This is Christmas week in Washington and many think tanks were either closed or operating with minimal staffs. There will be little activity until the New Year.
The Monitor analysis looks at the Kuntar assassination earlier this week by the Israeli Air Force. Although there is no tangible evidence that other nations were involved, it is likely that the US provided electronic intelligence to track him.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS says America must carefully pick its battles. They warn that there are limits and note, “In today’s information environment, calls for action are increasing. It is easier than ever to gain rapid—and often graphic—evidence of atrocities overseas, and easier to rally public support or provoke outrage. The U.S. government has to say no more and more. The reality is that government funding and capacity are both finite. More than a trillion dollars invested in warfighting and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan are a stark reminder of the gap between intentions and outcomes, and making such investments in the face of a tax cut rather than a tax increase constrains future operations. Among the most important and most difficult tasks facing the next administration is understanding what the U.S. government can afford not to do, and how it can minimize the costs of deciding not to act.”
The CSIS looks at the Syrian humanitarian crisis. They explain, “Rather than galvanize action, Syria’s startling human crisis has engendered a conspicuous international numbness, rooted in several factors. The Iraq and Afghan wars created deep fatigue. Competing geostrategic priorities stole a lot of attention, most notably the Iran nuclear negotiations and the Ukraine crisis. It has been difficult to argue against the common refrain that there are simply no meaningful, realistic options to reach the imperiled populations inside Syria and reverse Syria’s burgeoning human crisis, so long as the Assad government has been willing to use industrial military violence against its own civilians, its health community, and the providers of emergency relief. Further, Syria’s multiple internal conflicts, involving a shifting array of dangerous armed Islamist movements battling Assad and other opposition forces, have stymied access, as has the absence of any agreed political framework to resolve Syria’s war.”
The Center for the Study of War reports on what Russia is doing in Syria and elsewhere. They predict Russia will likely seek to expand its military, economic, and political levers of influence in order to eventually undermine Western opposition to its destabilization operations in Ukraine and other vulnerable areas of the former Soviet Union.
The Washington Institute says the Turkish invasion of Iraq is an extension of Ankara’s geostrategic reaction to small wars along its southern borders, and Turkish army is unlikely to pull back in the near to midterm. They note, “Although Turkey’s forward-deployed units cannot change the military reality in a wide area of operations, it is important to underline that any hostility against them — such as the recent IS attack on Bashiqa camp — could lead to escalation.”
The American Foreign Policy Council looks at Post-Obama America and sees a need to change course in terms of policy towards Iran. They note, “Washington’s stance toward Tehran is fueling criticism from both parties, with leading figures questioning why Obama hasn’t responded forcefully to the missile tests and why anyone should trust Iran to fulfill the nuclear accord. With Republican presidential candidates decrying Obama’s approach, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton voicing skepticism about Iran’s trustworthiness and bipartisan concerns growing on Capitol Hill, look for a significant and long overdue course correction after Obama departs. “
The Washington Institute says sanctions relief isn’t the answer to improving the Iranian economy. They note the economy has serious structural problems and say, “Perhaps the biggest challenge that the Sixth Plan needs to tackle is how to create jobs for a reported 600,000 new market entrants each year. Although the IMF forecasts that GDP growth will increase to 4% per year, it also predicts that unemployment will rise for the next two years, then return to the current rate of 11.9% five years from now. And that is on the optimistic assumption that policies change to favor job-creating sectors rather than the heavy industry favored until now. The IMF forecast is a “scenario with high growth following sanctions relief”; yet Iran’s unchanged “employment elasticities” — the technical term for the relationship between GDP growth and job creation — “would still see unemployment rising to 14%.”
The American Enterprise Institute asks if the US can have an impact on Iranian domestic politics. They respond, “The short answer is no. Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, US leaders have looked for ways to influence perceived factions of the Iranian government, with little if any success. In the 1980s, the Iran-Contra Affair to free American hostages in Lebanon was driven in part by the Reagan administration’s belief that there were moderate politicians in Tehran open to rapprochement with the United States. President Clinton’s secret outreach to reformist President Mohammed Khatami in the late 1990s foundered when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) strongly objected to Khatami accepting the overture.”
