Russian combat operations in Syria continue to be a focus in the think tank community. However, several reports concerning a variety of issues in the region were published this week.
The Monitor analysis looks at the Tuesday night Democratic debate. Although Hillary Clinton retained her lead, there remain several problems for her campaign that may cause considerable problems in the general election next year.
We also take a brief look at continued Russian air operations in Syria. We note that their pace has increased to the extent that either they will have to curtail operations a bit or bring in additional resources. The second option appears the most likely as Russia’s only aircraft carrier is being deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the perceived steady decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East, and American weakness in the world more generally. They note, “Though there is some truth to the assertion that the United States’ ability to project power and assert influence in the Middle East has waned since it first sent occupying forces to the region in response to the attacks of 9/11, this does not necessarily equate to a black-and-white dichotomy of former might and current powerlessness. America’s activities in Iraq in particular have led to some second and third order consequences that it will be dealing with for some time. While the empowerment of Iran is likely the most dominant negative consequence to emerge from America’s activist foray into the region, the galvanizing of a strong pro-Western geopolitical alliance bloc poised to confront Iran and other subversive actors in the region is surely its most positive consequence.”
The Washington Institute looks at the quiet, but growing links between Israel and the GCC over the last 25 years. It concludes, “Israel’s closest relations in the Gulf would seem to be with the United Arab Emirates. Although there have been problems with Israelis competing in sports events, in 2013 the UAE hosted a renewable energy conference at which Israel was represented. And, despite Michael Oren’s words, the Gulf state with the most overt apparent hostility to Israel is Kuwait, which boycotted the same conference in Abu Dhabi because of Israel’s presence. Kuwait’s view, I am told, is different for clandestine contacts. Somewhere in the GCC (I know but won’t say) there is an Israeli diplomatic mission, the existence of which was revealed in a carelessly edited version of the 2013 state budget, which noted that between 2010 and 2012, 11 new representative offices had opened across the world, including one in the Gulf. The link to the offending page of the document, published in the Times of Israel, now produces an error message in English and Hebrew from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…publicly; broader Israeli-Gulf relations have yet to take off. In reality, despite some turbulence, the ties are already at cruising altitude.
The CSIS presents a slideshow presentation about ISIS and “Failed State” wars. They see four threats that cause terrorism and insurgencies: 1. Host Country Government and Security Forces: Authoritarianism, failure to cope with internal divisions, poor governance and corruption, failed economy development and equity, population pressure and youth bulge, repression and violence by internal security forces, traditional and corrupt military. 2. The Overt “Threat”: Moderate and peaceful beginnings shift to extreme and violent movements that feed on the civil-military divisions and failures of the host country governments. 3. The U.S. Threat to the U.S.: Relearn counterinsurgency yet again. Separate military (tactical) and civil (project-oriented development) efforts. Threat oriented and downplay Host Country problems. No meaningful overall civil-military plan or net assessment. Rapid rotations with limited expertise. Cycle of denial, flood resources, rush to generate Host country forces, and then leave too soon. “Take note” of lessons, then ignore. 4. Other Nations: Allied, Neutral, Hostile: Allied limits to engagement, national caveats, demands; neutral interference for competing national interests, hostile action because anti-U.S., support overt threat, opposing national interests.
The CSIS looks at the issue of Moldova smuggling radioactive materials to ISIS. The CSIS, however, notes, “The evidence connecting nuclear smuggling with terrorist groups is more elusive. In the 1990s, the group Aum Shinrikyo had a nuclear weapons development program that did not progress very far, and some documents indicate al Qaeda interest in nuclear weapons and radiological material. For other organizations, there is little evidence regarding capabilities or intentions of terrorist organizations. An article by kidnapped journalist John Cantlie in ISIS’s glossy magazine, Dabiq, in May 2015 argued that a scenario in which ISIS could purchase a nuclear weapon (from Pakistan?) was more plausible than it had been in the past. It is hard to know whether this constitutes evidence of ISIS interest or intention, and it certainly sheds no light on the probability of success.”
