Week of February 5th, 2016

Executive Summary

Although the focus was on the Iowa Caucuses this week, several papers came out on Turkey and its policies in Syria.

The Monitor Analysis looks at a newly reenergized Russian military that has been successful in its expanding role backing Arab Syrian Army. As Russia’s military footprint in the Middle East grows, it appears that the US is increasingly focusing on what is perceived Russian military threat and is taking steps to counter it. The US proposes boosting its military presence in the NATO theater, but critics still raising questions on whether Obama will have the political will to stand up to Putin either in Europe or the Middle East.

Think Tanks Activity Summary

The American Enterprise Institute looks at the 2017 defense budget and where its priorities are – and aren’t. They note, “Given that the defense budget will remain flat for the foreseeable future without congressional intervention, investments in cutting-edge technology mean taking money from elsewhere within the defense budget. Irrespective of the merits of the third offset strategy, its implementation will be costly. Given the combination of a $10 to $15 billion modernization shortfall in 2017 and a $12 to $15 billion tab spanning the next five years in third offset programs, the next defense budget will include very significant cuts to existing plans and programs.”


The Foreign Policy Research Institute makes recommendations on how foreign policy should be handled by the next administration. One recommendation is restoring a proper balance between the National Security Council (NSC) and other departments like State and Defense. They note, “The Obama White House mimics the hyper-centralization of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy team without their geopolitical aptitude. The unfortunate result has been NSC micromanagement and indecision simultaneously. The execution of policy should be treated as the province of agencies and departments that actually have their hands on the tools of implementation. The proper role of the National Security Advisor and their staff is to manage the interagency process and arm the president for policy engagement – to monitor what is going on inside government, generate ideas for presidential initiatives, and provide the president with the wherewithal to make decisions and conduct foreign policy successfully. The overarching size of the NSC staff should therefore be reduced from its current excess level. It should be a relatively flat, streamlined, and elite group, with the appropriate mix of political appointees and career detailers in regional and functional directorates. They should each be able to handle multiple topics, and to work together with collegiality and discretion. Senior positions should have some prior stature in the policy world.”


The Carnegie Endowment notes that while the US is trying to bring democracy to the Middle East, it is seeing its own democratic model failing at home. They note, “The deficiencies of democratic governance in the United States have snowballed in number and intensity, from the inability of the two main political parties to work productively together to the capture of the legislative process by elite interest groups to glaring shortcomings in the criminal justice system. Much more than many Americans seem to realize or admit, the image of the United States as a global beacon of effective democracy is greatly out of date. As a result, many people on the receiving end of U.S. democracy aid are questioning why Americans believe they have the answers to others’ democratic shortcomings. What solutions, they rightfully ask, does the United States have to offer for overcoming, for example, a dysfunctional national legislature that commands little public respect, intolerant political populism, crippling polarization, problematic campaign financing, voter registration disputes, low voter turnout, or rights violations by security forces?”


The CSIS looks at the creeping escalation of US involvement in Syria and Iraq as it fights ISIS. The reason as it sees it is that, “The United States has never defined an integrated approach to the wars in Syria and Iraq, or address how it will deal with Arab-Kurdish-Turkish tension, Iran’s influence, Russian presence, the bitter sectarian division between Sunnis and other sects, and recovery from fighting that has created millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, massive damage to the economies of both Iraq and Syria, and changed the demographic map of sects and ethnic groups in both states…The United States has never shown it has a credible strategy to bring stability to either Iraq or Syria, move them toward recovery and development, or create some political structure in either country that can develop effective governance in spite of the deep division between religious sects and ethnic groups. The United States still clearly lacks any overall strategy that can defeat the broader forces of Islamist extremism even if it can drive ISIS out of its proto-state.”


The Washington Institute looks at how the West can destroy the seductive ISIS brand. They see it as a communications issue and conclude, “Washington should also look to expand the scope of nongovernmental messaging platforms and organizations in the Middle East, with the goal of building sustainable messaging efforts against Salafi jihadists. Last month, for example, an IS “Wilayah Nineveh” video launched as part of a coordinated campaign on North Africa spent almost as much time attacking Sufi Muslims and liberals as it did criticizing political authorities. The Salafi “sea” from which IS rises should not be ignored — encouraging regional partners to push back against the political and societal discourse that sets the stage for violence is good policy.”


