Week of June 30th, 2017

Executive Summary

The United States is heading into a long Fourth of July weekend, which means there will be few published think tank pieces next week.

The Monitor analysis looks at the renewed American threats against President Assad if he uses chemical weapons (CW).  We look at the type of intelligence the US used to make this conclusion, potential American responses, and how Syria and Russia could respond.  We also warn that this confrontation has dangerous implications that go far beyond Syria.

Think Tanks Activity Summary

The CSIS looks at the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.  They conclude, “The United States needs to do what it can to help King Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Salman make their plans to bring economic change and reform to Saudi Arabia work. The Saudi 2030 plan needs to be made a practical and successful effort. All of the problems in Saudi internal stability that it is intended to deal with are all too real.  Economic reform, jobs, and social change are as critical to fighting extremism as any form of counterterrorism. Moreover, the United States cannot afford to forget that Saudi Arabia must now deal with what now seems to be a prolonged cut in petroleum revenues that will keep them 50% or more lower than in 2012-2014. It is not a poor strategic partner, but it cannot be treated as a “rich” one. Americans need to realize that America’s basic national interests in Saudi Arabia do not lie in more jobs and more arms sales. They lie in keeping the center of Islam out of extremist hands, in having a stable strategic partner, and in seeing Saudi Arabia become a more successful economy and a nation that can ensure broad popular support for its current moderate government. This does not require U.S. aid money, but it does require American political and financial commitment and support of Saudi plans and reforms.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at American actions in Syria.  In looking at the shoot down of the Syrian jet by and American fighter aircraft, they see a Syrian win.  They conclude, “The Syrian SU-22 conducted its bombing run despite warnings from the coalition and with the knowledge that U.S. aircraft were on the scene.  The virtual suicide mission was a win-win for Assad. Either the U.S. would hesitate to act, or it would take down the aircraft and increase U.S.-Russian tensions. This helps Assad because his endgame is not only defeating the Islamic State group but also reasserting regime control over the entire country…But the Assad regime also knows it cannot drive the United States away on its own, which is where Russia comes in. Provoking a clash between Washington and Moscow will raise the cost for the Americans to remain in Syria, perhaps to the point where it is no longer worth the effort.  So Assad has every interest in continuing these provocative actions. He is telling the Russians, as the old saying goes, “Let’s you and him fight.” Hopefully the cooler heads in Moscow and Washington will prevail, and the focus will remain where it belongs: defeating the Islamic State.

The Washington Institute looks at the Qatar crisis.  They note, “Perhaps inconveniently for Washington, the demands make a point of associating the United States with the crisis, a position that, exacerbated by mixed messages from the White House, and the Defense and State Departments, may only complicate its resolution. The wording does not give Washington an obvious role in any diplomacy, and U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson had earlier said the demands should be “reasonable and actionable.”  Also worrying is the apparent lead being taken by the newly promoted Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, until now perceived as a restraining influence on MbS’s impetuousness, exhibited by the military intervention in Yemen — a side consequence of which is the creation of al-Qaeda safe havens.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Iranian missile strikes into Syria.  They conclude, “The recent Iranian missile strikes against the Islamic State stronghold of Mayadin were clearly intended to boost Iran’s deterrence as well as achieve retaliatory results. However, preliminary independent assessments (supported by the graphic above) show four out of the six missiles Iran says it fired failed to reach their targets, and those that did were not as accurate as claimed by Islamic Republic officials. By extension, the missile strike shows Iran is probably grappling with serious quality-control and reliability issues within its missile program. While this episode could prompt the Iranians to review and revise those manufacturing and quality-control procedures, further delaying their existing projects, Tehran might also seek solutions to these evident shortcomings in foreign technology sources.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at Palestinian nationalism in light of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  The paper notes, “The Western states’ reliance on Israel has grown in parallel with their concerns about global security and their need for allies in the fight against international terrorism. Israel has also been able to portray itself as the world’s expert on counterterrorism. This new situation has prompted a notable change in Israel’s strategy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has focused in recent years on sidelining the Palestinian issue in light of the new strategic realities resulting from the region’s conflicts. Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations in September 2012 marked the start of this approach. He devoted most of it to the threat posed by Iran, largely ignoring the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister has effectively exploited Arab fears of Iran to pursue Israel’s political objectives.”