The Carnegie Endowment says the Iranian nuclear agreement presents an opportunity to take a first step toward creating a new security order in the Gulf, one that could improve relations between Iran and the Gulf Arab states and facilitate a lessening of the U.S. military commitment. They argue, “The nuclear agreement will empower Iran’s hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which executes Iran’s regional policies. But it could also create greater space for increased bilateral engagement between the United States and Iran. The United States should, therefore, try to foster Iranian integration in regional structures to encourage more responsible Iranian behavior while imposing costs if Tehran continues to make mischief in a way that threatens core U.S. interests…One immediate test for the strategy will be whether the United States and its Gulf Arab partners can agree to create a more inclusive forum for multilateral discussion of Gulf security issues as a first step toward eventually building a rules-based security architecture for the region. This idea is not without precedent. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, regional security organizations have emerged with the goals of lowering tensions, resolving disputes, managing crises, and preventing conflicts.”
The CSIS looks at the issue of justice as Tunisia transforms its government and society. They note, “Tunisia is a case where the transitional government and civil society recognized the importance of transitional justice early on. Civil society organizations had been laying the groundwork for transitional justice years before the protests that gripped the country and ultimately unseated President Ben Ali in January 2011. They did so because they saw a link between the transitional justice process and political reform in Morocco, and believed that it was the best strategy to win political concessions and improve the human rights situation without an all-out confrontation with the government.”
The German Marshall Fund looks at the terrorist bombing in Turkey last week. They place much of the blame on the Turkish government and note, “The terrible attack in Ankara has highlighted Turkey’s vulnerabilities. The war in Syria — and Turkey’s approach of overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime at all costs, even at the expense of its own security — have made their border highly permeable. Turkey not only pursued an open border policy toward Syrian refugees, but also allowed armed Syrian opposition forces to use the Turkish frontier for logistical purposes. For its efforts, Turkey was internationally blamed for not doing enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters, mainly from Europe, to Syria. Several security analysts had also warned Turkey about the implications of weakening border controls for national security. The attack in Ankara showed that these concerns were justified. The attack also showed how unprepared Turkey is to deal with the new wave of terrorism it is facing. It should be acknowledged that Turkey has significant experience in dealing with rural guerilla groups thanks to its three decade-long fight against the PKK. It also has significant experience, dating from the Cold War, in containing ultra-left wing ideological terrorist organizations. However, none of these experiences are totally transferable to the new situation that Turkey is facing.”
Democratic Presidential Debate Highlights Candidates and Their Problems
Tuesday night’s Democratic Presidential debate showed a party united, but struggling with the type of weaknesses that could lead to their defeat next November.
The debate was well done even though the morning ratings indicated that 9 million fewer viewers watched the Democratic debate than watched the Republican debates. CNN’s Anderson Cooper delivered a strong barrage of opening questions, pressing each candidate on major weaknesses. Cooper’s questioning and follow-ups were mainly solid.
Many commentators felt that the focus on Tuesday night would be on Republican failings rather than on each other’s weaknesses. They were right.
Mrs. Clinton presented herself as the experienced, capable, informed, trailblazing female – directing almost all of her verbal punches at Republicans. Only once did she directly attack one of her rivals: Bernie Sanders, (predictably) on gun control, perhaps the only issue on which she can credibly outflank him to the left.
Most agreed that Clinton’s challenge was not to make mistakes and she succeeded in that. In spite of her hedging on in-state tuition for “illegal immigrants” and marijuana legalization, weak answers on Libya and trade, and a dismissive attitude on her burgeoning email scandal, Clinton won the debate. She established herself as the only plausible nominee on the stage.
Her biggest challenger on the stage was Senator Bernie Sanders, who (despite his passionate display)failed to come across as the more credible candidate, even though he did well with several Democratic focus groups that watched the debates.
On the issue that exemplifies her weaknesses as a candidate – the ongoing email scandal – Sanders let her off the hook, casting the issue as a distraction from real issues. He chose to circle the wagons rather than go on the offensive.
Over the course of the debate, Sanders was passionate, but a bit frazzled, appearing to lose is train of thought on few occasions. The problem for his campaign is that he’s unwilling to do what it takes to defeat her, which means in the long run, he can’t win the Democratic nomination.
