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A Few Thoughts on The President’s Announced Withdrawal of US Forces and Personnel from Syria

I want to share a few thoughts on the President’s announcement this morning that US Forces and personnel will be immediately, or as immediate as is ever possible when the military is involved, withdrawn from Syria. Some of you are aware that I was involved with, and provided inputs for, the development of the US’s theater strategy for combatting ISIS in Syria and Iraq specifically through pre-deployment strategic analysis and assessment, and have provided remote reachback support to senior personnel (both a former boss and a number of my former students) deployed at Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and its subordinate elements. I have also either been asked if I would be willing to deploy back to Iraq or have offered to do so several times since 2013. None of those potential deployments materialized. Please keep all of this in mind when you read this post. I clearly have some subjective involvement in and attachment to what we’re currently doing, even with the changes that were made once the current administration came into office in January 2017. I’m going to keep this as brief as possible to avoid potential problems related to my past work on this problem set.

This morning the President announced that he was ordering an immediate withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel from Syria. We now know what that means, provided it is not changed, adjusted, and/or cancelled given that DOD, State, and the National Security Council and Staff appear to have been blindsided by the President’s announcement.

The immediate, within 24 hour removal of State Department personnel, while not logistically difficult, is a huge issue. The personnel being withdrawn were working on the civilian side of the Stability Operations we are conducting. This includes the USAID personnel who are working with internally displaced Syrians, as well as refugees in the region and coordinating humanitarian relief and assistance with local NGOs and other local groups. The military withdrawal will, of course, take longer because it isn’t just removing personnel, but equipment, which will obviously take longer than 24 hours.

So what, exactly, are we actually doing in Syria? What is it that will stop as a result of this withdrawal order? We are basically doing two things in Syria. The first is a train, advise, and assist mission with our local Syrian partners who are predominantly Kurdish, but some are Arabs, who are fighting ISIS. This is a Special Forces mission supported by a some Marine Corps artillery. The second thing we’re doing is, as an extension of the train, advise, and assist mission, conducting stability operations among the Syrian population where we are partnered with and training our local Syrian partners. This is being done within a “by, with, and through” strategy of partnering with vetted local groups. If we pull out there will be four immediate effects.

  1. The collapse of the local stabilization we’re contributing to. This will result in increased internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees who will flee ahead of both Syrian and ISIS efforts to fill the vacuum the withdrawal will create.
  2. As a result of the first effect, we will see an increased humanitarian crisis in the areas we withdraw from.
  3. We will once again have abandoned the Kurds despite the promises we’ve made to them, which further diminishes the United States ability to exercise any form of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic), because it further demonstrates that we can’t be trusted, won’t keep our word, and can’t be counted on.
  4. The vacuum and destabilization created by the withdrawal will be filled by both Syrian forces and ISIS. They will move to occupy and control the areas we’ve left, will fight each other in them, and this will lead to further destabilization in Syria and, potentially, throughout the Levant. It creates new stresses, challenges, and threats for Iraq and Lebanon, as well as for Israel and Turkey even though both of those states have been pursuing their own interests in Syria. And because of increased refugee outflows, it will increase pressures and problems for our allies in the EU.

We have not, no matter what the President has said, defeated ISIS. While it is true that ISIS has lost its physical holdings – the self declared caliphate – this actually makes them more dangerous, not less. They are no longer required to try to hold their territorial gains, nor are they required to provide the functions of a state within the self declared caliphate. As a result they have actually been liberated to focus on a low intensity irregular and asymmetric war to achieve their objective: the spread and imposition of their extreme understanding of tawheed/the radical unity of the Deity on their fellow Muslims. This includes forcefully and, if necessary, violently cracking down on what they define as innovation in Islam/Islamic practice (bidda), unbelief (kufr), apostasy (ridda), and polytheism (shirk). Freed of having to create and administer a state – the self declared caliphate – ISIS has been freed up to actually become more dangerous and more lethal. ISIS fighters are now free to go anywhere and fight everywhere. Destroying the physical caliphate, while an important step in reducing ISIS and its ability to do harm within and without the Levant, is not itself a defeat of ISIS. And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it actually increases ISIS’s lethality within and without the Levant in the short term. This is not something that US policymakers, as well as the senior military and civilian leaders tasked with reducing ISIS were unaware of. As is always the case when pursuing strategic objectives, achieving one creates new problems that require new, or at least adjusted, strategies to resolve.