The Institute for the Study of War warns of overreliance on the Kurds in fighting ISIS. They note, “This partnership, however, faces two fundamental pitfalls that challenge broader U.S. national security objectives. First, the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria supports the expansion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has conducted an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. This cooperation threatens to drive Turkey away from deeper coordination with the anti- ISIS coalition. Second, the U.S. risks fueling long-term ethnic conflict in both Iraq and Syria due to the relative empowerment of the Kurds at the expense of other local powerbrokers, often Sunni Arabs. These pitfalls could promote future regional disorder and prevent the U.S. from successfully degrading and destroying ISIS.”


The CSIS looks at the human cost of war in the Middle East. It examines the longer term impacts on the quality of governance, the economy, and the geographic areas where the war has its maximum impact. It also compares casualty estimates, key areas affected by the fighting, and other impacts of conflict as well as illustrates the difference in reporting by country, and major problems in the data now available.


The German Marshall Fund looks at Turkey’s Syria policy as the Geneva talks near. It is causing rifts with the US and they note, “disappointment with U.S. policy is growing fast. The current policy appears to present any movement as success, such that it is perceived as ready to succumb to the Russian attempts to dictate their own distorted reading of the Vienna process and detach it from the Geneva-I framework. Russian intervention has been a game changer in a negative direction for Ankara, while Washington, in a sort of Pollyannaish optimism, has come to rely on Russia as the only positive force that can bring about a political solution of any sort.”


The Hudson Institute also loose at Turkey’s Syria policy and relations with the US. They note, “The Syrian conflict has created a domestic crisis, leaving Turkey to care for, by some estimates, nearly two million Syrian refugees. Many of them are here in Istanbul, where they have better chances of finding work but are competing for jobs and services with Turks in a difficult economy. If Assad stays in power, few of the refugees will return to be ruled by a man who has waged war against them. Turkey will be saddled with millions of refugees for the foreseeable future, maybe permanently, as much of Europe is starting to shut its doors. Administration officials say they want Turkey to close its border with Syria to stop ISIS, but that’s code, which the Turks have no problem understanding. It’s meant to implicate the Turks as supporters of ISIS and embarrass them into doing what the White House really wants, which is to stop providing logistical support to anti-Assad fighters. Without Turkey, the rebels would no longer be able to mount a fight against Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.”


The Washington Institute looks at Turkey’s military strategy in Syria. “Turkey’s priorities in northwestern Syria are: (1) boosting support for the rebels it backs to prevent their being squeezed by the recent onslaught of Assad-regime forces and Russian airstrikes; (2) preventing Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces, allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — which Turkey is currently fighting — from connecting their northwestern Syrian enclave in Afrin, west of Azaz, to other PYD-controlled regions in northern Syria. On this second point, Ankara wants to undercut the formation of a nearly 400-mile-long Kurdish PYD-PKK cordon along its southern border. A third priority for Turkey is now degrading IS in Syria.”





Russian Military Successes in Syria Concerning US and NATO

Just a little over a year ago, Retired Army Gen. Bob Scales told Fox News, “The Russian military is very weak outside its nuclear arsenal, while the United States still has a strong military.”

Defense officials don’t see it that way anymore. The Russian Army, once seen as a mere shadow of itself during the Cold War is once again being seen as a serious threat – thanks in part to its successes in Syria over the past four months.

As the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, “President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country’s five-year-old crisis. Government forces are now on the offensive, and on Tuesday, they scored their most significant victory yet, seizing the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen from rebels who are backed by a U.S.-led coalition.”

This success has been in the face of a larger NATO presence that has proved to be less effective than the Russian contingent in supporting it allies in the field.

This newer, smaller, more professional Russian Army has NATO experts worried. A recent RAND Corp. study, based on table top war games indicates that NATO forces would only be able to stop a Russian advance for a few hours if Putin decided to attack the Baltic nations.

In numerous tabletop war games played over several months between 2014-2015, Russian forces were knocking on the doors of the Estonian capital of Tallinn or the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours. U.S. and Baltic troops – and American airpower – proved unable to halt the advance of mechanized Russian units and suffered heavy casualties, the report said.

“The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said the RAND report.

It’s not just numbers of NATO forces in the area. The types of NATO forces stationed near Russia are too light to counter the heavy, mechanized Russian Army. This is a reflection of the Obama Administration’s decision to cut back on traditional mechanized equipment and focus more on light infantry and Special Forces.