The CSIS says the Afghan government has been losing ground on every level in the last year. They note, “In fairness, however, the failure is scarcely just an American one, and the United States does not have primary responsibility for Afghanistan. That responsibility lies with the Afghans, and the fact that democratic elections have made those failures all too clear is not the fault of democracy, but the failure of far too many Afghan leaders to put the interest of their nation before themselves, their tribe, their faction, or their ethnic group.”
The Kuntar Assassination
Drone assisted or collaborators?
Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar was killed in an airstrike in Syria. Kuntar was killed along with eight others in the airstrike on a residential building in Jaramana, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus. Approximately 20 other people were rescued from the wreckage. Also killed in the attack, according to pro-government websites, was Farhan al-Sha’alan, a leader of the Syrian Resistance in the Golan, a group affiliated with Hezbollah.
Reports say that 4 Israeli missiles hit the building. The reason for the attack is unclear, but he reportedly was setting up a Hezbollah-trained militia in the southern province of Swaida. Kuntar would be the second leader of Hezbollah’s southern front to die in an Israeli strike. Jihad Mughniyeh was killed in January in Quneitra.
The attack raises several questions. Did Israeli aircraft enter Syrian airspace to carryout the attack? If so, did the Russians know? If the Russian knew, why didn’t they attack the IAF aircraft with surface to air missiles?
According to Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Israeli Air Force fighter jets fired their payload from within Israeli airspace, sending the bombs some 90 kilometers (56 miles) to Damascus, where they struck Kuntar’s sixth-floor apartment. Syrian aerial defense systems identified the Israeli planes, As-Safir said, but since the planes were operating within Israeli territory, the Syrian army did not react to them.
According to the other reports based on Syrian sources, two Israeli F-15 airplanes flew from the Hatzerim IAF base near Beersheba to the Sea of Galilee, where they fired four SPICE-2000 missiles. After the attack, Syrian search and rescue teams recovered pieces of the missiles, which were created by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
Were Other Nations involved?
No matter the type of weapons used, the attacks showed the ability to obtain critical intelligence. Kuntar reportedly had just arrived at the apartment a few hours before the attack. This means that Israeli intelligence either received up-to-date intelligence on him or was tracking him on a regular basis. That might have meant that the Israelis (with the possible help of the American NSA) were tracking his or an associate’s cell phone and decided to launch a strike against him, once he was in range.
Contrary to reports, the SPICE 2000 isn’t a missile, but a guidance package for a regular “dumb” bomb. Although it can be guided to its target with preprogrammed target information or use satellite guidance, it is the most accurate using “electro-optical guidance.” This gives it the smallest CEP (circular error probability) and allows the bomb to be redirected if the target moves.
One such electro-optical guidance system is laser designation. When a target is marked by a designator, the beam is invisible and does not shine continuously. Instead, a series of coded pulses of laser-light are fired. These signals bounce off the target into the sky, where they are detected by the seeker on the SPICE 2000, which steers itself towards the center of the reflected signal. Unless the people being targeted possess laser detection equipment or can hear aircraft overhead, it is extremely difficult for them to tell whether they are being marked or not.
Since laser designators work best in clear atmospheric conditions, the SPICE 2000 has several back up guidance systems that would bring the bomb on target, but not with the precision of a laser designator.
However, such a laser designator required either an Israeli drone flying above Damascus or a Special Forces team on the ground or local collaborators and in close proximity to the Kuntar apartment.
If the final target designation was done by a Special Forces team, then it would have required months of work to insert the team into Damascus or the assistance of collaborators and into an apartment with a good view of Kuntar’s apartment.
That means that the most preferred targeting option was an Israeli drone flying above Damascus.
Israel based on copying US technologies pioneered the modern use of UAVs, which are popularly known as drones, for intelligence gathering and target identification starting in the mid-1970s. The country remains one of the world’s leading exporters of UAV systems. Drone technology and manufacturing is the fastest growing sector of the global aerospace industry — Israeli companies producing UAVs made over $4.5 billion dollars from foreign sales from 2005 to 2012. It is also a leader in anti-drone technology and the Iron Dome missile defense system is designed to be effective against small UAVs flying at high and low altitudes
Israeli drones aren’t “stealthy” as such. However, a small drone will have a small (and therefore hard-to-detect) radar and heat signature. But, the S-400 radar system is designed to detect drones – even ones with low radar signature. In fact, the 91N6E Big Bird acquisition and battle management radar of the S-400 can detect and track aircraft, rotorcraft, cruise missiles, guided missiles, drones and ballistic rockets within the distance of 600km. It can simultaneously track up to 300 targets.