Our withdrawal, especially an immediate one, also creates openings for the regional powers that have been using the Syrian Civil War as a proxy war to achieve their own regional objectives. The Syrian Civil War, of which the fight against ISIS is only one facet, has been facilitated and worsened because the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks have all used the civil war itself, as well as the proxies they are funding and supporting within it, to try to become the regional hegemon. These three regional powers are largely pursuing a religio-political hegemony.

The Saudis seek to establish themselves as the leaders of a Sunni Muslim Middle East, rooted in their state sanctioned form of Islam – Salafism. Salafism, meaning fundamentalism, is really tawheed – Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine of the radical unity of the Deity as the focus of Islam. The Iranians seek to consolidate and maintain the sphere of influence they have created in and through Iraq and Lebanon, both Twelver Shi’a majority states, and Syria, which is controlled by the Alawites a Shi’a offshoot that the Supreme Religious Authority in Iran has declared is actually Shi’a. Erdogan in Turkey seeks to return the Turks to their historic role of influencing and dominating the Middle East, the trans-Caucusus, and Central Asia as the East/West and North/South gateway in the region.

The Israelis are also trying to manipulate the Syrian Civil War to create and achieve their long standing goal of creating strategic depth between themselves and the Iranians. Which is why Netanyahu has been dealing directly with Putin in regard to just how far Iranian regular and irregular forces are allowed to proceed in Syria. This deal between Netanyahu and Putin also appears to be why the President ordered a partial withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel who were supporting rebel groups and helping to provide local stability in Syria near the Israeli border earlier this year.

Finally, Russia has its own interests in Syria. They need to maintain their warm water port at Latakia. But they also need the Syrian Civil War, as well as the threat posed by ISIS, for as long as possible. Putin’s strategic objective here is to keep the Levant unstable for as long as possible in order to maximize refugee flows into Europe and thereby provide the nationalist and neo-fascist movements, political parties, and politicians he’s supporting with an ongoing divisive issue in his ongoing attempt to exacerbate domestic political issues within Europe in order to rip apart the European Union and NATO.

If the President’s announcement of an immediate withdrawal was part of a well developed strategy to achieve the US’s policy objectives of defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Levant, then I would be very supportive. We shouldn’t have personnel deployed where despite their tactical successes, they are unable to achieve the larger US and allied strategic objectives. This dynamic has been the case in Afghanistan for years, which is why the best thing that can happen in the Afghan theater of operations is a negotiated settlement and a withdrawal of almost all US military personnel. Any ongoing mission in Afghanistan, provided the Afghans would be interested, should be all about political and economic development, which can be accomplished a lot more effectively by civilian subject matter experts from the civilian agencies of the US government and our coalition partners and allies. This, however, is not the case in Syria. ISIS is not defeated and, if anything, is even more dangerous as it is now freed from having to defend actual physical territory. And the Syrian Civil War is still ongoing and destabilizing the Levant as well as Europe. The limited/light footprint train, advise, and assist strategy we are currently pursuing still has merit. It should not be abandoned on a whim.

Open thread.

The Human Geography Trap: War with Iran

Last week The Modern War Institute at the US Military Academy West Point (West Point/The Point) published an article about the need to plan for an occupation of Iran. That article got a lot of buzz, especially so because a lot of the buzz had to do with the title, not with the actual substance of the article. The author, Joe Karle, argued that even though occupying Iran would be a very, very bad idea, given the recent political rhetoric, the President’s withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA, and the possibilities of events occurring that simply override the ability to prevent what would be an unfortunate event – an escalation to military engagement with Iran – that the Department of Defense needs to plan for a post conflict occupation. Even though such an occupation would be a very, very, very bad idea. I initially thought about doing a response to the article here, but instead decided to reach out to the appropriate folks at The Modern War Institute. And look what happened!