With only light infantry units in position in the Baltic region, U.S. and NATO planners are also worried about the continued Russian arms buildup in the exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania, and Moscow’s intention to build a new air force base in Belarus, just south of the Polish-Lithuanian border.

The war games run by RAND underscored how U.S. and NATO forces lack the vehicles and firepower to take on their Russian adversaries, which have maintained more mechanized and tank units. NATO ground troops also lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in the Baltic scenario.

“By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place,” the report said.

The report said a force of about seven brigades in the area, including three heavy armored brigades, and backed up by airpower and artillery, would be enough “to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.” The additional forces would cost an estimated $2.7 billion a year to maintain.

Given the findings of this study, it’s no surprise that SecDef Ashton Carter unveiled plans to add more heavy weapons and armored vehicles to prepositioned stocks in Eastern Europe to give the Pentagon two brigade sets worth of heavy equipment on NATO’s eastern frontier.

As it stands now, there are two U.S. Army infantry brigades stationed in Europe — one in Italy and the other in Germany — but they are stretched. The new $3.4 billion plan outlined by Carter and the White House would add another brigade to the mix, but it would be made up of soldiers from the United States, rotating in for months at a time.

However a brigade of constantly rotating soldiers from the US isn’t the same as a permanently stationed unit. They can supplement NATO forces in Eastern Europe, but they are not a substitute for a permanent forward deployed presence. It’s also important to realize that pre-deployed heavy equipment like tanks can only become effective if troops are deployed for the US to Europe well in advance of a crisis.

Although heavy equipment will be prepositioned in Eastern Europe, It’s very likely that these depots will be hit be Russian strikes before they can be mobilized. In that case, America will have to rely upon what the units flying in from the US will bring with them – not what they can expect to find in a NATO warehouse.

A situation in Eastern Europe may very well rely upon a forced entry into hostile or contested territory. This is something the 82nd Division can do, but with limited ability to project power beyond a limited range. The 82nd Division can land 2,000 paratroopers, armored vehicles, and 155mm howitzers over a three mile drop zone to seize and defend an airfield in order to allow reinforcements, including air mobile Stryker armored units, to land and fight their way to the objective. However, the ability of the attack to reach its objective relies upon the reinforcements and the air cover to allow them to land.

However, this change in emphasis by the Obama Administration shows that the US and NATO are once again taking the Russian threat seriously. In addition to upgrading the Army’s heavy armor and mechanized forces, it was just announced that that American A-10 ground attack aircraft, which was specifically designed for a tank war in Europe, will remain in active duty until 2022.

Is this Enough to Stop Putin? Hawks of the military complex views…

American military experts warned “Unfortunately, more money alone won’t be enough to deter Putin from new aggression. NATO’s military posture in Europe is inadequate. And while new spending will improve matters, it will not be decisive.

One problem is that the administration assumes that increased funding can deter Putin. That presumes that his actions in Ukraine and Europe are rooted in simple opportunism. However, while Putin’s aggression has certainly been encouraged by U.S. hesitation (Obama’s failure to act in the Ukrainian invasion or Syrian chemical weaponscase), he is ultimately driven by his belief that he can resurrect Russia’s military superpower status – in Europe and the Middle East”.

They add: “In that case, pre-positioned tanks, more money, and more soldiers will not be enough. Obama must forcibly challenge Putin and show that he is willing to back up the challenges with more armored brigades in Eastern Europe”.

In their view, “it is also critical to continue to arm Eastern European nations with more modern weapons. Many Eastern European NATO nations are relying on Cold War equipment they inherited from the Soviet Union. Few have any serious tank forces – except for Poland. However, Estonia is receiving the Javelin anti-tank missile to help blunt any Russian armored attack”.

They are suggesting “Obama must also force other NATO countries to bolster their defense spending – especially in mechanized and heavy infantry categories. Currently, the US accounts for about 72% of NATO defense spending”.

Where once 20 heavily armored and mechanized NATO divisions protected Europe from the USSR, Germany’s arsenal of about 2,200 main battle tanks in the Cold War has declined to roughly 250. Britain, meanwhile, is planning on pulling out its last brigade headquarters left on the continent.