The CSIS looks at US defense strategy and trade-offs.  They conclude, “DoD’s current strategy effort, like all, will ultimately come down to managing risks and seizing opportunities in the known and unknown while living within the budget that Congress determines the public is willing to pay. Rejecting the myth of the master strategist and dynamically guiding the balance of defense resources will be somewhat easier if the secretary of defense can drive the services and other DoD components, Congress, and the White House to identify and exploit ways to navigate within the constraints facing today’s military. Absent significant downward shifts in strategic ambition and operational use or upward shifts in resources on the order of $100 billion per year, creating firmer institutional foundations for innovation, and cultivating broader and longer-lasting support within the military and among political leaders in efficiencies, innovations, and/or asymmetries will be crucial.”

The Cato Institute looks at the lessons from the failed War on Terror.  According to the paper, “This failure has two fundamentals—and related—sources. The first is the inflated assessment of the terror threat facing the United States, which led to an expansive counterterrorism campaign that did not protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The second source of failure is the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military intervention.  The lessons from the War on Terror indicate that it is time for the United States to take a different approach. Policymakers need to acknowledge that although terrorism is a serious concern, it represents only a modest security threat to the American homeland. Further, the United States should abandon the use of military intervention and nation building in the War on Terror. Instead, the United States should push regional partners to confront terrorist groups abroad, while the U.S. returns to an emphasis on the intelligence and law enforcement paradigm for combating the threat against the American homeland.”


US Threatens More Military Action In Syria

This week, the Trump Administration warned the Syrian Army and President Assad about carrying out what allegedly claimed another chemical weapons attack.

“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children,” the White House statement said. “The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017, chemical weapons attack.”

“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

However, the warning seemed somewhat disjointed as many in the Pentagon were unaware of it.  According to CNN, such warnings are coordinated across several national security agencies.

According to reports, there was no intelligence that a chemical weapons attack was imminent, however, there were indications that the same airbase targeted by the US two months ago had began preparing chemical weapons for use.

Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that activity at the Shayrat air base indicated “active preparations for chemical weapons use.”

The lack of information indicates either tighter operational security, or a lack of solid intelligence by the White House.

Needless to say, Syria and Russia both denied the allegations and said they were an attempt to escalate tensions in the region.

Russian president Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.”

The Iranian foreign ministry denounced it as a “dangerous escalation.”

Russia has certified that they had taken Syria’s chemical weapons away from them.  And, there are accusations from journalist Seymour Hersh that the US didn’t have credible evidence for its previous attack on Syria.

Why did the US React?

Although the US may not have evidence to support its claim that Syria was intending an attack in the near future, but in order to support such claim ,it should have provided solid credible evidence obtained from drones, manned reconnaissance aircraft, or spy satellites showing such an attack was possible.

The Pentagon implied that in their response.  “We had seen activity at Shayrat airfield, the same airfield we struck in April, that indicated active preparations for chemical weapons use,” Davis said.

Experts in military affairs and chemical weapons point out that preparing or training for a chemical weapons attack would have certain “tells” for a photo interpreter.  There would have been activity at the CW storage area and the aircraft loading area.  These would have included setting up safety perimeters, bringing in decontamination units and vehicles, setting up water hoses and runoff areas if a leak occurred, and bringing in inspection teams.

Other signs of a possible attack would be that the aircraft being used would need to be CW capable.  There would also be additional communications traffic between the air base and Headquarter.

They point out that these things -if true- would have been enough to warrant a warning from the White House.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that the U.S. warning to Syria not to conduct a chemical attack on its own people appears to have been taken seriously by the Bashar Assad regime.

“They didn’t do it,” Mattis told reporters on his plane as they flew from Germany to Belgium. “It appears they took the warning seriously.”

Asked about his level of confidence that Assad has backed off, Mattis said, “I’m not paid to have confidence in this sort of thing. I’m paid to be one of the sentinels that watches for it.”

Mattis claimed that Syria had several bases with chemical weapons.  And, it can be assumed that all are under close observation by the US and its allies.

The question is how the US will react to a possible CW attack.  Would they wait until the attack or try a preemptive attack?

A preemptive attack – taken before the aircraft take off – is politically risky.

