Syria remains the focus for Washington this week as even the Paris climate summit was overshadowed by the informal discussions held by world leaders regarding Syria.
The Monitor Analysis looks at the growing number of nations and militaries heading for Syria and the surrounding countries. Many experts see ominous similarities with previous wars, where leaders with strong political agendas and an overabundance of firepower in a region frequently led to war. With so many nations involved in air sorties over Syria, the chances of a mistake are much higher.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Cato Institute says Obama should stay out of the Russia-Turkey-Syria crisis. They point out, “attacks like the one in Paris cannot be deterred by destroying ISIS’s military organization in Syria and Iraq. The Paris attacks were carried out by European citizens inspired by the group’s narrative. No amount of bombing by Russia or Turkey can prevent that from happening again. Given this, the U.S. would be far better off to stay on the sidelines in Syria and focus instead on ensuring that our intelligence and homeland security measures remain as effective at preventing terrorist attacks as they have been since 9/11.”
The Carnegie Endowment says the shooting down by Turkey of a Russian warplane closes the curtain on what has been a brief golden age in Russian-Turkish relations. They see some of Turkey’s response as political theater and note, “AKP fell just short of winning the majority in the Turkish parliament that it needs to call a referendum to change the constitution and achieve Erdoğan’s dream of establishing a new presidential republic. Erdoğan evidently believes that if he can project the image of a strong political leader, he will not only improve his rating with the public, but also be able to win the votes of wavering parliamentarians from the nationalist party, the MHP. This is one reason the government has stepped up its rhetoric about “defending the Turkic world,” not only against the Kurdish militants of the PKK but also in its strong criticism of the Russian military operation in Syria.”
The Institute for the Study of War says Russia intervened in Syria not to defeat ISIS, but rather to curb U.S. influence in the Middle East and to project Russian military power into the region. They note, “Moscow does view ISIS as a legitimate security concern, but the dissonance between Russia’s claimed objectives and its actual behavior reveals that Russia uses anti-ISIS rhetoric as a pretext to pursue its larger strategic objectives. Russia seeks to preserve the Syrian regime and diminish the influence wielded by the U.S. and its regional allies, which support the Syrian opposition. Regime preservation in Damascus is a core Russian objective that enables Russia to cement its foothold in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean Sea while simultaneously expanding its influence through partnerships with Iran and the Iranian network of regional proxies. Putin is leveraging disinformation in order to obfuscate his true objectives in Syria and thereby manipulate the U.S. and regional actors into inadvertently helping Russia achieve its goals.”
The CSIS says there is no clear American strategy for Syria. The study examines the problems in the present U.S. strategy or lack of it, as well as the misleading character of the claims of the effectiveness of the ground campaign. It examines the lack of clear progress in creating effective Syrian and Iraqi ground forces, and the meaningless to misleading data the United States has issued on body counts, territory regained, and land fighting, as well as internal debates in the U.S intelligence community the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to date. It finds that the there is no clear strategy for the air campaign and the limited metrics that have been made public are even more misleading than the body counts issued during the war in Vietnam, as well as the failure to advance any integrated strategy for the air-land campaign. The study then examines a range of options for changing U.S. strategy and the cost-benefits of specific options.
The American Enterprise Institute says the fight against ISIS is not an ordinary war. They note, “We must find a way to be effective militarily and in a timely way (for it is also wrong to prolong a war unnecessarily) while striving to adhere to our standards of justice. In this, we face something not dissimilar from the challenge that Abraham Lincoln faced in 1863. The southern Confederacy was not “contained” — it was close to being recognized as a sovereign state in London and Paris — let alone defeated. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was no junior varsity squad. To destroy the Confederacy, Lincoln sought out hard men like Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman for the hard task of ripping the innards of the southern economy and society — the “slavocracy” — to shreds.”
The Washington Institute argues for the need for the British Royal Air Force to join operations in Syria. In addition to the political effect, they note the tactical advantages. “Specifically, the combat effect would include an increased capacity to identify timely ISIS targets via British Reaper-model drones, which have already been used successfully in Iraq and Syria. The information-sharing requirements between coalition members will grow as the pace of operations increases, and British intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets — possibly including the RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance plane — would increase the actionable intelligence available to coalition planners. This will prove especially important as ISIS targets are dislodged and become more mobile. Much like the U.S. military, the Royal Air Force also has capabilities that allow it to operate autonomously in combat zones for extended periods, including a robust air refueling capacity via the Voyager KC2 and an effective fleet of cargo aircraft such as the C-130.”
