced that taking military action would help to ensure Israel’s security for the present and the future, Netanyahu may gamble that an attack would be successful and may ask Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter pilots to accept the risk involved. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. (While we are talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put not trust in the future.)

Some may believe taking military action against Iran is Netanyahu’s default state of mind. However, if he attacks Iran, he will believe that his decision was made with prudence. Netanyahu unlikely feels a need to defend his beliefs, but he has tried hard to get other leaders, particularly in the US and Europe, to understand his view of the danger Iran poses to Israel. The stewardship of Israel’s security falls mainly on his shoulders.

Prudence

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said a leader who does not hesitate before sending his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader. Will is not self-justifying. It must be guided by the intellect. Prudence is the right use of intellect and the right use of reason. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium: the right reason applied in practice. Through prudence, one establishes what needs to be done and the way to do it. Prudence allows one to be just and justice creates the motive for temperance in decision making, as well as all things. One cannot simply make a decision and then describe it as “prudential judgment.” One must avoid building upon a false idea. Looking deeper will prevent one from succumbing to myopia. There are three stages to an act of prudence: 1) to take counsel carefully with oneself and from others; 2) to judge correctly on the basis of the evidence at hand; and, 3) to direct the rest of one’s activity according to the norms determined after a prudent judgment has been made. Disregarding others who seek to disabuse just by expressing skepticism is correct. Yet, ignoring the advice or warnings of others with a history of good judgment only because their reasoning results in a conflicting assessment, is considered a sign of imprudence. By its definition, prudence requires us to judge correctly.   If consequently ones judgment is proven incorrect, then ones evaluation of the issue at hand was likely counterfeit. However, Golda Meir counsels on this point: “I can honestly say that I was never affected by the question of the success of an undertaking. If I felt it was the right thing to do, I was for it regardless of the possible outcome.”

Advice of Others

No evidence has been presented publicly or hinted at privately that Iran has been concealing a militarized nuclear program. The US intelligence community has recognized Iran has moved closer to having the capability to build a nuclear weapon and that is why a great part of the negotiation effort has been to push them further back from doing so. Yet, US officials always note that Iran has never failed to comply with all terms of agreements its negotiators have signed during the talks. The US has been willing to share with Israel what it knows about technological developments in Iran and the nuclear negotiation’s progress. For example, Haaretz reported on June 9, 2015 that two senior Israeli officials revealed anonymously that the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan came to Israel on June 4, 2015 and spoke with the Head of the Intelligence Service (Mossad), Tamir Pardo, and other senior members of Israel’s intelligence community to include the Head of Military Intelligence, IDF Major General Herzl Halevi. The anonymous officials also said Brennan met with Netanyahu and his National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen. No details of what was said in those secret meetings were provided. However, a briefing provided by US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman to Israeli foreign affairs reporters, as reported by Haaretz on April 13, 2015, gives one a sense of the views US officials were sharing with their Israeli counterparts. Sherman told the reporters that despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapon, the US and Israeli intelligence communities concur that Iran is not close to producing one. She went on to state that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman proffered, “They [The Iranians] don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She also noted, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.” Indeed, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action requires Iran to pare down its capacity to enrich uranium to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Iran would be required to modify its Arak Heavy Water Reactor to meaningfully reduce its proliferation potential and bar Iran from developing any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be put in place that would help to deter Iran from attempting to violate the agreement. If Iran did so, the inspections and monitoring would improve the international community’s ability to detect it promptly and, if necessary, disrupt any efforts to build nuclear weapons, including at potential undeclared sites.

Sherman emphasized during the briefing that the US also shared Israel’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program, its involvement in terror around the world and its subversive activities in the Middle East. With regard to Netanyahu’s concerns, Sherman said that they were legitimate and expressed the view, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Interestingly, the US and its allies have been engaged in efforts in addition to the nuclear negotiations to slow Iran’s progress. They have included: imposing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, blocking the shipment of necessary technology, introducing defective parts into Iran’s supply chain; and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities with a super-sophisticated cyber weapon.