Right now the US military does not have personnel with deep specialization in conducting or overseeing the type of occupation that Karle argues is an unfortunate necessity of being prepared for all possibilities. It is also not clear who the United States would seek to empower as a legitimate alternative to the current Iranian government—both the popularly elected facade and the largely opaque theocracy that runs in the background. Or how the United States would go about doing so successfully. Karle is arguing that, no matter how inconceivable it might be, the Department of Defense must begin to plan now for how to not just achieve battlefield success, but also properly manage the post war termination transition in order to secure the peace. And while he is right to argue that having a plan and a strategy is always better than not having either, if the United States’ policy is to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons development program and remove the theocratic Iranian government, then United States policy is asking of strategy that which the strategy cannot provide: an achievable end state.

You can click across for the rest if you like. Including the nifty map I put together.

Open thread!


Secretary Pompeo Testifies Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has just begun its hearing with Secretary of State Pompeo. He is expected to address concerns regarding the President’s recent summit with Putin, his own recent remarks and the President’s tweet about Iran, as well as US relations with NATO and the EU. Here’s the live feed.

Open thread!

Breaking: Israel Attacks Iran In Syria As It Prepares For War

Netanyahu has decided to wag the dog!

From Haaretz:

Explosions were reported south of Damascus on Tuesday, shortly after the Israeli army announced it believes Iran is planning to carry out an imminent strike from Syria. Reports in Syria said Israeli jets entered the country’s airspace.

The reports come on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s dramatic withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Also Tuesday, the Israeli ordered communities in the northern Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, to open shelters to the public after identifying “unusual movements” of Iranian forces in Syria, the military said in a statement.

The Israeli army believes Iran is making efforts to carry out an imminent retaliation against Israel. Intelligence officers and other specialized forces have been called up, though reserve combat units have not been drafted.

CNN reported that Pentagon officials are concerned about signs that Iran might be preparing a military strike against Israel from Syria.

Israeli military bases were preparing for a possible Iranian attack.

Israel believes Iran is determined to retaliate for the April 9 airstrike on Syria’s T4 airbase, which killed seven Iranian military advisers and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran blames Israel for this attack.

The military said any Iranian strike against Israel will be met with a severe response, even as the working assumption is that Iran is has limited capabilities to engage in conflict with Israel.

The State Department has issued a travel alert for US personnel.

From the reporting, Israel appears to be mobilizing for war.

Now that the President and Prime Minister Netanyahu have decided to destabilize the limited stability left within the entire region in the name of actually stabilizing it, this is going to move fast. More specifically, the Israelis are going to try to move fast and break things in the hope that they can draw the Iranians into a direct response or via its proxy Hezbullah. My professional impression of Netanyahu is that he is not a good strategist, though he is a decent tactician. However, he has little self control. The Iranians have, perhaps, the best strategist from within the region commanding their forces in Syria.

Depending on what the responses are to the Israeli’s opening move, this could either pass quickly or quickly spiral out of hand. I have no way to handicap it with the information we have, though my professional estimation is that the Iranians have enough restraint to let cooler heads prevail. Expect the reporting on this to move and change rapidly.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.


War With Iran: A Campaign Of Catastrophe

Cheryl has been covering the bad faith and disingenuousness of the JCPOA critics and their bad faith arguments against the agreement. I want to focus on the actual strategic issue of what war with Iran would actually entail given the people that are advocating against the JCPOA seem to think that a military solution would bring about a better resolution.

Strategic air strikes won’t achieve our objectives.

Let’s look at three maps. The first details Iran’s nuclear sites:

(Map 1: Iranian Nuclear Sites)

Map 2 is of Iran’s military bases:

(Map 2: Iranian Military Bases as of 2002)

The third map is of Iran’s population centers and population density.