The Washington Institute says there is something uniquely disturbing in the Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian plane. They note, “Turkey’s Syria policy now aims to secure Ankara a seat at the table when negotiations are held for Syria’s future. This can only happen if Turkish-backed rebels continue to hold on to strategic zones in northwestern Syria. This gives further significance to the recent Russian airstrikes against these rebels. Such attacks threaten to debilitate these rebel groups, and simultaneously undermine Turkey’s recently downgraded Syria policy. It is this fear of being shut out of Syria by Russian attacks on Turkish-aligned rebels that has induced Turkey to posture so aggressively against Russia, and which led to the hair-trigger shootdown last Friday. The question now is: How does Moscow react?”
World Leaders heat up, rather than cool down tensions in Middle East
More and more experts are comparing the events leading up to the First World War to events in and around Syria. In WWI, two leaders, Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Franz Joseph tried to use minor events for domestic and international political gain. Today, it is Erdogan and Putin. In WWI, militaries started mobilizations and movements towards sensitive borders that, in hindsight, could only lead to conflict. Today the same thing is happening as NATO and Russian forces are being moved into shooting range of each other.
Another irony is that it is the same nations fulminating trouble today as in WWI – France, Germany, Britain, the US, and Turkey. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has avoided any involvement only because it fractured into several nations as a result of WWI.
But, much must be seen in Putin’s and Erdogan’s actions. Putin is a popular leader since he has sought to regain superpower status for Russia. Putin’s political rhetoric is filled with traditional themes of Russian Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationhood. Putin speaks about Russia, which he once called “a destiny, not a project.” Success in Syria will bolster him politically.
The same is true for Erdogan. His political party fell just short of winning the majority in the Turkish parliament that it needs to call a referendum to change the constitution and give him vast presidential powers. Erdogan believes that if he can project the image of a strong political leader, he will not only improve his popularity with the public, but also be able to win the votes of wavering parliamentarians from the nationalist party. This is one reason the government has stepped up its rhetoric about “defending the Turkic world,” not only against the Kurdish militants but also in its strong reaction to the Russian military operation in Syria.
History shows us that many wars start when political leaders try to boost their domestic political power. Hitler’s speeches frequently spoke of protecting Germanic peoples like Erdogan talks of protecting Turkish people. And, Putin’s rhetoric about Russia’s destiny is eerily similar. This is a dangerous brew for any nation to step into.
The US up’s the ante
This week, the Obama Administration only added to the international tension when it announced it is sending an “expeditionary force” of U.S. military special operators to carry out raids against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a move that expands on their decision to send about 50 special operators to Syria to coordinate air strikes.
“In full coordination with the Government of Iraq, we’re deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and put even more pressure on [ISIS],” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee in announcing the new deployment on Tuesday.
The haphazard nature of these dangerous moves has even prompted Democrats, who normally support Obama’s Middle Eastern policies, to voice concerns. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D., HI) suggested that Obama’s decision to place American fighter jets equipped “to target Russian planes” on the border between Turkey and Syria, and his stated opposition to Russian-backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, could lead the U.S. into a nuclear war with Vladimir Putin’s regime.
“Russia’s installation of their anti-aircraft missile-defense system increases that possibility of — whether it’s intentional or even an accidental event — where one side may shoot down the other side’s plane,” Gabbard told Defense Secretary Carter. “And that’s really where the potential is for this devastating nuclear war.”
Defense Secretary Carter got this blast from Congress as the White House urged lawmakers to pass new legislation providing Obama with the explicit authority to counter ISIS. Obama can’t claim the legal authority to make such a deployment under the terms of the 2001 legislation that authorized the use of military force (AUMF) in Afghanistan and Iraq — the only such congressional authorization on the books.
The need for the authorization and the desire to force the Republican Congress to commit itself to any Syrian adventure was behind the White House desire for new legislation. “This effort is serious, and should be the focus of serious debate,” White House spokesman Earnest told reporters during his Tuesday briefing.
