Levantine Chicken: Russia, Turkey, and NATO

As I’m sure everyone, including those buried at airports trying to get home or somewhere for Thanksgiving now know, Russian and Turkish pilots played chicken yesterday and the Russian’s lost. After several previous Russian aerial incursions, and repeated warnings to clear Turkish airspace, the Turks decided to lay down a marker. And if the Turks were not members of NATO and Russia wasn’t the owner of the two largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the planet, this would be a problem, but it would not necessarily be a crisis. In this case, however, Turkey’s NATO membership and Putin’s revanchism have created a potentially more dangerous situation.

Perhaps the biggest immediate concern is that Erdogan, in pursuit of his attempts to be the regional hegemon, decides to make this a NATO issue by invoking Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Article 5 is the portion of the treaty that deals with collective defense. In short an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of them (the link is to NATO’s site and provides a complete description and explanation). There was an emergency NATO meeting earlier today, but my professional guesstimate is that most of the other NATO members are trying to talk sense to the Turkish representatives. There are several reasons for this, not least among them is that Turkey, specifically Erdogan and his government, have been unreliable in regards to the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, Erdogan has engaged in a number of concerning actions domestically. What appeared to start out as necessary constitutional reforms, done in the right way through the Turkish political system, quickly turned into something much more worrisome: that Erdogan is slowly seeking to try in Turkey what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to do quickly in Egypt.* Turkey has been a historically important and supportive ally of the US. Under Erdogan, however, they seem to have become less so.**

Putin, and what Putin will do, is also of concern. One of the hallmarks of Putinism (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss***), which is itself rooted in Dugin’s philosophy/ideology (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss), is revanchism. Putin’s understanding of the world, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, is that the United States, as well as NATO controlled by the US and EU, has taken advantage of Russia. From Putin’s point of view a weak/weakened Russia emerged from the chaos surrounding the end of Gorbachev’s premiership and was exploited by the US and the EU. NATO expansion into Russia’s historic sphere of influence and near abroad is simply further evidence of how the US and EU abused their power at Russia’s expense. Now that Russia has grown more economically powerful, largely because of the outsize profits realized in the petroleum markets beginning in 2008, Putin has the ability to do something about this perceived abuse.  The war with Georgia in 2008 was one foray. Seizing Crimea and supporting Russian ethnic/Russian linguistic separatists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was another. And having Russian jets flirt with incursions into US and other NATO members airspace is just another example of Putin trying to make his point: Russia is strong again, with a strong leader, and will not simply be pushed around. And this is all before we get into the potential links between Putin and Russian organized crime***.

The real problem we are facing though is that neither Erdogan on his own, nor Putin really have the ability to make this a bigger issue. Erdogan can’t take Turkey into an actual fight against Russia. Putin’s limited assets in the Levant, as well as Turkey’s NATO membership and that pesky Article 5, potentially constrain his actions. Or we should hope they constrain his actions, while recognizing that hope is not a strategy. So what happens? As was the case with Russia’s taking of the Ukraine, I do not think there is anyone in the Obama Administration, or in the EU leadership, that would risk an interstate war with Russia over this. The reason, again, is that if that escalates we’re talking about war between the two largest nuclear powers. I would expect that cooler heads will prevail in the NATO meetings. Moreover, I estimate that when President Hollande goes to Moscow, which is on his list of stops after he leaves the US to line up international support against ISIS, that he will attempt to draw the Russians into whatever it is he is actually proposing to/discussing with his other allies. As I’ve written here before: states do not have friends, they have interests. In Syria, Russia’s interests in defeating ISIS overlap with ours and that of our EU and NATO partners, though perhaps not Erdogan’s.

I ultimately expect that cooler heads will prevail here. Finally, this is another real world example of why we do NOT want to create a no fly zone over Syria and a great argument for creating a multi-national deconfliction cell to prevent these types of things from happening again. The key to managing and mitigating the Syrian Civil War and the sectarian conflict that it reenflamed in Iraq, is containment. Deconfliction of operations is an appropriate step towards effective containment as it prevents events from spiraling out of control into related, tangential crises that have all too much chance of getting out of hand.

* Full disclosure to mark my belief’s to market: When Erdogan began his reforms I was one of the folks who believed he was making necessary constitutional adjustments and doing so in the correct manner through the existing and approved political system. Had he stopped there, not only would I and other informed observers been correct, but it would have been to Turkey’s benefit. However, he did not stop there and began to reposition Turkey against both Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony and his party and their politics domestically in a more authoritarian manner.

** Fuller disclosure: I supervised a Turkish armor officer in 2010-2011 and last year wrote a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school. He is an excellent officer, what we in the US would call and officer and a gentleman, and a credit to both the Turkish military and to the Profession of Arms.

*** I highly recommend The Stiftung Leo Strauss for analysis on Russia and Putin, as well as other issues both foreign and domestic.