At the UN General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu presented the bomb shaped chart above of the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. The red line close to the top indicated Iran was amassing too much uranium enriched at 20 percent, the enrichment stage just before making weapons-grade material. In accord with the November 2013 Interim Agreement, Iran diluted its reserves of uranium enriched at 20 percent. That did not sway Netanyahu.

Self-Counsel

Netanyahu is not ignoring the Obama administration’s arguments. His case is that the only way to make sure Iran never gets a bomb is to shutdown every enrichment plant and reactor it might use to get one. His position founded on a belief that Iran’s long history of nuclear deception means that any facilities left in place would eventually be put to use. To bolster his case, Netanyahu invoked one of the great failures of US counterproliferation efforts: the diplomatic attempts of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush to talk North Korea into restrictions to keep the regime from producing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans agreed to disable one of their facilities, but when things went sour with the Obama administration the facility was rebuilt. Within a few years, it got the bomb. In his speech to a joint meeting of US Congress on March 3, 2015, Netanyahu contended that any agreement that leaves Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Netanyahu would like allies in the US Congress to stop an agreement and halt the negotiations so that greater pressure could be placed on Iran through other means, primarily sanctions. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu presented a bomb shaped chart of the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. It had a red line close to the top indicating Iran was amassing too much uranium enriched at 20 percent. That is the enrichment stage just before making weapons-grade material.

As a result of the Interim Agreement signed by P5+1 and Iran in November 2013, Iran diluted its reserves of uranium enriched at 20 percent. That did not sway Netanyahu. Despite Iran’s reportedly good behavior during the negotiations and the longstanding claim of Iranian leaders that they would never seek a nuclear weapon for both practical and religious reasons, it is now known that Iran conducted activities relevant to weapons development as part of an organized program prior to 2003. The IAEA laid out its allegations regarding those activities in November 2011. The IAEA previously claimed it had made some progress with Iran in the investigation of this matter between November 2013 and August 2014, that process is now stalled. The P5+1 wants Iran answer the IAEA’s questions and allow access to the individuals and sites necessary to complete the investigation. This delay has occurred even though Iran has only been asked to implement a set of measures to address the IAEA’s outstanding questions.   Moreover, the removal of UN Security Council sanctions will not occur until and unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA investigation and past questions are resolved. Even supporters of the Iran Talks do not believe Iran will make any full confession regarding its past weapons related work, especially given statements by senior Iranian officials on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and the rejection of nuclear weapons. Netanyahu also does not put much into the tacit “mort-gage” that the framework agreement establishes on the lifespan of the religious regime in Tehran and the hope it will be eased out of power within the timeframe of the 10 and 15 year restrictions on centrifuge and uranium enrichment research and development.   Ab actu ad posse valet illatio. (From the past, one can infer the future.)

Back in 2010, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that NetanyahuBack in 2010, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu and his Minister of Defense, Ehud Barack, had given orders for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare to strike Iran within hours if required. However, then Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, Lieutenant General (Rav Aluf) Gabi Ashkenazi, and the Head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, expressed opposition to the idea. Ashkenazi advised that an attack against Iran would be a strategic mistake given the risk of war. Dagan explained to Netanyahu that an attack would be illegal and said a full cabinet decision was needed. Supposedly, Ashkenazi and Dagan got Netanyahu to withdraw the orders to prepare for a strike. In response to questions Channel 2 put to Netanyahu about events surrounding this past order to attack Iran, he responded, “In the final reckoning, the responsibility lies with the prime minister and as long as I am prime minister, Iran will not have the atomic bomb.” He went on to state, “If there’s no other way, Israel is ready to act.”

Pictured above is the S-300PMU-1. Russia decided to bolster Iran’s air defenses with its S-300 surface to air missiles. The S-300 is a mobile system that can strike targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude of 27,000 meters. As a result of its participation in the Helenic [Greek] Air Force’s INIOXOS-2015 exercises, the IAF collected important data on flying against S-300PMU-1 during simulated attacks on ground targets.

Judging Existing Evidence: Is A Military Strike Realistic?

