Although the focus this week was on the school shooting last week, there were several think tank papers focusing on the development in Syria.
The Monitor analysis looks at the response to the school shooting and the potential of any major gun control coming out of it. We look at possible options and judge which are likely to pass and which are doomed to fail. We also take a brief look at the largest gun show in America, which concluded a few weeks ago, and why America’s gun culture remains sound.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Heritage Foundation says Iran’s moves in Syria threaten the region. They conclude, “While seemingly running against the grain of Iran’s modern strategic culture for basing its forces abroad, the prospect of Tehran militarizing parts of Syria or Lebanon long-term is deeply alarming — to say the least. Indeed, a quick look at the map shows that, if successful, Iran would have influence over of a big chunk of the Middle East, allowing Shiite, Persian Iran to threaten more Sunni Arab states and nearly encircle American ally, Israel. There’s no question this isn’t good for U.S. interests either, but especially with U.S. forces deployed across the Middle East on counterterrorism missions; Iran is no fan of the United States. Of course, the bloody, nearly 7-year-old Syrian civil war is probably far from over — not to mention that other major powers such as Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States have a say in Syria’s future. But considering this weekend’s drone incursion, it could be just the opening salvo of conflicts to come from an emboldened Tehran — meaning now would be a good time to assemble a coalition to pre-empt Iranian expansionism.”
The CSIS sees US involvement in Yemen as the model of future American policy in the region. They note, “But those looking to see where U.S. Middle East policy is heading should look to Yemen, not Syria. In Yemen, the U.S. government has treated the conflict at arm’s length. It refuels allies’ warplanes, sells them armaments, and doesn’t do much else. The U.S. military carries out strikes on al Qaeda and ISG affiliates with Arab allies’ cooperation. The intensity of diplomacy one sees around Syria is absent, and it has been so since a flurry of U.S. engagement in the final months of the Obama administration. The governing assumptions seem to be that the United States shouldn’t second-guess its allies, the overall problem is intractable anyway, and the combatants need to work it out on their own… Several effects are likely to follow from these trends. One is that the United States will have less influence over the shape of conflicts in the Middle East. Through its deep engagement, the United States for decades could influence alliances, incentivize positive behavior, and dissuade irresponsible actions. While it wasn’t always a recipe for comity, it did help even out many of the bumps in regional relations and help ease the isolation of U.S. partners from the regional order.”
The Cato Institute looks at American “mission creep” in Syria. They conclude, “An enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy is that each intervention, whether it is seen to fail or succeed, eventually serves to justify further intervention. While it’s true that the Islamic State has been decimated, thanks in part to the collective destructive power of Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow, Washington, and various Kurdish and Syrian militias on the ground, it has been accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure. The answer to this near-Pyrrhic victory is not for Washington to invent new missions that lack legal authorization or a plausible timeline of success, but instead to reckon with its own role in this interminable tempest and acknowledge the very real possibility that backing away may be in the best interest of America and of Syria.”
The Washington Institute looks at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legal problems. They conclude, “As for U.S. policy implications, Netanyahu will no doubt rely even more heavily on his right-wing base to maintain support during this period, which could make him more vulnerable to pressure on issues of concern to them (e.g., unilaterally annexing the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim). Therefore, the notion of making progress on the Trump administration’s moribund peace plan is now even more far-fetched, especially at a time when the Palestinians are boycotting U.S. officials. Regarding Iran policy, Netanyahu will surely continue urging President Trump to either “fix or nix” the nuclear deal, though the actual impact of his exhortations remains uncertain.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the growing US military involvement in Africa. They conclude, “There is a strong argument to be made that a continuing buildup of U.S. military forces in sub-Saharan Africa is neither strategically smart nor a good use of resources. Many of the terrorist groups currently on the U.S. military’s watch list—for which the military is deploying additional special operations troops and building new installations—do not directly impact core U.S. interests. In addition, past history suggests that the U.S. military is often not the best institution to address some of the root causes driving continuing conflict and instability on the continent. Given complicated local dynamics, ethnic cleavages, and long-standing resentment against foreign military interventions, adopting innovative diplomatic and development approaches may better serve U.S. policy.”