The Israel National News obviously speculating, reported Israel notified Russia that it intended to strike a target inside Damascus. Dr. Aaron Lerner, of Independent Media Review Analysis (IMRA) bases this conclusion on the fact that the strike took place at a time that the Russian S-400 system was in full operation.
This week Seymour Hersh wrote an article that indicated considerable cooperation between the US military, the Russians, the Syrians, and the Israelis. According to Hersh, in 2013, The American Joint Chiefs Of Staff (JCS), let it be known that in return for helping the Syrians, the US would require four things: “ (President)Assad must restrain Hezbollah from attacking Israel; he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to reach a settlement on the Golan Heights; he must agree to accept Russian and other outside military advisers; and he must commit to holding open elections after the war with a wide range of factions included.”
Hersh continues, ‘We had positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me. ‘The Syrians told us that Assad would not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’ A senior adviser to the Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to reopen the talks on the Golan Heights. The Israelis had rejected the offer. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. ‘“He’s close to the end.”’ He said the Turks had told Moscow the same thing. By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious about their offers of help.”
If the Hersh report is true, it can explain what happened. Israel wants to rein in Hezbollah, especially in the Golan Heights. Syria wants a rebel’s free zone along the Syrian/Israeli border especially after seeing close cooperation between some rebels and the Israelis in the region.
It was already clear that Israel felt threatened by a Golan Heights resistance formed by Hezbollah. In addition to killing Kuntar, Israel has also assassinated Farhan al-Sha’alan, a leader of the Syrian Resistance in the Golan and Jihad Mughniyeh, who was killed in January in Quneitra
In this case, Kuntar would have posed a threat. Any Kuntar led force in the Golan Heights – even if supported by an Assad ally, would have heightened tensions with Israel, which would have required transferring forces from the battlefields up north to the border with Israel – forces that Syrian government can’t afford to tie down during the war.
The response by Russia after the Kuntar killing suggests a desire to keep the border area void of tensions. Russia urged Lebanon and Israel to exercise patience in connection with the “worsening” of the situation on the border between the two countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday, according to TASS. “Over the past few days we have been witnessing an escalation of tension on the border between Israel and Lebanon,” the ministry said, adding, “According to media reports, several rockets were fired from the Lebanese territory on December 20, to which the Israeli army retaliated with artillery fire. No deaths or injuries have been reported.”
While this may be surprising, it’s important to remember that every country involved in the Syrian war has its own reasons and policy interests. While Russia is siding with President Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran in Syria, its goals aren’t always identical with its partners.
Afghanistan a Year After “Transition”: Losing the War at Every Level
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 22, 2015
It has now been almost exactly a year since U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat forces formally left Afghanistan. So far, the Afghan government and Afghan forces are losing at every level: Politics, governance, economics, security, and popular support. This becomes brutally clear from the metrics available on the war, as well as from virtually all media reporting. It is also clear from the fact that the Obama administration is steadily having to revise its plans for Afghanistan, extending the military training and assist mission from a planned end in 2016 to 2017 and beyond, and gradually adapting its size and scale to the fact that the threat is steadily gaining both in military terms and in the far more important area of regional presence, control, and influence.
Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis: What’s to Be Done?
By Rebecca Hersman and J. Stephen Morrison
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 21, 2015
On Friday, December 18, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2254 by a 15-0 vote, calling for a cease-fire in Syria and political talks to create a transitional government, followed by national elections. This hopeful step reflects a greater international unity on Syria, even while major divisions persist over Bashar al-Assad’s future and the definition of who is a moderate Sunni opposition. By itself, however, passage of the resolution is not likely to spur near-term action and inspire compassion and engagement from the world community to address the immediate mass suffering of Syrians. Other actions are needed to achieve that end. Syria’s massive human crisis has up to now inspired a paralysis among the world’s major powers and in bodies such as the UN Security Council. Recently, however, shifting geopolitical realities in Syria and beyond may provide an opening for U.S. leadership to create an international alliance, with U.S.-Russian cooperation at its core, committed to expanding access and coverage of humanitarian operations to reach the acutely vulnerable inside Syria as well as in the borderland areas.