Former Israeli Prime Minister and former Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, Yitzak Rabin, was quoted as saying “Israel has an important principle: It is only Israel that is responsible for our security.” In 2013, Obama said, “We’ve got Israel’s back” to express his thinking on the defense of Israel. Obama claims the use of military force was implicit in that guarantee. However, as the nuclear negotiations progressed there was a discernible change in Obama’s attitude toward attacking Iran. Threats to use force halted. Tehran began to sense Obama was averse to military action. Netanyahu does. When Sherman spoke to Israeli reporters, she said that the US was totally committed to Israel’s security and is interested in opening a dialogue with Israel’s new government to discuss improving Israel’s security preparedness after the deal with Iran goes into effect. She said such talks are aimed at maintaining the Israeli army’s qualitative edge and ensuring that Israel will be fully capable of defending itself.   She was quoted as saying “Israel’s right to exist and Iran’s actions in the region will be dealt with on a parallel track.” She stated further, “The US will consult Israel on what it needs for its security.”

Directly on the point of US military action against Iran, Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”

What many view as a big shift in the military equation between Israel and Iran was Russia’s commitment in April 2015 to sell its S-300 missile system to Iran. Ties between Russia and Iran during the nuclear negotiations did not garner any drum beat of media reports, but links have actually grown between the two countries since the talks began. Russia is a Member of the P5+1 given its status as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, yet Russia is a good friend of Iran. With threats of military action having been leveled at Iran, not as much by the US recently but more by Israel, Russia decided to lend support to Iran’s defense. If Iran were to eventually decide not to sign a nuclear deal or decide not to comply with it in the long-run, Iran would not be able to effectively deter a military response from the US or Israel with its current defenses or by developing a few rudimentary nuclear devices for its arsenal. Having its own problems with the Western powers and serving its own economic, business and national security interests, Russia decided to provide Iran with S-300s. The S-300 missile is a mobile surface to air defense system that can strike targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude of 27,000 meters. The Russians made the point that the S-300 was an entirely defensive system and cannot attack anyone, including Israel. However, the introduction of any version of the S-300 would make attacking Iran by air more difficult. It was already an extremely tough job as much of the Iranian nuclear program is deeply buried. Very powerful bombs would be needed to crack those facilities open. Further, the facilities are scattered country wide. Knowing the number and locations of the S-300s would be critical in an attack. As the S-300 system is mobile, it can be rapidly redeployed. Presumably, with the S-300, Iran can engage in any activities it wants without fear of attack from any country except the US. Aegrescit medendo. (The disease worsens with treatment.)

Directing Activity Based on Judgments

In every conflict since its founding, the IAF has been a decisive factor. Its pilots are nearly regarded as “sky knights,” and hold a special place in the hearts of the Israeli people. Their capabilities are also world-renown. With a modest number of jets, the Israeli Air Force fighter pilots have been able to destroy larger opposing forces in air combat as during the Bekka Valley Air Battle against Syria in June 1982 and carry-out daring bombing raids as Operation Opera, the raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility on June 7, 1981.

According to the Fars News Agency, IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami stated Iran would set fire to any airbase used by enemies to strike the country. Salami declared: “We warn their pilots that their first flight [to strike Iran] will be their last one and no one will be allowed to go back safe and sound and they should call their flights as their last flights.” Yet, IAF pilots are completely immune to such boasts. In response to orders to remove what Israel’s political leadership may perceive as an existential threat to their people, IAF pilots would be willing to fly into Iran to destroy its nuclear program to the best of their ability without withering under some thought that they are flying a “suicide mission.” The pilots know their duty to Israel; they are willing to make sacrifices. That is something IAF commanders and IAF pilots’ families know very well. The Spirit of the IDF, a guideline for operations that forms an ethical code for soldiers, officers, units, and corps includes “Tenacity of Purpose in Performing Mission and Drive to Victory” among its values. Those serving in the IDF are required to fight and conduct themselves with courage in the face of all dangers and obstacles. They must persevere in their missions resolutely and thoughtfully even to the point of endangering their lives.