The Washington Institute looks at the Israeli escalation in Syria. They provide the following policy recommendations, “Given the likelihood that Iran will continue testing American and Israeli redlines in Syria, the Trump administration should pursue a more coherent approach that includes the following measures: Build on the credibility gained at Deir al-Zour by policing U.S. redlines more consistently. The United States might consider resuming strikes in response to future chemical weapons incidents; these could justifiably be broadened to include nearby Iranian or proxy elements supporting Assad regime forces. Moreover, strikes on high-value Iranian targets not directly connected to such provocations would further complicate Iran’s calculations and make U.S. strikes less predictable. Prepare for an indirect challenge to the U.S. presence in SDF areas. This may include Iranian pressure on Iraq to close down the U.S. supply line across the Tigris River. Beyond supporting moderate forces in Baghdad, Washington needs to establish a Turkish option for sustaining its presence in Syria, assuring Ankara that it will restrain the Kurdish elements that lead the SDF and press them to break ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Support the southwestern opposition enclave in Deraa province. The IRGC and its allies may probe this area on the Jordanian border next, aiming to split it in two. The United States should therefore execute a limited, covert train-and-equip program for non-Salafist rebel groups there and elsewhere in Syria, as part of a wider effort to tie pro-regime elements down and limit their ability to make trouble for U.S. forces or neighboring states. Publicly lay out the consequences of escalation. Washington should make clear that if Iranian forces or their proxies open a wider conflict with Israel, they might emerge so weakened as to jeopardize their hard-won gains against rebel forces in Syria. Signal Russia that the United States will actively defend its interests in Syria. At the same time, Washington should work with Moscow on reenergizing diplomatic efforts to manage the Syria conflict and avoid embroiling the two countries in a dangerous confrontation of their own.”
Latest School Shooting Reignites Gun Control
Changes Expected to be Minimal
A few weeks ago, just before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, one of the largest arms shows in the world was held in Las Vegas, Nevada. The show, SHOT 2018, had an exhibition floor larger than most international arms shows, had the largest small arms manufacturer (FNH), Israel’s major arms manufacturer (IWI) and even companies from the Arab World like the UAE manufacturer of the Caracal pistol.
But, it wasn’t nations that were looking at this selection of small arms. It was over 60,000 retail firearms dealers from all around the United States. And, although there were some products for law enforcement, most of the things being displayed were for the average American gun owner.
And, lest anyone think that American gun owners are out of the American mainstream or naturally violent people, there was Donald Trump Jr., the son of the American president roaming the aisles along with his small Secret Service escort. However, unlike many venues, security was lax and the Secret Service was allowing people to walk up to Trump, talk to him and even have their picture taken with him.
Nor was the SHOT show unusual. Every week, there are dozens of gun shows around the country that offer the same type of firearms. And, polls of Americans show that the majority think that the right to own firearms is a constitutionally given right that government can’t take away.
This is the reality of the American firearms culture. Estimates by international small arms control organizations say there are enough privately owned guns in America for every man, woman, and child in the country and the amount of privately owned ammunition runs in the trillions of rounds. The majority of Americans have probably held or fired firearms and about half of American households have guns. And, while there is talk of additional firearms restrictions, there is federal firearms legislation going through Congress that will expand the carrying of concealed firearms and make it easier to purchase firearms suppressers (these suppress the sound of a gun when it is fired).
With that in mind, will the US pass major gun control legislation? Probably not. There will probably be some tightening of the background check that will make sure all criminal records will be entered into the federal computer system that lists those not allowed to own firearms.
Although some are saying that this school shooting is changing attitudes, the same thing was said by gun control supporters after mass school shootings in 2000 (Columbine) and 2012 (Newtown). And, nothing changed then. Gun owners are a large voter base and they are more likely to vote than non gun owners.
However, some things may change. They are:
TIGHTER BACKGROUND CHECKS. The federal instant check database that is designed to identify people who aren’t allowed to buy guns has some loopholes in it. For instance, the armed forces are obligated to forward the names of people who have been dishonorably discharged from the military because they aren’t allowed to own firearms. Yet, these records and others from states frequently don’t get entered.
There is currently legislation tightening background checks, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, which is working its way through Congress. Even the National Rifle Association supports it.
Expect this legislation to work its way through Congress and eventually become law.
BUMP STOCKS. Although the shooter in Florida didn’t have a bump stock, the shooter in Las Vegas did use one. As a result, this week, President Trump ordered the Justice Department to draft rules that limit their sale and ownership.
Bump stocks allow the shooter to increase the rate of fire of a semi-automatic rifle. However, there are problems in regulating them. According to the National Firearms Act of 1934, they aren’t defined as machineguns or devices that allow a rifle to be turned into a machinegun. Justice Department regulations regulating them, without a redefinition of what a machine gun is by Congress could be challenged in court.
Another problem is that although “bump firing” is made easier with these bump stocks, any shooter can do the same thing without one (one can go to the website YouTube to see examples). Making the way a shooter fires a gun a felony would be hard to enforce and probably be challenged in court.
A shoestring attached to a semi automatic rifle is also an effective bump fire mechanism – although less appealing to the eye. Should the government try to outlaw any device that allows a shooter to bump fire, this regulation could become ridiculous.