(Map 3: Iranian Population Centers with Population Density)

The Iranians aren’t stupid. All of their nuclear research sites, nuclear energy sites, labs, military bases, etc are either built near heritage sites, near cities and towns, and/or close enough to the borders and the ground and sea lines of commerce and communication (GLOCCs and SLOCCs), that attempting to blow them up will cause not just significant collateral damage, but that damage will include damage to heritage sites (a war crime), as well as potentially release enough toxic material that will necessitate undertaking an immediate humanitarian assistance, disaster management and mitigation, and emergency response mission alongside offensive military operations. Iran’s placement of their nuclear sites and military bases complicates use of strategic air strikes. Moreover, these sites are hardened, meaning that Landpower will have to be used to actually go in and finish the job after the initial air campaign is concluded.

The Iranians will pursue an asymmetric, irregular, and unconventional warfare strategy against the US.

The Iranians have the ability to close the Shat al Arab waterway  and the Straits of Hormuz in order to spike global petroleum prices. They also have the ability to sink a US aircraft carrierSuch actions would be part of the overall Iranian strategy to fight the US on an asymmetric, irregular, and unconventional warfare strategy. If they do this, it will spike global oil prices and crash the economy, which would itself be part of the asymmetric and irregular strategy.

This strategy goes beyond asymmetric naval warfare. Iranians are incredibly patriotic. Even a majority of those unhappy with the current government and who would like to see some changes. The minute we attack, those folks are going to rally to the national cause and defense. As such the Iranians allowed their war planning to leak back in the mid aughts when they were worried that the US would use Iraq as a launching pad to attack Iran. The planning basically called for emptying all the population centers, moving everyone into the mountains, and creating civilian cadres assigned to military units to conduct asymmetric and irregular warfare against the American invaders. The Iranians have specifically developed a layered or mosaic defense.

In 2005, the IRGC announced that it was incorporating a flexible, layered defense —referred to as a mosaic defense—into its doctrine. The lead author of this plan was General Mohammad Jafari, then director of the IRGC’s Center for Strategy, who was later appointed commander of the IRGC.

As part of the mosaic defense, the IRGC has restructured its command and control architecture into a system of 31 separate commands—one for the city of Tehran and 30 for each of Iran’s provinces. The primary goal of restructuring has been to strengthen unit cohesion at the local level and give commanders more latitude to respond to potential threats—both foreign and domestic. But the new structure would also make it difficult for hostile forces to degrade Iranian command and control, a lesson the Iranian military has learned by analyzing U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

The mosaic defense plan allows Iran to take advantage of its strategic depth and formidable geography to mount an insurgency against invading forces. Most of Iran’s population centers and major lines of communication are spread out within the interior of the country. Iran’s borders are ringed by rugged mountain ranges that serve as natural barriers to invasion. As enemy supply lines stretched into Iran’s interior, they would be vulnerable to interdiction by special stay-behind cells, which the IRGC has formed to harass enemy rear operations.

The Artesh, a mix of armored, infantry and mechanized units, would constitute Iran’s initial line of defense against invading forces. IRGC troops would support this effort, but they would also form the core of popular resistance, the bulk of which would be supplied by the Basij, the IRGC’s paramilitary volunteer force. The IRGC has developed a wartime mobilization plan for the Basij, called the Mo’in Plan, according to which Basij personnel would augment regular IRGC units in an invasion scenario.

IRGC and Basij exercises have featured simulated ambushes on enemy armored columns and helicopters. Much of this training has been conducted in an urban environment, suggesting that Iran intends to lure enemy forces into cities where they would be deprived of mobility and close air support. Iran has emphasized passive defense measures—techniques used to enhance the battlefield survivability —including camouflage, concealment and deception.