Middle East Notes and Comment: Choosing Battles Wisely
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 17, 2015
When soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, wrote Profiles in Courage almost 60 years ago, there was a clear theme among the book’s heroes. Senator John Quincy Adams split from his party, Senator Sam Houston argued vigorously over the sentiments of his constituents against extending slavery into new U.S. territories, and Senator Robert Taft defied popular opinion when he opposed the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals on legal grounds. Eight heroes in all, with one thing in common: when faced with a crisis, they acted. It is hard to get credit for not acting, and even harder to achieve greatness out of restraint. For the next U.S. president, maximizing the benefit the country derives from restraint will be one of the hardest, but also one of the most important, challenges. The flip side is also true: the United States can’t do everything, and the next president needs to minimize the cost of U.S. inaction.
The US can’t play Iranian domestic politics
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
December 23, 2015
Congressional leaders are angry at the lack of response by the White House to Iran’s provocative October 11 medium range ballistic missile test. The United Nations determined the launch was a violation of Security Council resolutions, just days before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program was adopted by Tehran and the world powers. US Senator Bob Corker has accused the Obama administration of being unwilling to punish Tehran for fear of undermining the nuclear deal or “empowering hardliners” before critical domestic elections in February. But can the United States really have that kind of impact on Iranian politics?
A Much Needed Post-Obama Course Correction On Iran
By Lawrence Haas
American Foreign Policy Council
December 15, 2015
With most Americans focused on the Islamic State terrorist group, Washington is poised to greatly expand the dangers to U.S. national security on another front – by proceeding to execute the Iran nuclear accord while Tehran ignores its obligations under it and related United Nations Security Council resolutions. Washington’s stance suggests that no matter what Tehran does to humiliate the United States and its allies, President Obama won’t be deterred from implementing the accord reached this past July – a deal he considers so important to his legacy that a top aide labeled it the foreign policy equivalent of health care reform.
Russia Security Update: December 15-22, 2015
By Hugo Spaulding
Center for the Study of War
December 22, 2015
Russian military intervention in Syria has forced the West to negotiate on the Kremlin’s terms, granting Moscow greater freedom of action to challenge and destabilize its adversaries. President Barack Obama reaffirmed the concession of the U.S.’s demand for a Syrian postwar government without Assad and his regime, a policy shift Secretary of State John Kerry previously expressed during his December 15 visit to Moscow. President Obama called for a Syrian political settlement that would build a “bridge” to Moscow and Tehran by respecting their interests. This shift coincided with a landmark unanimous UN Security Council decision to approve a peace framework for Syria that did not address Assad’s future. The U.S. and Russia also cosponsored a UN Security Council resolution increasing sanctions against ISIS’s financial network while France agreed to expand information sharing with Russia about anti-ISIS airstrikes and the disposition of armed groups in Syria.
Sanctions Relief Is Not the Key to Iran’s Economy
By Patrick Clawson
December 23, 2015
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been eager to schedule the nuclear deal’s Implementation Day before the February midterm elections in order to demonstrate that the economy is on the mend. But a December 21 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report documents the many challenges facing Iran’s economy even if sanctions relief arrives soon, and the 2016/17 budget that Rouhani sent to the Majlis on December 22 does little to address those challenges. Rouhani’s election promise to restore economic growth by completing a nuclear deal looked pretty good in 2014/15 (Iranian years begin March 20). The modest easing of sanctions and improved confidence contributed to 3% GDP growth that year, while consumer prices rose only 15% compared to 35% the year before. On September 6, 2014, Rouhani told an audience in Mashhad, “Today, we can thankfully announce that we have passed through the recession.”
Turkey’s Military Presence in Iraq: A Complex Strategic Deterrent
By Can Kasapoglu and Soner Cagaptay
December 22, 2015
The recent crisis between Baghdad and Ankara over Turkey’s military presence at the northern Iraqi forward training base of Bashiqa has put a spotlight on an issue that stretches back to 1992. The strategic rationale of this Turkish forward deployment can be traced back to a paradigm shift in the 1990s, when the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) adopted a low-intensity conflict strategy in response to terrorist threats from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The current deployment is an extension of Ankara’s geostrategic reaction to small wars along its southern borders, and TAF is unlikely to pull back in the near to midterm.