Finally, there are thousands of these bump stocks in private hands already. Since there is no law regulating their sale, it would be impossible to make them illegal and then confiscate them. At best, the government could outlaw the manufacture of them, which would make the ones in private hands that much more valuable.
ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN. Although the Justice Department said that the assault weapons ban of the early 1990s didn’t have nay impact on deaths, there is a push to reinstate it. However, there is a problem with it.
True assault weapons are machine guns and are already tightly regulated. Consequently, the focus was on cosmetic items like barrel shrouds, pistol grips and bayonet mounts. There were also limitations on newly manufactured large capacity magazines. All of these proved worthless. Cosmetic items don’t have an impact on the lethality of the weapon and most shooters will tell you that large capacity magazines are more unreliable and awkward.
BAN OR LIMIT THE SALES OF THE AR-15. The AR-15 is the legal, civilian version of the rifle used by the US military. And, anyone going through a gun show will quickly see that it is probably the most popular firearm in the US. They are versatile and can be easily personalized. They can be made very light (3.8 pounds), very accurate, or very reliable.
People who call for a ban on AR-15s usually know little about them. They aren’t machineguns. They aren’t powerful, as the .223 cartridge is actually underpowered compared to every other American battle rifle ammunition in the last 100 years.
Banning AR-15s is not the answer to school shootings. Neither the Columbine killers nor Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, nor University of Texas shooter Charles Whitman, used AR-15s, and all of them managed to commit terrible crimes. Nor would a total ban on firearms help that much.
Norway’s stringent gun control failed to stop Anders Breivik from killing 77 people; France’s ban on “assault weapons” didn’t stop the Bataclan shooters from killing 130; and Egypt’s rifle ban didn’t stop the massacre of 305 worshipers at a Sinai mosque last year. Britain’s total confiscation of handguns and semi-automatic rifles failed to prevent Derrick Bird from shooting 23 people (12 fatally) with a bolt-action .22 in 2010.
Remember that the Second Amendment was written in order to protect Americans from tyranny – both domestic and foreign. This was affirmed by the Heller case, which says Americans have a right to weapons “in common use.” And, there is no American firearm that can be said to be more “in common use” than the AR-15. It also has a military application that is implied in the 2nd Amendment. Consequently the AR-15 fits the Constitutional definition..
RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION (NRA). The NRA is a massive organization with about 5 million members. And like any other organization, it has the First Amendment right to voice its political views.
However, some have said that the NRA must be restricted because it taught the Florida high school shooter how to shoot. According to Think Progress, Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz honed his marksmanship skills in a school program supported by the NRA. Cruz was, according to the Associated Press, a member of the school’s four-person varsity marksmanship team, which received a $10,000 grant from the NRA in 2016.
However, the marksmanship team was part of the schools’ federally funded JROTC program. The team trained with “air rifles special-made for target shooting, typically on indoor ranges at targets the size of a coin. The program was created as part of the National Defense Act of 1916 and is sponsored by the US armed forces. It is designed to improve the marksmanship of people likely to go into the armed forces. In fact, many of the people who go through the course become highly decorated soldiers.
What can Happen?
Despite the “sound and fury” there is little that can or will be done. In order to get gun control legislation through the House and Senate, there will have to be compromise.
Any legislation is likely to include improvements in the national firearms check system that will make sure that unauthorized people will not be able to buy a firearm. There may also be something that limits gun ownership by people with serious mental problems like Cruz.
Beyond that, there must be some compromise and something that appeals to gun owners. For instance, bump stock legislation might include something for gun owners like nationally recognized concealed carry permitting or the easing on regulations concerning firearms suppressors.
At this time, however, it seems that Democrats are strongly opposed to either national concealed carry legislation or easing the ownership of suppressors. That means compromise may be impossible.
In that case, it may be up to the next Congress, especially if the Democrats win the House and Senate. And, traditionally, the party out of power gains seats in the Senate and House in off year elections. But, pushing gun control legislation through may be harder than imagined.
As we saw in 2016, gun owners control the balance of power in several states that are critical for congressional elections and the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s pro-gun stance was critical for winning toss up states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Democrats are unlikely to risk remaining a minority party just to pass strong gun control legislation.
Even if the Democrats gain control of the House and Senate, they still have to face the probability of a filibuster in the Senate. And, there is the probability of a Trump veto as the president looks forward to the 2020 election and the states he needs to win.
As we have observed after past shootings, America has a strong gun culture, supported by the express right to own firearms found in the US Constitution. And, that culture is strong in several states that are tossup states in elections. That’s why Obama and a Democratic controlled Congress didn’t take any legislative action on gun control.
Some say that this time is different. However, given history, that is unlikely. And, although there is talk of gun control on the Eastern and Western seaboard, the voters between the Allegany Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains will continue to oppose any real restrictions of their firearms.