What would this force be able to do? Carter invoked the recent rescue of ISIS prisoners in Iraq and the raid in Syria that killed a top commander in charge of the terrorist group’s oil and gas operations. “Imagine . . . on a standing basis, being able when occasions arise . . . to conduct raids like that anywhere in the territory of Syria and Iraq. That is what we’re talking about.”
The specialized U.S. “expeditionary targeting force would assist Iraqi, Kurdish Peshmerga forces to put “even more pressure on” ISIS, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee. The expeditionary force “will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into to Syria,’’ Carter said.
“These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter said. These raids would, “create a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, and more momentum.”
Carter said the Iraq raids “will be done at the invitation of Iraqi government and focused on defending its borders and building the ISF’s own capacity.”
“The goal is to start a chain reaction of intelligence-driven raids that increase in frequency and expand in scope over time. The metric becomes can you disrupt and dismantle the network faster than the enemy can repair and regenerate it” Robert Martinage, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations under Obama said this week.
Carter didn’t address how tasking the US Special Forces with this expeditionary targeting force will impact the Special Forces community. Frequent deployments have worn out the men, who seem to be Obama’s first choice for military response. The result has been that many have left the military in order to have more time with their families or to take much higher paying jobs in private security. With training cycles of a couple of years, it is hard for the US military to quickly replace these losses.
It appears that about 100 special operations troops will be deployed in ‘‘expeditionary targeting force.” However, as Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said in an interview with CBS late last month, “A group of 50 is fine for what they’re doing so far,” (referencing the SF soldiers in route to Syria). “But it’s not going to solve the problem.”
100 Special Forces soldiers will not solve the Syrian problem either. That’s one reason why many – including many Democrats – are leery about any new deployment of US forces.
Not only is Congress at odds with the White House, it appears that the military leadership is also differing from Obama. Under tough questioning by Rep. Randy Forbes (R VA) at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs chair Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said that the Pentagon disagrees with Obama’s assessment of ISIS.
Dunford said The United States has “not contained” ISIS – contradicting Obama’s remarks last month about the terror group.
Given the fact that Congress, the American people, Obama, the Secretary of Defense, and the American military leadership are not in agreement on what to do in Syria, it’s logical to assume that nothing meaningful will be coming out of Washington soon.
NATO Also Steps in
The attacks in Paris have lit a fire under European leaders, who want to be seen as doing something to stop ISIS.
British PM David Cameron wants British lawmakers to approve RAF strikes on Raqqa.
“It is wrong for the United Kingdom to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain,” Cameron said.
“I don’t think this is a country that lets others like the French or the Americans defend our interests and protect us from terrorist organizations – we should contribute to that effort,” Finance minister George Osborne added.
But that’s not all. Germany is now set to enter the fight as well. “German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet approved deploying warplanes over Syria in the fight against Islamic State,” Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Berlin is set to send Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, a frigate to protect France’s carrier, and aerial refueling for French fighter jets. The Germans are expected to send about 1,200 troops to support the effort.
However, there are questions about the abilities of the German military. A German defense ministry report says only 29 of Germany’s 66 Tornado jets are airworthy. The latest defense ministry report showed Germany’s air force capability further depleted from the year before, when 38 of 89 Tornado fighters were operational.
Technical problems grounded German military aircraft delivering weapons to Kurds fighting IS in northern Iraq and medical aid to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak.
Undoubtedly, the Germans will send operation aircraft to the Middle East. But that doesn’t solve the major problem, because as the number of military aircraft in the air over Syria increases the chance of another misunderstanding, the world needs to prepare for the worst.
What all of this military deployment means is that by the end of next week, it’s possible that American, British, French, Turkish, Russian, and German planes will all be flying missions above Syria – a dangerous scenario, now that Ankara has started shooting at Russian aircraft, Russian Su-34s are now armed with air-to-air missiles, and Russian S-400 air defense systems are primed to attack any potentially hostile aircraft that seems to threaten a Russian aircraft.
Nor, should we forget the forces deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean. U.S. and French aircraft carriers will be launching aircraft to attack ground forces in Syria, while protected by ships from Germany and Britain.
Meanwhile, Russian air defense ships will be patrolling off the Syrian coast, while being shadowed by Turkish ships. Russia’s Interfax noted there are two Turkish subs on patrol near the Russian guided missile destroyer Moskva, which was sent to coastal Latakia in the wake the Su-24 downing.