This strategy is one of attrition. Leveraging the human geography of Iran – Iran’s people, places, and things – to bog the US military down and inflict such high casualties as quickly as possible in order to destroy support for the war in the US and severely damage the morale of the troops fighting it on the ground. Basically the Iranians, who invented the game of chess, have opted to prepare to play go and to play it for massive psychological effects against the US.  This means the US would be fighting a war among the people. Something we are particularly bad at. Those US military units that are actually good at it, do not have enough personnel to actually conduct this type of campaign at the national level.

The US military has a readiness problem!

As GEN Thomas, the SOCOM Commander testified to Congress back in May 2017:

The head of U.S. Special Forces told Congress Thursday that constant deployments and unrealistic mission expectations were taking a major toll on his troops.

 Army General Raymond Thomas, top commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), testified before the Senate Armed Service Committee, saying his elite forces had been engaged in “continuous combat over the past 15 and half years.”

During Thursday’s testimony, Thomas also criticized “media circles” for promoting the idea that Special Forces could solve any issue around the world. Special Forces, about 8,000 of which are currently active in an estimated 80 nations, are not a “panacea” to remedy all global conflicts, he argued.

We don’t have enough of the specialized personnel to cover down on all of SOCOM’s missions right now, we certainly don’t have enough of them to fight an asymmetric, irregular, and unconventional war against Iran. Not only that, but US conventional forces are also overstretched and barely able to conduct the missions they already have.

The US Air Force, as well as US Navy aviators, have been in almost constant combat operations since Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. As Lt. Gen. (ret) David Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies has stated:

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has been at war not just since 9/11, but since 1991.  After 25 years of continuous combat operations, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top lines, have made the USAF the oldest, smallest, and least ready it has ever been in its history. The average USAF aircraft age is 27 years—the youngest B-52 is over 50 years old. Going into Operation Desert Storm, the USAF had over 530,000 active duty personnel, today that number is 320,000—40 percent less, and the USAF has almost 60 percent fewer combat fighter squadrons today (55) than it did during the first Gulf War in 1991 (134).  Today, over 50 percent of USAF forces are not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight against near-peer capabilities posed by China or Russia.

LTG Deptula’s analysis can be seen in the increase in crashes, like the one last week, of US military aircraft.

In March of 2017, the US Army notified Congress, through the official testimony of three 3 star general officers, that it was also faces a conventional force readiness problem. We now know this is even worse than we thought as the Army is way off – by 12,000 recruits – its recruiting targets to this point in 2018.

The Trump Doctrine and a campaign of maximum pressure will not work with Iran.

The Iranians do not actually care if they treat the President fairly or else. They’re not interested in currying favor with him personally, with his family and associates in regard to business, nor with the United States. That isn’t to say that they want a direct confrontation. Rather, unlike Kim in the DPRK, they aren’t seeking a summit to elevate their status in the international system or as a way to get out from under crippling sanctions. Iran has survived under such sanctions since the early 80s. Any attempts by the President and his surrogates to try to replicate what they think was a successful strategy against the DPRK that brought Kim to the table, will not work with Iran. Moreover, the Iranians know that two of the President’s most prominent surrogates in regard to Iran – his National Security Advisor Ambassador Bolton and his personal attorney Mayor Giuliani – are actually paid surrogates for the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), which is a quasi-religious/quasi-political cult that was on the US’s terrorist list until a few years ago and not thought highly of in Iran. This reduces two of the President’s key surrogates on this issue effectiveness within the region. The President’s approach to applying maximum pressure, including weaponizing twitter through the use of incendiary and insulting tweets, is the wrong strategy to achieve results with Iran. It is not clear if it was even a major factor, despite administration assertions, in Kim’s decision making. Even if it becomes clear that the maximum pressure campaign was a major contributing factor in Kim’s decision making, Ayutalluh Uzma Khameini is not Kim Jong Un and Iran is not the DPRK.