However, in addition to the pilots’ courage, the IAF is assuredly enhancing existing capabilities to create the real possibility that its pilots could successfully attack Iran’s nuclear program. IAF planners develop the concept for an operation using their expertise based on long careers that included a continuous education and training on aerial warfare and considerable war fighting experience. They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what would be the real possibility for success of any operation. Reportedly, senior IDF commanders have “cautiously welcomed” a nuclear deal. On the Iranian nuclear threat, one officer anonymously said that by stepping up international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and by scaling back uranium enrichment “allow for the supposition that in the coming period of years, this is a threat in decline.” Yet, if Netanyahu asked the IDF to develop a plan for military strikes on Iran, the Chief of the General Staff of the IDF Lieutenant General (Rav Aluf) Gadi Eizenkot, Head of the IDF Planning Directorate Major General Nimrod Sheffer, IAF Commander Major General Amir Eshel, Hertzl of IDF Military Intelligence, and Pardo of Mossad will develop and present a plan for him that displays a high level of military acumen and creativity. In April 2015, the IAF gained experience in coping with the S-300 by deploying 10 F-16I Sufa fighter jets to participate in the annual exercise of the Hellenic [Greek] Air Force entitled INIOXOS-2015. The Hellenic Armed Forces deploys the S-300PMU-1 on the Island of Crete. During the exercise, IAF pilots had the opportunity to prepare for a potential mission in which they may be required to attack Iranian nuclear facilities by flying against those S-300s. The IAF jets came from 4 units: 201 Squadron, “The One” from Ramon Airbase; 253 Squadron, “The Negev” from Ramon Airbase; 107 Squadron, “The Knights of the Orange Tail” from Hatzerim Airbase; and, 119 Squadron “The Bat” from Ramon Airbase. They were accompanied on at least one mission by their commander, Eshel. As a result of its participation in INIOXOS-2015, the IAF collected important data on the intricacies of flying against the S-300. During simulated attacks on ground targets, the IAF pilots successfully tested and modified evasion tactics versus the system. Ad utrumque paratus. (Ready for anything!)

In response to orders to remove what Israel’s political leaders may perceive as an existential threat to their people, IAF pilots would be willing to fly into Iran to destroy its nuclear program to the best of their ability. They will hardly wither under some thought that they are flying a “suicide mission.” The pilots know their duty to Israel; they are willing to make sacrifices. That is something IAF commanders and the pilots’ families know very well.

The Way Forward

In spite of its state sponsorship of terrorism and, Iran is not the sole point source of the world’s evils. (There is also the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, al-Qaeda, North Korea, and others.) Yet, Iran’s mordant behavior on the world stage, as well as its past surreptitious behavior regarding the research and development of military nuclear capability cannot be dismissed. Netanyahu has implored US officials to surmount what they see concerning Iran. His March 3rd speech to the US Congress was designed as a wake-up call to those who do not realize the nuclear negotiations are a sweet illusion that will only lead to heartache. He views actions Iran has taken despite past declarations that it would never build a nuclear bomb as instructive. Netanyahu no doubt would feel indescribable joy to hear the US would engage in military action against Iran with Israel. However, absent any extraordinarily egregious act by Iran against the US, that will not happen.

Regarding military action by Israel, Golda Meir once said, “We don’t thrive on military acts. We do them because we have to, and thank God we are efficient.” Netanyahu responded to statements Obama made during his June 1st Channel 2 interview by warning again that a prospective deal would pave the way for Iran to attain a nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu is experienced enough to know the importance of prudence in decision making. Undoubtedly, in his view, he has used sufficient prudence. He is not the type to engage in an agonizing debate about military action. Netanyahu’s actual intentions are unknown, and this analysis is written in the abstract. Nonetheless, he appears ready to use military force. He has not hesitated to use force against Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. Although the Israeli Prime Minister turned back from military action against Iran in 2010, he will unlikely turn back a second time. Whether a decision by Netanyahu to attack Iran would be right or wrong might only be determined in the skies over Iran. Carpent tua poma nepotes. (Your descendents will pluck your fruit.)

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.