The Russian news group Sputnik reported a Russian Naval transport ship encountered a Turkish sub while navigating the Dardanelles earlier this week. They wrote, “A logistics ship belonging to the Russian navy has encountered a Turkish submarine passing through the Dardanelles toward the Marmara Sea, accompanied by a Turkish coast guard boat.”
Russia takes aggressive stance against NATO
Events are also showing that Russia is becoming testy about NATO, its policies, and expansion into Eastern Europe. This week, NATO extended a membership invitation to Montenegro, which has upset Russia.
Moscow has threatened “retaliatory action.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said,
“On all levels, Moscow has always noted that the continuing expansion of NATO, of the military infrastructure of NATO to the east, can only lead to retaliatory measure from the east, from the Russian side, in terms of guaranteeing the security and maintaining a parity of interests.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in September that any expansion of NATO was “a mistake, even a provocation.” In comments to Russian media then, he said NATO’s so-called open door policy was “an irresponsible policy that undermines the determination to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe.”
Clearly, Russia sees NATO and its intervention in Turkey in a larger, geopolitical scheme that threatens to hem it in. And, as seen in Syria, Russia will aggressively try to expand its sphere of influence. The only question is what happens when NATO and Russia’s spheres of influence collide?
Meanwhile, in a direct threat to America’s military satellite network, Russia carried out the first successful flight test of a new anti-satellite missile in November. The flight test of Russia’s direct ascent anti-satellite missile, known as Nudol, took place Nov. 18, according to defense officials familiar with reports of the test.
Analysts say the space threat to satellites highlights a strategic vulnerability. With as few as two dozen anti-satellite missiles, Russia could cripple U.S. intelligence, navigation, and communications capabilities that are critical for military operations.
What does the US and its allies want?
If the world is ready to go to war over Syria, then it’s appropriate to ask what the US and its allies want?
Their goals have to be clear and well defined because Putin and Erdogan have aggressive ambitions. As was seen with the downing of the Russian jet and Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine, both are willing to take military action, if they think it will benefit them. If NATO doesn’t want to get into a shooting war, they have to start charting a way out of the current crisis.
Unfortunately, at this time, it appears that the US and its regional allies less interested in “solving the problem” as much as they want to simply “contain” it.
It appears that the US and its allies want ISIS to weaken Assad as soon as possible to make him leave somehow, but at the same time they don’t want to overly strengthen ISIS, which may then seize power. How they propose to realistically do this hasn’t been explained.
Unfortunately, “Containment” is nothing more than a policy meant to take the political heat off of the administration’s failed national security and foreign policies that allowed ISIS to grow and thrive. Containment also means that Obama can punt the problem to his successor.
But, the problem with ISIS and Syria hasn’t been contained. It’s growing at a pace that reminds historians of WWI, when so many nations ran thoughtlessly into a military confrontation. This week, military forces from the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia are heading into the area and the chances of a mistake are growing, rather than diminishing.
Obama Should Stay out of the Turkey-Russia Crisis
By A. Trevor Thrall
December 1, 2015
If you thought the situation in Syria couldn’t get more complicated, think again. Turkey’s downing of the Russian fighter plane last week sparked diplomatic tensions that are likely to get worse. At the heart of the crisis is not just the incident itself, but the fact that Russian and Turkish strategic priorities are at odds in Syria. While Russia has come to the aid of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Turks support a variety of anti-Assad rebel groups, some of which the Turks claim the Russians have bombed in recent weeks. The threat of an escalating crisis between two nations so central to both the search for a political settlement to the Syrian civil war and to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria has President Barack Obama worried. On Tuesday, he called on Russia and Turkey to avoid escalating the crisis over the downed Russia fighter plane and to stay focused on the “common enemy”: ISIS.
Looking Beyond the Tragedy in Paris
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 1, 2015
It is time to look beyond the tragedy of Paris and the immediate threat of terrorism, and take a hard look at the lack of any meaningful public strategy for the broader fight in Iraq and Syria, and any meaningful measures of progress and effectiveness. So far, President Obama and the administration have implied that there has been far more progress in defeating ISIS than has actually occurred, and have only addressed the broadest trends in the current fight against ISIS. They have not provided a clear picture of the real world lack of progress in creating effective local forces on the ground, of how effective coalition airpower has been and could be in the future, or of the massive problems the United States had encountered by relying on Iraqi government and Arab rebel forces. The President has not indicated how and when liberation of ISIS-occupied areas could actually take place.