**** I highly recommend Dawisha’s book, I’m about a 1/3 of the way through.

Booo! ISIS and the Use of Terrorism as Psychological Operations


In the discussion of ISIS and its actions we need to clearly get a handle on what it is that ISIS is hoping to accomplish with the attacks in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad and the Russian airplane bombing. What they are doing is using terrorism, and even more so the responses to terrorism, to provide them with ways and means that they do NOT themselves have to achieve their ends. We need to recognize and accept that for ISIS terrorism is Psychological Operations (PSYOPs).

PSYOPs are defined as: “Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP.” Calls for closing mosques or special identification for Muslims or religious tests for refugees, let alone simply not accepting any, are all the result of ISIS being able to influence emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of the US government, American organizations and groups, and US citizens. Threats of reprisal and actual attacks on Muslims as reprisals, or those perceived to be Muslim, even more so.

President Hollande’s response was not only morally correct, but also demonstrated how not to fall into ISIS’s PSYOPs trap:

“Life should resume fully,” Hollande told a gathering of the country’s mayors, who gave him a standing ovation. “What would France be without its museums, without its terraces, its concerts, its sports competitions?

“France should remain as it is. Our duty is to carry on our lives.”

In the same spirit, he added, “30,000 refugees will be welcomed over the next two years. Our country has the duty to respect this commitment,” explaining that they will undergo vigorous security checks.

Hollande noted that “some people say the tragic events of the last few days have sown doubts in their minds,” but called it a “humanitarian duty” to help those people … but one that will go hand in hand with “our duty to protect our people.”

“We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values,” he said.

So far American news media, far too many politicians at all levels of US government, and far too many Americans have decided to provide ISIS the ways and means to achieve their ends. Ways and means that they do NOT actually have. We went down this rabbit hole after 9-11 into a land of demagoguery; fear; and paranoia. It got us two unsuccessful wars without declaring war, a mess of an economy, and no real good solutions for, or resolutions of, how to deal with the extremist, violent strain within Islam that is at war with Islam and the rest of the world. The question that has not been fully answered, though we are seeing hints and teasers of what the answer might be, is have we learned anything over the past fourteen years?
* Image found here.

Ask and You Shall Receive: Counter to Countering Terrorism Edition

Both John and Ann Laurie have touched on the domestic, US political response to Syrian refugees in the wake of Friday’s attacks in Paris. And in the article John cites there is a reference to the suspicion that the Syrian passports found with the attackers were forged/fake. That was actually confirmed yesterday. And the Egyptian passport found at the scene belonged to one of the victims, an Egyptian national, who was attending the match at the Stade National. It has also been suggested that part of the motivation for the attacks, specifically for the targeting, was that it would increase suspicion of refugees, as well as push public opinion and political elites to reject Syrian refugees.

From a strategic viewpoint, this makes perfect sense for ISIS. Part of their argument is that only Muslims who accept tawheed, the radical unity of the Deity, are really Muslims and the only place one can really be a Muslim is one ruled by Muslims who accept tawheed (these Muslims are called muwaheedun) for those who accept tawheed. Moreover, ISIS’s recruiting argument to support this doctrinal/theological/ideological contention is that true Muslims are not welcome and not safe anywhere else. By casting suspicion on Muslim refugees, whether they are from Syria or other states, and enflaming public and political passions against accepting refugees in specific and Muslims in general, they are able to create a self fulfilling prophecy. What ISIS wants is for the US and other states to clamp down on admitting refugees. And they want threats against and actual violence against Muslim citizens of these states to increase. A self fulfilling/self sustaining effort.

But only if we actually play into ISIS’s hands. ISIS’s strategy can only be successful if we give them what they want. They do not have the ways and means to achieve their ends – they need us to provide them for them! This was also the case with bin Laden. If you go back and look at bin Laden’s stated goals in his Letter to America, you’ll see a list of what he wanted to achieve. Click over, read or reread them, and see just how many of his goals were achieved. And then ask yourself how many were only achievable if we overreacted and provided the ways and means for him to achieve his ends. Terrorism, whether its ISIS or al Qaeda or some group not yet in existence, is not an existential threat for western states and societies. The reactions and responses that these groups’ actions try to evoke through the use of terrorism in western states and societies is, however, a potential existential threat. Combatting terrorism can only be successful if it is done on our terms, not those set by and beneficial to the terrorists themselves.

* The featured image are internally displaced Iraqi children between Jisr Diyala and Abu Thayla, Mada’in Qada, Iraq. I took this picture, as well as several others in the summer of 2008. We had stopped to provide their parents with some humanitarian assistance supplies: basic dry staples and sundries and clothes and some toys for the children. They had fled from north of Baghdad and were squatting in a building at an industrial site.

Very Early AM Open Thread

Since its been a few hours since the last post, and I’m sure the insomniacs and night owls could use it, here’s a fresh thread to follow up on the events in Paris or anything else you wish to remark on.