Meantime, Clinton clearly telegraphed her general election strategy of playing the gender card without even a nod at subtlety. When asked how she would differ from Obama, she answered that she was a woman.
The other candidates on stage showed little fire. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley may have helped himself a bit with the Democratic base by hammering away at Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA) throughout the evening. His numbers might bounce a little, but they’re prohibitively low, and this wasn’t a breakout performance.
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb challenged the presiding hard-left winds on guns, on the Iran deal, on energy, and on executive power. As a former Secretary of the Navy for President Regan, he’s far too moderate (sounded like a republican or independent often) to have a prayer in today’s Democratic Party.
Rhode Island’s former governor, Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee only hurt himself with a poor performance. Chafee seemed to back accidentally into an elliptical attack on Hillary by noting his “high” ethical standards and absence of any scandal in his career. Desperately trying to pump life into a moribund debate, Anderson Cooper asked Hillary if she had a response to one of Chafee’s answers. “No,” she coldly replied.
The one potential candidate that might have had a chance of seriously challenging Clinton wasn’t on the stage – Vice President Biden. If his hope was that Clinton would do poorly and force the Democratic Party to come to him to restore some hope of winning the White House in 2016, he made a serious miscalculation. Clinton used the debate to reassure concerned Democrats and Democratic donors that she will be okay.
Looking Forward to 2016
Although the debate showed that the race for the Democratic nomination is stable, with Clinton running comfortable ahead, many Democrats are worried about the general election, which may prove to be a Democratic disaster.
A Fox News poll that came out just before the Democratic debates this week showed that although Clinton may be ahead in the nomination race, she is clearly behind potential Republican opponents in the general election. This was merely a confirmation of a poll last week done by Quinnipiac.
The Fox News poll showed her losing to the top four Republican candidates – Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Bush. She trailed by 12 points (51% to 39%) to retired surgeon Carson.
Clinton trails all four Republicans polled by between three and 11 points and was unable to break 40%.
This is where Biden proves to be a better candidate. Biden handily beats Trump, holds modest edges over Bush, Fiorina and Carson, and is effectively tied with Marco Rubio (Fox doesn’t appear to have polled a Rubio/Clinton head-to-head, but based on the other results, it would follow that the Rubio also enjoys a polling advantage over Clinton).
What’s behind Hillary’s anemic showing? Weak fundamentals. Many rounds of polling show that she enjoys universal name recognition, but scores poorly on favorability, trustworthiness and empathy. She’s also almost unanimously perceived as a mediocre candidate at best, even by those who support her.
The voters aren’t the only people who think this. A Politico article about Clinton notes, “Nearly every one of 50 advisers, donors, Democratic operatives and friends we interviewed for this story thought Clinton was a mediocre candidate who would make a good president, if given the chance. They painted a portrait of a politician who talked about learning from past mistakes while methodically repeating them—a far cry from the formidable chatterer of glass ceilings who had put such a scare into Obama late in the 2008 primaries.”
The Politico article goes on to describe Clinton’s entrenched, unending email scandal as a “cancer” growing on her candidacy. The entire episode paints Hillary as myopically self-interested, habitually dishonest and strikingly irresponsible. These liabilities are not easily overcome, especially by someone with an infamous authenticity deficit.
In the end, Hillary Clinton’s performance was probably best summed up by the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. He wrote, “Hillary Clinton won. She won because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not. She won because the first Democratic presidential debate focused on liberal policies—and not her email scandal or character.
The embattled front-runner won herself a news cycle or two, because she stretched the truth and played to a friendly audience. It won’t always be so…Character and judgment are gateway political issues. An untrustworthy candidate might check all your policy boxes, might tickle your ideological buttons, and might even grind away long enough to get your vote—but you’re not going to like it.”
The GOP Field
Of course, the GOP field isn’t static and there appears to be the long anticipated movement away from Trump. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are statistically deadlocked atop the field, attracting 47 percent of the GOP electorate combined. Mirroring the latest CBS survey, Ted Cruz has pulled into third place at ten percent, with Rubio and Bush close behind. Notably, Carly Fiorina has slid to five percent support, while John Kasich and Chris Christie are floundering at one percent, tied with Bobby Jindal and George Pataki.