Iran’s Moves in Syria Threaten Region
By Peter Brookes
February 14, 2018
Hard to believe it’s even possible, but the Middle East got more troublesome over the weekend with the Israel Defense Forces’ shoot-down of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle — a UAV, or “drone” — which violated Israeli airspace. Israeli forces not only destroyed the Syria-based drone, they also reportedly launched a series of stinging air strikes against as many as a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets across the border in Syria. According to Israel, the drone is a reverse-engineered copy of the stealthy U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel UAV lost over Iran in 2011. And though the immediate mission of the Iranian drone isn’t publicly known, Israel’s signal to Syria and Iran is quite clear. That is: It won’t brook a growing Iranian threat from Syria.
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America’s Creeping Regime Change in Syria
By John Glaser
February 14, 2018
In eastern Syria last week, American air and ground forces attacked Syrian pro-government military units, killing roughly 100 people, including some Russian advisors. U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Veale described the attack as “taken in self-defense.” “Self-defense”? Had the regime of Bashar al-Assad bombarded Boston Harbor? No, but it had attacked a base, long held by Syrian rebels, with U.S. military advisors present. Despite the tit-for-tat chronology here, it’s hard to see how Veale’s “self-defense” claim is tenable. After all, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained last month, the Trump administration has committed to an indefinite military presence of roughly 2,000 U.S. boots on the Syrian battlefield. Are these troops present at the behest of the host government? Certainly not. Has Congress ratified their deployment in some way? Guess again. Are they there preempting an imminent threat of attack on America? Nope. Are they under the mandate of a UN Security Council resolution? No.
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The Yemen Model: The Future of U.S. Middle East Policy
By Jon Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 21, 2018
Judging from Syria, the United States is still putting down stakes in the Middle East. At least 2,000 U.S. troops have an open-ended commitment to secure areas liberated from Islamic State group (ISG) rule. In Syria, senior U.S. officials put tremendous time into cooperating with allies and alternately coordinating with and countering adversaries. At first glance, Yemen’s conflict is not so different. Surrounding U.S. allies feel vulnerable, terrorists are multiplying, and the Iranians are meddling. Syria’s refugees affect Europe, which also relies heavily on shipping that passes by the Yemeni coast. The human suffering generated by both conflicts is immense, and while Syria’s death toll is significantly steeper and its level of displacement is higher, Yemen has 1 million cholera cases and counting, as well as more than 8 million people suffering from severe food insecurity.
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Do Terrorist Trends in Africa Justify the U.S. Military’s Expansion?
By STEVEN FELDSTEIN
February 9, 2018
In October 2017, attackers affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State ambushed a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces in Niger. The resulting firefight left four U.S. soldiers dead and sparked a political firestorm. The soldiers’ presence in Niger seemed to catch the U.S. public and Congress by surprise. Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted that he “didn’t know there [were] a thousand troops in Niger.” Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was equally puzzled: “I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe.” But the senators should not have been taken aback. Since the creation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, the U.S. military has steadily expanded its security footprint in sub-Saharan Africa.”
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The Netanyahu Probe and the Court of Public Opinion
By David Makovsky
February 15, 2018
Binyamin Netanyahu’s political future hangs in the balance after police officials recommended to the attorney general on February 13 that he be indicted on two separate cases involving bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. In one case, the prime minister is accused of accepting $280,000 worth of gifts from individuals in return for advancing their interests. In the other, he is accused of taking steps to weaken one newspaper in return for favorable coverage in another. Within minutes of the move, Netanyahu appeared on national television to dismiss the allegations, stating that the police are biased against him and reminding viewers about his long record of military and government service. In response, critics argued that he was undermining a key law enforcement agency. The speech is a sign that Netanyahu realizes his political fate may rest with the court of public opinion even if his legal fate winds up in the hands of the courts.
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Crossing Redlines: Escalation Dynamics in Syria
By Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights
February 13, 2018
The past week has witnessed two significant incidents involving lethal U.S. and Israeli airpower inside Syria. Each came in response to apparent tests by Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces, and more such tests are probably in the offing. On February 10, an aircraft that appeared to be an Iranian Simorgh-type drone made a predawn incursion into northeastern Israel. According to Israeli military sources, the drone was piloted from an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mobile ground-control station located at Syria’s Tiyas air base near Palmyra. After an incursion lasting about ninety seconds, the drone was downed by an Israel Defense Forces Apache helicopter over the Beit Shean Valley. The IDF then scrambled eight F-16I jets to strike the Tiyas base. In response, Syria fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the jets, including some that landed in northern Israel and triggered civil defense alarms. One of the F-16s was apparently downed by an SA-5 missile after failing to take proper evasive action while assessing damage to its targets; the two pilots ejected inside Israel.
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