Paris Attack Updates: Updated with France 24 Live Feed; Updated Again and Again

Since Betty C’s thread is a few hours old, here’s a front page update on the attacks in Paris. The BBC is reporting that there was an explosion near the Stade de France, though it is unclear if this was a suicide attack or a more conventional bombing. The Beeb is also reporting fifteen killed near the Bataclan Arts Center and up to sixty people being held hostage there. Finally, they’re reporting that France has closed its borders!

I’m sure we’ll all be updating each other as the night and the weekend goes on, but we should all keep two important points in mind: 1) the reporting is going to change several times as new information becomes available, so what seems to be an accurate now may not be in a few hours. And 2) terrorism, no matter how repugnant or terrible, is a very low probability event. Terrorists real targets aren’t the immediate victims, they are the rest of us; their intention is to scare us into taking actions we would never ordinarily do.

Finally, all of our thoughts and prayers are with the people of France.

Update: Anoniminous provided the link to France 24’s live feed. So no one has to go looking for it, the link is here:

France 24 Live Feed

Update 2: France 24 just reported that the law enforcement response at the Bataclan is complete and two of the hostage takers are dead.

Update 3: In comments Robert Waldman posted the following, which I thought was important enough to be seen as part of the actual post on the front page:

“Anyone stranded in Paris reading Balloon Juice on a smart phone might be interested in the twitter hastag #PorteOuverte (open door). It is being used by people offering shelter to the stranded and by stranded people seeking shelter. Parisians are hosting stranded strangers who don’t think they can safely return to their homes or hotels.

The standard suggestion is to communicate location only privately with direct messages in case there are terrorists on twitter.”

Thanks Robert!



A Dustbowl Where a Breadbasket Should Be


That big blue space west of the City of Baghdad, Mada’in Qada, was where I was deployed in Iraq. It is part of the agricultural belt that rings Baghdad. We also had an assumed risk are south of Mada’in in Wassit Province and, for about six to eight weeks, we had southern Diyala Province, which is just north of Mada’in. Eventually my Brigade Combat Team (BCT) also picked up Mahmoudiya Qada. This gave the Army’s non-modular, legacy brigade  the entire southwestern, southern, and eastern belt/approaches to Baghdad. That’s a lot of territory for 4,500 people to cover. Since this is going to be a photo/picture heavy post, I’m going to put most of it under the fold in order to not swamp the front page.

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Source material

Chris, in a comment to my post on Syria, Strategy, and Policy, asked me about what I look at for source material. While both Cervantes and BobS weighed in with some good recommendations, I promised I’d put something up for Chris yesterday. This has slipped to today. I’m going to break this into three parts and actually start with the final third.

A lot of my research and analytical work is done using open source resources. When I do this type of work I’m basically relying on targeted key word searches that lead me to source material. I then vet that source material in several ways. First, I try to vet the author and the outlet. So if its on a blog or some other form of commentary site, I’m looking to see if I can identify the author and determine if they actually know anything about what they’re talking about and what, if any, biases I can determine. I’m also looking for links to related material at every source I’m looking at. For two reasons: 1) as documentation/citation for what I’m reading and 2) to widen my source material pool as I’m working my way through the subject search. I’m also constantly bookmarking and saving links to potential material that I might possibly need in the future. So that’s a portion of how I go about looking for, finding, and vetting source material. I go where the search takes me, vet continuously, and work the links in the sources I’m finding. The kind of work I do requires me to basically live in information overload, so I do.

So now back to the first third. For news sources, as in straight news reporting and not commentary, I largely avoid US news media. Rather than CNN or FOX or ABC or etc, I prefer the BBC, al Jazeera English, Agency France Press, the Guardian. I will use the AP and Reuters wires, as well as the Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy. For long form reporting I’ve found that the best stuff seems to be at Harpers, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Pro Publica, the New Yorker, and likely several others I’m forgetting. Overall, however, I tend to avoid initial straight news reporting from the US news media. Some of this goes out the window when I doing open source research and analysis. So if, while doing that, the best source is CNN or Time, I’ll use it. So that’s an important caveat.

In the middle third I understood Chris to be asking about material pertaining to the Middle East. I have several go to sites that I like to start with depending on the issue. These include Juan Cole’s Informed Comment (full disclosure: I’ve guest written a couple of posts for Professor Cole, specifically back in 2008 and 2009 shortly after I got back from Iraq) and COL Lang’s Sic Semper Tyrannis (full disclosure for those not paying attention: I used to be a front pager there and COL Lang helped train me). One of my favorite sites regarding the Middle East is Jadaliyya. Great site, interesting and informative material across a variety of topics. I also like to use the Middle East Monitor and for Israel-Palestinian specific issues +927 Magazine. I’ve also used the National AE, as well as Haaretz. A great site, that I actually used a lot when deployed to Iraq to get a good overview, is Musings on Iraq. The Al Monitor is very useful as they provide good translations of reports from Middle Eastern news sources. There are other sources that I use, but I don’t think we need to belabor this.

And that, as they say, is that. I know I promised to do something about the Levantine drought and I’ll try to get that up tomorrow. Everyone have a great night! Or evening for those of you in Mountain, Pacific, or points farther west.