The big surprise is the growing popularity of Ben Carson, who was seen as having little chance of winning the nomination. However, his candid comments on gun rights and refusal to back down or apologize for them has endeared himself to the GOP base and greatly improved his chances. He has also been able to raise more money than some of his better known opponents. He is also the second choice of many Republicans, including those who back Trump.
According to latest polls, Republican primary voters (not national election voters) choose honesty (39 percent) as the most important quality in their choice of a candidate, though nearly as many pick being a strong leader (36 percent). Far fewer choose caring about people like them (13 percent), having the right experience (eight percent), or being able to win the general election in November (two percent) as most important.
Ben Carson is the top choice of Republican primary voters who most value honesty, while Donald Trump is the top choice of those who value strong leadership.
Most Republican primary voters give Trump, Carson, and Fiorina high marks on many of these candidate qualities, but Ben Carson ( despite his controversial numerous statements and stinging attack from a major black publication) is perceived as the most honest: Eight-one percent think he is honest and trustworthy, compared to 60 percent for Fiorina and 53 percent for Trump.
Ben Carson is also seen as the candidate who most cares about people like them. Fifty-six percent think he cares a lot, more than twice as many as say the same for Trump or Fiorina.
But Donald Trump is seen as the strongest leader: Eighty-four percent think Trump has strong qualities of leadership, compared to 72 percent for Carson and 60 percent for Fiorina.
Most Republican primary voters think it’s more important for the next President to have experience in the private sector (55 percent) than in politics or government (10 percent), though 34 percent say it doesn’t matter.
Although presidential candidates without any public office experience are very rare, they aren’t unheard of. President Eisenhower had never run for office when he was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1952. The big difference, however, was that Eisenhower had commanded the largest allied army in history – far more impressive credential than those of Carson.
Russian Air Operations Increase in Syria
Last week in the Monitor Analysis we noted that the real key to judging Russian air operation in Syria was the number of sorties per aircraft per day. We felt that it would have to be close to two per day to indicate that Russia was serious about defeating the various rebel groups.
According to Russian reports, that appears to be happening as one day earlier this week Russia reported 88 sorties in one day – more than two per aircraft. This is less than the average of 4 per aircraft per day that US aircraft carried out during the invasion of Iraq, but still an impressive number.
The question is if Russia can continue to carry out that number for a long time.
Frequent combat air operations quickly wear out aircraft and we expect to see that number drop off in future days and weeks.
An indication that Russia is already finding its Syrian air detachment overstretched is the report that Russia is sending its only aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean. “Heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is going to the shores of Syria,” according to the Northern Fleet command.
It’s important to not overestimate the carrier’s importance. Unlike American aircraft carriers, this ship carries half the number of aircraft. The likely aircraft to be deployed are the Su-33 and MiG-29K. However, since only 35 Su-33s were built, the number of spare parts, necessary for extended combat air operations is likely limited, which would inhibit long term operations. The MiG-29K is still in production, but only about 20 have been delivered to the Russian navy, which means spare parts are also limited.
There is also a question about the effectiveness of the crews given their limited experience in deployments in the past. The ship has only deployed five times since being commissioned 25 years ago. An American carrier would have probably deployed nearly 15 times in that same timeframe (with each deployment two to three times as long as a Russian carrier deployment). Consequently the Russian carrier’s ability to carry out long term air operations far from homeport is very limited.
Another factor to keep in mind is that Russia is trying to cast the most positive light on its air operations. However, the history of combat reporting shows us that such reports are overly optimistic, no matter the country reporting. Although the Russia operations have dramatically been successful, they in and of themselves, will not win the war but contribute greatly to that end.
On the Rocks: Tunisia’s Transitional Justice Process
By Shannon N. Green
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 14, 2015
In the chaos and excitement of a major political transition, political actors, transitional authorities, and civil society often downplay the importance of reconciling with the past and holding perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. There are so many pressing priorities – drafting new constitutions, setting up transitional institutions, preparing for elections, breathing life into the civil society sector, reestablishing security, and bolstering the economy – that transitional justice can get lost. Yet, when societies do not appropriately address massive violations of human rights, it sets the stage for continued impunity and allows grievances to fester, ultimately undermining stability and democratization.