U.S. military hawks argue that the US should also look at its NATO spending priorities. Much of its infrastructure is in Western Europe, where a war would have been fought in the Cold War era. Today, with the NATO-Russian frontier several hundred kilometers further east, NATO should start building facilities in Eastern Europe, while closing down older facilities in the west. This, in and of itself, would show NATO resolve to defend its eastern NATO allies.

On the economic front they are advocating that, the US should boost energy exports to Europe. The US recently began exporting not only crude oil, but natural gas as well to Europe. Their dependence on Russia for their energy supplies is somewhat lessened and they might be able to act more boldly in the face of assertiveness from Putin without fear of having the pipelines cut off. Anything that weakens Putin’s hand along his western flank can only help NATO.

In the end according to them a realistic strategy to counter Russian aggressiveness requires more than another brigade in Europe. It requires commitment to stand up to Putin, more investment in expensive, armored and mechanized units, tangible support for the eastern most NATO countries, and support for more energy independence for NATO.




The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview

By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 3, 2016

War is always a tragedy in human terms, but the four wars in the Middle East have raised the level of that tragedy to truly massive proportions. These costs are summarized in detail in a new analysis by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview. It draws on the work of a variety of UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, NGOs, media sources, work by other research centers, the CIA, and estimates of the trends in terrorism by START and Vision of Humanity. It provides both comparisons of the overall trends involved, and a country-by-country analysis of these impacts.

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Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Forces and Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2016: An Update

By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 1, 2016

The United States and its allies have made some gains in the process, and the U.S. led coalition now provides substantial amounts of airpower in attacks on ISIS and in support of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Arab rebel forces. In broad terms, however, the United States has still reacted slowly to the threat posed by ISIS and the internal division with Iraq and Syria, and made only low levels of incremental increases in its forces. At the same time, the United States has seen Iraq become more divided on a sectarian and ethnic basis, has seen Russian intervention in Syria increase Assad’s chance of survival, and has still failed to create either effective Iraqi land forces or Arab rebel forces in Syria. It has not succeeded in reducing Iranian influence in the region, or brought effective unity to its partnership in either Syria or Iraq in dealing with its Arab allies.

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2017 defense budget losers

By Mackenzie Eaglen
American Enterprise Institute
February 2, 2016

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s preview of the Pentagon’s forthcoming budget for fiscal year 2017 was broad on themes, but unsurprisingly short on details about which programs would get cut to pay for his new priorities. What he did reiterate was the “Third Offset” high-tech investment portfolio that Pentagon leaders are pursuing as they seek to restore rapidly declining U.S. military technological supremacy. I’ve outlined the defense programs that Carter will likely privilege as part of this strategy — including technologies such as artificial intelligence, space and cyber capabilities, and next-generation weapons systems. But there will be victims of this priority set, too, and Carter spent only one sentence of his remarks to mention cuts to the Littoral Combat Ship.

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Look Homeward, Democracy Promoter

By Thomas Carothers
Carnegie Endowment
January 27, 2016

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to observe Americans engaged in the then-new field of democracy aid giving training sessions to foreign officials and activists, the trainers often paused at the start of their presentations and acknowledged with a rueful smile that the United States was itself not a perfect democracy. For a moment, they seemed well aware of the implicit hubris of holding themselves and the United States out as political exemplars. But then they would treat that comment as a throwaway line and proceed with their remarks, confident in their status as representatives of a successful democracy who are helping the less politically fortunate.

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Strategic Planning for the Next President: Recommendations for the NSC Proces

By Colin Dueck
Foreign Policy Research Institute
January 2016

On January 20, 2017, the next American president will inherit a powerful array of international challenges, capabilities, and opportunities. Apart from the naturally current focus on the election season itself, the various presidential campaigns and their leading foreign policy advisers would benefit from thinking through how they plan to tackle these international security challenges, not only country by country, but overall. A genuinely prudent US foreign policy strategy, starting in 2017, would involve a shift toward a different presidential decision-making style along with a shift in overall direction. In terms of decision-making style, if a president wanted to impose greater order and coherence on US foreign policy strategy, it would certainly be possible to do so. Based on both recent and historical experience, a variety of instruments might be developed. These are laid out in the essay below. In truth, the precise organizational flowchart adopted is less important than the fact of genuine interest and trust from the top down. No formal arrangement for strategic planning will avail if it does not fit the personality of the president, or if it does not have his confidence. On the other hand, any one of several mechanisms could help considerably if a president decided to get serious about conceiving, developing and imposing a successful strategy on US foreign and security policies. Since these are literally matters of life and death, getting serious would seem appropriate.