Some chemical agents are corrosive and the containment of these weapons may not be as extensive as they would be in the US or Russia.  Decontamination teams and aircrews must practice for accidental leaks.  In fact, even though the US claims to have no CW, everyone in the US military still practice for such an emergency.

If Syria is actually executing a chemical attack ( in case they have any), the orders would come from the Syrian high command and President Assad.  Therefore, there would be a series of communications from Damascus, ordering the removal of the CW bombs from their bunkers, ordering the loading on aircraft, briefings on the targets, and the actual command to launch the aircraft.

Here are some of the military options that are available to the US:

  1. Carry out a preemptive strike against the airbase.  This is diplomatically and politically the riskiest.  The US would need more than overhead reconnaissance to launch such an attack.  They would need some communications traffic to verify the upcoming attack.
  1. Strike against the airfield after the attack.  Like the attack on Shayrat two months ago, this is the easiest route politically and diplomatically.  However, as that attack proved, it doesn’t take long to repair the airfield and renew air operations.
  1. Support anti-Assad operations elsewhere.  This is what the Trump Administration is doing now.
  1. One very unlikely option is the use of large numbers of US troops in Syria.  Although the US population is okay with cruise missile attacks on Syria, they are unlikely to approve of a major commitment of US forces in Syria.

Syrian and Russian Response

Given the Syrian successes on the ground, there is a serious question of why President Assad would even want to carry out CW attacks (if he actually has).  CW warfare is unreliable and has usually been used by the losing side.  At best, it is used to hamper the enemy in conjunction with an offensive.

The issue for President Assad is that the US is using CW as an excuse for its aggressive intervention in Syria.  That means even non-aggressive countermeasures CW training could be used as a pretext for an attack by the US.

Under such circumstances, one possible action would be for the Syrians to warn the US and its allies about any CW countermeasures training beforehand.  Although this would guarantee overhead surveillance, it might calm concerns and eliminate a hostile response.

In the end, President Assad must rely upon their ally Russia.  Only Russia can make America evaluate its actions in terms of cost versus reward.

Although Russia could intercept US aircraft flying in Syrian airspace with Russian fighters, that carries a high risk of escalation.  However, such interceptions have taken place in Europe in the last few weeks and there has been no problem.

However, both sides shouldn’t keep relying on the nuanced response of the pilots involved.  It takes only one mistake to cause an outbreak of hostilities.

A more logical option would be a more aggressive stance by the Syrian air defense system and Russian surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria.

Since the logical option for the US is to use cruise missiles in an attack, focusing on countering cruise missiles with electronic warfare or by shooting them down would not only counter the attack, but provide the Syrians and Russians with a propaganda win.

In the end, this is not about chemical weapons.  It’s a complicated sword dance between Russia and the US.  It involves Syria, influence in the Middle East, NATO, and Russian intentions in Europe.

Neither side has evolved a grand strategy that involves Syria and its relations in the rest of the world.

The US wants to defeat ISIS and bring about regime change in Syria.  However, it hasn’t decided which has a higher priority – ISIS or Assad.  And, even if Trump wants to focus on ISIS, there are many in the Trump Administration, and the Republican party that seem to place a higher priority on removing Assad.

At the same time, America’s strained relations with Russia impacts European and NATO relations.

Meanwhile, Putin and Russia are aggressively pushing in Syria and Eastern Europe.  However, their aggressive movements in Syria are making Eastern European nations nervous and more willing to side with the US.  Already Poland, the military bulwark against Russia in the east, is gearing up for more hostilities.

At the beginning of World War One, the great powers focused all their energy and attention on “winning” in Serbia.  However, the shooting of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – quickly spilled over to involve the whole of Europe (and its colonies).

Maybe some Russian and American diplomats should reread the history of the beginning of WWI.




Step Back: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy from the Failed War on Terror
By A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner
Cato Institute
June 26, 2017

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched an international war on terrorism defined by military intervention, nation building, and efforts to reshape the politics of the Middle East. As of 2017, however, it has become clear that the American strategy has destabilized the Middle East while doing little to protect the United States from terrorism.  After 15 years of considerable strategic consistency during the presidencies of George Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump now takes the reins having promised to “bomb the sh—” out of ISIS and “defeat them fast.” At the same time, however, Trump broke sharply in his campaign rhetoric from Republican orthodoxy on Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever President Trump decides to do, an evaluation of the War on Terror should inform his policies.