Nuclear Smuggling: From Moldova to ISIS?
By Sharon Squassoni and Amelia Armitage
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 9, 2015
On October 7, 2015, the Associated Press released a report detailing several years of undercover investigations into Eastern European smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials. The report highlighted activity in Moldova over the last five years that involved small quantities of uranium, as well as the radioactive material cesium. The sellers, according to the report, hoped the material would find its way into the hands of Islamic extremists.
ISIS and “Failed State Wars”
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 9, 2015
Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf
By Frederic Wehrey and Richard Sokolsky
October 14, 2015
For over three decades, the question of who controls the Persian Gulf has formed the basis for America’s massive military buildup in the region. At the heart of the region’s security dilemma is a clash of visions: Iran seeks the departure of U.S. forces so it can exert what it sees as its rightful authority over the region, while the Gulf Arab states want the United States to balance Iranian power. Resolving this impasse will not be easy. But the Iranian nuclear agreement presents an opportunity to take a first step toward creating a new security order in the Gulf, one that could improve relations between Iran and the Gulf Arab states and facilitate a lessening of the U.S. military commitment.
America and Its Allies in the Middle East: Bungling Toward Strategic Cooperation
By Tally Helfont
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Much has been said about a perceived steady decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East, and American weakness in the world more generally. Though there is some truth to the assertion that the United States’ ability to project power and assert influence in the Middle East has waned since it first sent occupying forces to the region in response to the attacks of 9/11, this does not necessarily equate to a black-and-white dichotomy of former might and current powerlessness. America’s activities in Iraq in particular have led to some second and third order consequences that it will be dealing with for some time. While the empowerment of Iran is likely the most dominant negative consequence to emerge from America’s activist foray into the region, the galvanizing of a strong pro-Western geopolitical alliance bloc poised to confront Iran and other subversive actors in the region is surely its most positive consequence. As this article will demonstrate, the ability of the United States to capitalize on opportunities created by the latter development have improved its strategic position in the region, and its maneuverability within it beyond what many have acknowledged.
Funeral in Ankara: Attacks Highlight Turkey’s Vulnerabilities
By Ozgur Unluhisarcilki
German Marshall Fund
October 14, 2015
It is remarkable, in hindsight, how confident Turkey’s government was about regime change in Syria. In 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan framed the country’s mission in religious terms: “We will go [to Damascus] in the shortest possible time, if Allah wills it; and embrace our brothers. That day is close. We will pray near the grave of Salahaddin Ayyubi and pray in the Umayyad Mosque.” Three years later, Turkish government officials are yet to pray in the Umayyad Mosque. But funeral prayers for victims of terrorism are being performed on daily basis in mosques all over Turkey. At least 95 people died in the twin suicide bombings that took place in Ankara last Saturday, targeting a peace rally organized by unions, some political parties, and Kurdish-affiliated civil society groups. This terrorist attack was very similar in style to the bombing that took place in July in the Suruç district of Şanlıurfa near the Syria border, claiming the lives of 33 people who were giving a press statement on their planned trip to reconstruct the Syrian border town of Kobani.
Israel-GCC Ties Twenty-Five Years After the First Gulf War
By Simon Henderson
How does one write 2,000 words about links between Israel and the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which no official of any of the seven countries is publicly prepared to admit exist? The answer is “with difficulty.” And how does one rank those links in terms of significance without breaking confidences? The way forward is to rely on already published accounts, but including some judgment on their significance. The short answer is that links are extensive, even, in some cases, very good. But they are mostly out of the public gaze. So although shared anxiety about Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s mischievous intent has been a bonding factor, Jerusalem must have been disappointed by the response of the GCC — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — to this summer’s diplomacy. When the deal was announced in Vienna on July 14, only Israel opposed it. The six Arab countries, although some expressed apparent concern about the details, voiced support for the Obama administration’s solution. They might have been in the same book as Israel but they pointedly did not want to be, at least publicly, on the same page. It was yet another reminder to Jerusalem of the limitations of any links.