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The Pitfalls of Relying on Kurdish Forces to Counter ISIS

By Patrick Martin
Institute for the Study of War
February 3, 2016

American over-reliance on Kurdish forces as the primary ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) threatens the long-term success of the anti-ISIS campaign. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition currently provides extensive military support to Kurds in both Iraq and Syria through weapons shipments, advisory missions, and close air support. This cooperation has enabled Kurdish forces to seize large swaths of territory from ISIS throughout 2015, including the majority of the Syrian-Turkish border and key terrain in the vicinity of Mosul. U.S. President Barack Obama lauded the gains as a demonstration of what can be accomplished “when [the U.S.] has an effective partner on the ground.” This partnership, however, faces two fundamental pitfalls that challenge broader U.S. national security objectives. First, the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria supports the expansion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has conducted an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. This cooperation threatens to drive Turkey away from deeper coordination with the anti- ISIS coalition. Second, the U.S. risks fueling long-term ethnic conflict in both Iraq and Syria due to the relative empowerment of the Kurds at the expense of other local powerbrokers, often Sunni Arabs. These pitfalls could promote future regional disorder and prevent the U.S. from successfully degrading and destroying ISIS.

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Between a Hard Place and the United States: Turkey’s Syria Policy Ahead of the Geneva Talks

By Saban Kardas
German Marshall Fund
February 3, 2016

Turkey has suffered greatly from the international community’s inability to end the Syrian crisis. As diplomatic efforts have ended in failure, Turkey has watched the conflict grow into the greatest challenge it has confronted in the post-Cold War era. It has incurred enormous costs in hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, while its economic ties with the region have been hampered. Its national security has been threatened by the deepening conflict; spill-over effects of violence originating in Syria have taken a heavy toll in the form of attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey also faces the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia due to the Syrian crisis, which may mark a sea change in post-Cold War Turkish foreign policy, not to mention creating deep disagreements with its traditional Western allies.

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Turkey’s Syria Problem

By Lee Smith
Hudson Institute
January 30th, 2016

Even before Vice President Joe Biden met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week, the Turks were displeased. The day before, Biden had granted interviews only to opposition media and slammed the government for stepping on freedom of speech. “That’s not the kind of example that needs to be set [for the rest of the region],” said Biden. He was referring to, among other issues, the arrest of two Turkish journalists who published information, almost certainly false, claiming that Ankara sends arms across the Syrian border to the Islamic State. He was also referring to the detention of 15 academics for signing a petition denouncing Erdogan’s counterinsurgency against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). The Turkish government overreacted in both cases, and under normal circumstances, it would have been unexceptional for a visiting American vice president to make remarks like Biden’s. But circumstances aren’t normal. The Obama White House has been putting regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey in the deep freeze. At the same time, it has excused Iran for setting fire to Saudi diplomatic missions and taking American sailors hostage.

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A Turkish-Friendly Zone Inside Syria

By Ed Stafford and Soner Cagaptay
Washington Institute
January 29, 2016
PolicyWatch 2550

The attack earlier this month in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey’s financial capital, is more likely to harden Ankara’s resolve against the Islamic State than to deter it from plans to intensify cooperation with the anti-IS coalition to better seal Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria, where IS controls a nearly 60-mile-wide and 20-to-30-mile-deep territory known as the Azaz-Jarabulus (corresponding to Kilis-Cerablus, in Turkey) belt. But the question remains as to how effectively Turkey can seal this long border with IS.

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Lining Up the Tools to Break the Islamic State Brand

By Alberto M. Fernandez
Washington Institute
February 2, 2016
PolicyWatch 2551

The Islamic State brand is an ambitious and seductive vision that has proven to be a tremendous media success. Yet this vision is ultimately tethered to the perception of an actual, functioning utopian state. Military action against IS havens in Syria and Iraq is thus the most effective way to puncture the group’s propaganda balloon. Ongoing efforts toward that end are producing some tangible results, but all too slowly. And while technical measures to diminish the volume of IS material available on social media are also important, the brand is now a mature one that is well understood and internalized by proponents and adversaries alike. Washington will therefore need to find more creative ways of getting its own message across, mainly via its partners in the Middle East.

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