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U.S. Strategic Interests and the Rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 21, 2017

It does not take much vision to predict that making Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the new Crown Prince, and removing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from any position of power, will lead to a flood of new speculation about the possible tensions with the Saudi royal family, the motives involved in changing the succession, and how the resulting changes will spill over into a host of changes in less important positions.  It takes even less vision – just reading the reporting during one or two prior major changes in succession will provide all the necessary examples – to predict that the vast majority of this reporting will be pure speculation and wrong. Guessing about the Saudi royal family went from a national to an international sport at the time of Nasser, and the game – like all other forms of phantom sports leagues – is likely to continue indefinitely. This is particularly likely because the past shows that the full circumstances and facts behind many shifts within the Saudi royal family never do become fully known, and any really good conspiracy theory can live forever.

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Defense Strategy and the Iron Triangle of Painful Trade-offs
By Kathleen H. Hicks
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 22, 2017

The Department of Defense (DoD) has begun its development of a new defense strategy, and outside observers are atwitter, or should I say, aTwitter. Having been involved in more security strategy efforts than is healthy for any human, I have empathy for those charged with strategy development in today’s chaotic Washington environment. When it comes to strategy development, it can often feel that, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Revitalizing Palestinian Nationalism: Options Versus Realities
By Perry Cammack, Nathan Brown, and Marwan Muasher
Carnegie Endowment
June 2017

Fifty years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Palestinian national movement seems to be at a crossroads. Repeated efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have faltered, and the traditional instruments of Palestinian nationalism—the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Fatah, and, since 1994, the Palestinian Authority (PA)—face crises of confidence. While the current path is likely to lead to continued occupation, settlement expansion, and further internal division, the strategic alternatives could unravel Palestinian institutional and diplomatic achievements, with no certainty of success. A coherent strategy is needed, along with a new generation of leaders that can stem the political ruptures and inject new life into Palestinian institutions.

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A Win-Win For Assad
By James S. Robbins
American Foreign Policy Council
June 21, 2017

The United States and Russia seem to be on a collision course in Syria, which is just fine for the regime in Damascus.  On Sunday, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter bomber that was conducting operations near positions held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces outside the besieged Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. The shoot-down took place after repeated warnings for the Syrian aircraft to disengage, and the Coalition justified the action as being “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.” The next day, a U.S. Air Force F-15E downed an Iranian-made Shahed 129 armed drone near the site of a U.S.-backed training base at al Tanf for rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Gulf Crisis with Qatar Challenges the United States
By Simon Henderson
Washington Institute
June 23, 2017

The list of thirteen demands to which Qatar must respond within ten days appears to reflect longstanding desires — although not publicly stated until very recently — by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, of which Doha has been dismissive. Yet it is hard to see how this list was formulated with the intention of achieving a resolution rather than a complete undermining of diplomacy. There appears little way Doha can save any face. Perhaps the list reflects an opening maximalist salvo designed to prompt negotiation, but the prerequisite for agreement on all points suggests otherwise.

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Iran Missile Strikes Reveal Potential Military Weaknesses
By Farzin Nadimi
Washington Institute
June 22, 2017

On the evening of June 18, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired what were said to be six Zolfaqar medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) some 600 kilometers from its western provinces across Iraqi territory at what were described as Islamic State (IS) command-and-control and logistics targets, along with a suicide car factory in the Deir al-Zour province, in eastern Syria. An IRGC communique identified the attack as a “clear message” to the takfiri terrorists as well as their regional and overseas supporters — an unmistakable reference to Saudi Arabia and the United States. Iran called it a “proportional response” to the IS terrorist attacks in the center of Tehran and at Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum eleven days earlier, citing a potential for future escalation should such attacks persist. Therefore, from the beginning, deterrence was high on the minds of Iranian leaders when they authorized the strike. This is not the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War that the Islamic Republic has used ballistic missiles to exact punishment. On at least six occasions between November 1994 and April 2001, Iran reportedly fired Scud missiles at bases in Iraq of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq. This latest episode, however, is the first time Iran has tested one of its “more modern” indigenous missile designs in actual operational conditions — and the result appears to have been mixed at best.

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