War with Iran would be so catastrophic to the US it shouldn’t even be contemplated. The actual physical terrain, as well as the human geography, is disadvantageous to the US. ISIS is not done and has either dug into its remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria or reconstituted itself as a purely guerrilla force. Arguably the region’s best strategist is MG Suleimani, the Quds Force Commander, who turned around Assad’s flailing military campaign in the Syrian Civil War. Given Iran’s asymmetric, irregular, and unconventional war planning, if the US attacks Iran it will be like placing one’s hand in a wood chipper and pulling out a stump.

Open thread.

(I previously wrote about this issue here).

Bibi Wags The Dog

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eiskenot is the Chief of Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF). Back in March he gave an interview to Haaretz. I want to highlight a couple of his statements (emphasis mine).

Compared with the saber-rattling rhetoric emanating from both Jerusalem and Washington on the Iranian nuclear deal, Eisenkot is cautious, noting that no violations of the agreement by the Iranians “can be seen at present, but we assume that Iran can operate secretly. Therefore, keeping watch on developments there is the No. 1 mission for both the IDF and intelligence agencies. We are investing vast resources in obtaining the best intelligence about Iran and its operational ability,” he says. “If its intentions change, we will know. Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”

One issue not addressed by the agreement is the Iranian missile project, he says, which is alarming Europe and the Gulf nations as well. “I observe more international will to handle the Iranian missile threat than to reopen the nuclear agreement,” says the chief of staff.

“Regarding Iran, the window of strategic opportunity is still open in our favor. If the Americans decide to withdraw from the agreement on May 12, we will have to rethink our strategic risk management.”

Eisenkot, as Israel’s Chief of Staff, has made it clear that the JCPOA is working. This is in line with other Israeli military and intelligence leaders over the past couple of years. Here’s Efrain Halevey, former head of Mossad, in a 2015 interview with NPR:

INSKEEP: Halevy does agree with Netanyahu that Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. But he believes that international diplomacy is the best option and that Iran negotiated on issues it said it never would.

HALEVY: I think the United States scored a great success in creating this international coalition to face down the nuclear threat which threatens the world at large. The president put together a coalition of the five-plus-one, of all the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. And despite a variety of other issues which the world is seized with, including grave differences between the United States and Russia in the last few years, the president has kept the coalition on the issue, the nuclear threat, together.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you hear Israeli government officials question details of this agreement? For example, there would not be immediate inspections. There would be a demand for inspection that would have to be dealt with within 24 days or so. The argument is made that there may be opportunities for Iran still to hide elements of their program.

HALEVY: Look, this is not a perfect agreement. The agreement has weaknesses, no doubt. But when you negotiate, you win some; you lose some. And the question is not whether on one specific issue the Iranians have not come up with the ultimate in terms of what is desirous for the five-plus-one and for Israel. But they have come up with a host of other methods in which they have, if you like, caved in almost. And on the issue of inspections which you raised, inspections are going to be handled by the U.N. agency in Vienna. They’re going to extend the scope of their inspections, which will necessitate recruiting manpower in the numbers the like of which are without precedent. And how exactly these inspections are going to be carried out on military matters, on what is called the PMD, the previous military dimension – in other words, what it is Iran has done up to now – this has been a sticking point for years. And the Iranians have now worked out a model in which they would address this problem. And I think one has to reserve judgment on that and see how this pans out.

Eiskenot’s and Halevey’s views are vastly different from what the current head of Mossad thinks, which is far more in line with what Prime Minister Netanyahu presented this morning.

“As head of the Mossad, I am 100 percent certain that Iran has never abandoned its military nuclear vision for a single instant. This deal enables Iran to achieve that vision,” Cohen said. “That is why I believe the deal must be completely changed or scrapped. The failure to do so would be a grave threat to Israel’s security.”

Last evening in Israel/this morning in the US, Bibi put on a show. It was intended for an audience of one: the President. From Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his press conference in Tel Aviv on Monday evening at a distinct disadvantage. In his desire to discredit the Iran nuclear deal – from which President Donald Trump is expected to withdraw on May 12 – he had to clear a bar set by Israel’s security establishment over the last three years: That despite all he has said, the deal is not such a bad thing and actually serves to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the time being.