The fight against the Islamic State is no ordinary war
By Thomas Donnelly
American Enterprise Institute
December 1, 2015
The Washington Post
“Just war” doctrine remains one of the strongest manifestations of early Christian thought in modern Western political philosophy. Even the Latin terms jus ad bello — that is, waging war for just purposes — and jus in bello — fighting in a just manner — remain in current use. But one question that has yet to be resolved is how to apply these broad principles in the case of irregular warfare, where the distinction between combatant and noncombatant is blurred. The war in Syria in particular and the broader struggle for power in the Middle East raise these questions anew. Not only are there many contenders, but there also are many purposes, not least among them the motivations of a perhaps perverted but nonetheless powerful faith. Where the beliefs of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters lie along the spectrum of Islamic tradition is less the point than the fact that their faith makes them formidable foes. They employ and indeed celebrate their brutality; negotiating a peaceful coexistence is not in the cards.
The End of a Russian-Turkish “Golden Age”
By Pavel Shlykov
November 25, 2015
The shooting down by Turkey of a Russian warplane on November 24 closes the curtain on what has been a brief golden age in Russian-Turkish relations. Traditional rivals for centuries, Russia and Turkey had recently identified a host of mutual interests, which enabled them to smooth over contradictions and improve political and economic relations. Turkish leader—now president—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin forged a good personal relationship. But the downing of the Su-24 jet on the Syrian-Turkish border prompted sharp language by the two strongmen, with Putin calling Turkey “an accomplice of terrorists.”
Russia’s False Narrative in Syria
By Hugo Spaulding
Institute for the Study of War
December 1, 2015
President Vladimir Putin is actively misinforming his domestic audience and the international community about Russia’s first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan. Putin has created a false narrative about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to disguise the true objectives behind Russia’s intervention Syria and is using this narrative to manipulate the international community. Putin encapsulated this false narrative in his UN speech calling for an alternate international coalition against ISIS on September 28, two days before the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria. Russia intervened in Syria on September 30 not to defeat ISIS, but rather to curb U.S. influence in the Middle East and to project Russian military power into the region to a historically unprecedented degree.
Why Britain Should Expand Airstrikes to Syria
By Lt Col John R. Barnett
December 2, 2015
On December 2, the British Parliament is expected to vote on whether to broaden combat operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State/ISIS by extending airstrikes from Iraq into Syria. From the coalition’s perspective, enlisting British military support in Syria is important for both tangible, capabilities-based reasons and less tangible solidarity-based motives. British forces have successfully executed air sorties from Cyprus against ISIS targets in Iraq since September 2014 — over the subsequent fourteen months of “Operation Shader,” Britain was just above France and the Netherlands and second only to the United States in total number of airstrikes against enemy targets. British press reports indicate that if Parliament approves the expansion, the Defense Ministry will double its manned combat aircraft numbers (Tornado and Typhoon fighter jets) to around sixteen and employ them against targets in both Syria and Iraq. Although this is not a game-changing quantity of aircraft, it would bolster the coalition’s tactical effects. Equipped with precision munitions such as the Paveway variants, these jets would augment response time and eventually widen the ISIS target set.
When Russia Howls, Turkey Moves
By Soner Cagaptay
December 2, 2015
War on the Rocks
Russo-phobia has acted as a key catalyst for Turkish political maneuvering for hundreds of years. That is why Ankara’s recent downing of a Russian jet, which only briefly violated Turkish airspace, makes more sense under scrutiny. As a resurgent military power, Russia has been violating air spaces of NATO allies regularly, from Estonia to the United Kingdom, but none of these countries has shot down a Russian plane. Closer to home, Russia is not the only country that violates Turkish airspace. Greek and Turkish jets regularly violate each other’s airspace, yet Turkey is not shooting down any Greek planes. In other words, there is something uniquely disturbing in the Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian plane: This is neither routine Turkish behavior, nor a typical NATO reaction. Furthermore, with history in mind, Ankara ought to be aware that the odds that it could win a military confrontation with Russia on its own are close to nil…