Instead of dealing with the discrepancy between his stated views on the Iran deal and what most of the chiefs of the security establishment have been saying (in private and occasionally in public), Netanyahu put on a great show. This included the kind of props and visual aids that have become the hallmarks of his rhetoric since his days as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations three decades ago.

He missed only one thing: Crucial dates that could prove Iran has actually done anything in contravention of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) since it was signed in 2015.

What he had wasn’t a smoking gun but a photograph of a smoking gun taken years ago.

That flaw was so glaring as to render an incredible intelligence coup – obtaining Iran’s nuclear archive – almost irrelevant and obsolete to Netanyahu’s current purpose.

But he still went ahead with his overblown and overhyped press conference because he knows that the man about to make the decision on the Iran deal will never in a million years be capable of explaining it.

The prime minister is now both Trump’s coach and cheerleader, trying to prepare him with handy quotes and easy-to-remember talking points – and already setting the mood music to try and cover up for the president’s inevitable fumbles.

What Bibi did was reminiscent of the counterterrorism lessons he provided over 30 years ago when living in the US. He also offered them in Israel. In these lectures he’d deliver slanted classes on the threats of terrorism for US officials in the attempt to move US policy and strategy into line with his preferred views. When he was out of government and back in Israel in the late 80s, he offered these courses for US tourists there. I have a cassette tape of one of these classes in a box somewhere. I brought it home from Israel in 1987!

What remains to be seen is just how effective Bibi’s audio-visual extravaganza was. While the President is telegraphing that he’ll pull out of the JCPOA on two weeks, there is still pushback within the administration. Specifically from Secretary of Defense Mattis.

Without explicitly giving his opinion about whether the United States should stick with the agreement, Mattis said that after reading the full text of the deal three times, he was struck by provisions that allow for international verification of Iran’s compliance. He said that since becoming defense secretary in January 2017, he also has read what he called a classified protocol in the agreement.

“I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,” he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in” with representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency to check on compliance.

“Whether that is sufficient I think is a valid question,” he said after Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the nuclear deal was not supported by the Congress. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, told Mattis the Iran deal is “working as intended” and that withdrawing would ease Iran’s path to nuclear weapons.

Mattis said Iran’s history of hiding a nuclear weapons program makes it “suspect,” and he noted his concern about other Iranian activities, including its role in supporting Syria’s president, Bashar Assad , and supplying its proxy forces in Yemen.

The Pentagon chief said the administration was still considering whether the nuclear deal can be improved enough to persuade Trump it is worth preserving. “It’s going on today as we speak,” he said of the consultations. Trump has said he will decide by May 12.

Mattis reiterated his view that the deal is “imperfect” and said “there are obviously aspects of the agreement that can be improved upon.”

The question being discussed within the administration, and between the U.S. and its European allies, he said, is “whether we can repair it enough to stay in it or if the president is going to decide to withdraw from it.” He said Trump has not yet made a decision.

Secretary Mattis’s assessment is a thin reed to clutch as we move towards May 12th, when the next statement of compliance and waiver of sanctions needs to be issued. Withdrawing from the agreement will make the US, its allies, and its partners less safe and the Middle East much less stable. What remains to be seen is whether the toxically co-dependent and enabling relationship between the US and Israel does more harm than good this time. This time, however, the path of enabling is reversed with Bibi trying to enable the President, rather than the US enabling Israel by refusing to remind it who is the patron and who is the client and telling it no.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.

No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy: Military Strikes And The Strategic Complications At The Heart Of The Syrian Problem Set

This morning the President warned Russia and its Syrian and Iranian clients that we had the nice, new missiles all ready to go as a response to both the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta, as well as Russia’s attempts to warn the US and its potential allies – from both the existing US led coalition that is Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve or from a new, smaller coalition of the US, Britain, and France designed to just punish the Assad government for the chemical attacks – off of responding.

Always a good choice to avoid the pre-owned missiles. Sometimes they’re owned by little old ladies who only use them to get to and from church on Sunday. But sometimes they’re used by folks that just abuse them, don’t give them regular maintenance, and run up the mileage on them…

There are already reports of the Syrian military relocating its personnel and equipment to the Russian bases in Syria to protect them.

This makes anything more than a demonstration strike, which is what was done last year, much, much more dangerous and problematic. The reason for this is that in order to actually reduce Syria’s capability to make war, and specifically try to deter the future use of chemical weapons, means that the US and its partners would have to target Syrian personnel and equipment that are now within Russian lines, for lack of a better term. This is one of the major strategic complications as it would create a de facto reality that the US and its partners have just attacked Russian military sites in order to get at the Syrian assets we want to degrade, attrit, and reduce.

Another part of this strategic complication is that the Russian navy has both sortied its Mediterranean fleet to get it out of port where these ships would be easy targets and has conducted a live fire exercise.

The lone Russian air craft carrier is back in port in Russia – it is actually in dry dock for the better part of the next four years or so undergoing a refit. As a result this eleven vessel fleet has limited capability.

More worrisome is that the Russian’s have begun electronically jamming US intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) drones.

The Russian military has deployed jamming tactics against US drones that have affected the US military’s ability to operate in the region, NBC News reports.

US officials told NBC News that the Russian military has been jamming smaller US drones. The jamming is focused on the GPS systems of drones, which can result in things like the operators not knowing where the drone currently is, to more extreme results like crashes.

Department of Defense officials speaking to NBC News did not confirm if they lost any of the drones to crashes as a result of the jamming, but one official did say that the jamming is having an operational impact on military operations in Syria.

The drones that have been targeted are smaller surveillance drones, and not the larger ones with strike capability like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper, according to NBC News. US military drones are encrypted and are supposed to have defenses against electronic counter measures, suggesting that Russian capabilities are more advanced than previously thought.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then the commanding general for US Army Europe, said in in 2016 that he has seen Russian “electronic warfare capability at a tactical level that we absolutely don’t have.”

Russia’s ally in Syria, Iran, also reportedly has hacking capabilities. In 2011 it claimed that it hacked into a US RQ-170 Sentinel and forced it to land after it gained access to its GPS.

Russian jamming of our ISR drones is intended to communicate to US and allied military commanders that they will not have a friendly electronic environment if they go with an application of strategic air strikes. This complicates not only targeting, but any potential search and rescue operations that might need to be conducted if something went wrong.

There is another set of strategic complications I want to focus on, which is where Russia has moved its military assets over the past 6 months or so. Russia has begun building out its Western Military District. This is the Russian version of a geographic combatant command that borders the Baltics, Scandinavia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This includes ramping up exercises and mobilizations under cover of wildfire season preparedness:

Here’s how Russia’s military is deployed in their military districts:

(Map 1: Russian Military Units)

And here’s how NATO and Russia’s military stack up right now:

(Figure 1: NATO Assets Vs. Russian Assets as of 2017)


(Figure 2: NATO and Russian Deployments as of 2016)

This second strategic complication should be of great concern. The Russian military, despite being much smaller than the US’s and much degraded by Russian economic realities from the vaunted Soviet military, has been deployed and positioned to threaten the US’s NATO and other allies in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Sweden and Finland have been moving towards a war footing, while our Baltic allies have also increased their readiness. Moreover, the Russians have been sniffing around the undersea transatlantic cables that connect the US and Europe for communications purposes. And we now know that Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities means they don’t have to actually do anything military to retaliate. Russia could just take down parts or all of the US power grid. Russia has also been able to both penetrate for manipulation and penetrate to take down emergency communication systems, as well as planting false stories about natural disasters and terrorist attacks via social media penetrationImagine what happens should Putin decide to retaliate by turning parts of the US power grid off and interfering with 911 and emergency communications systems, while at the same time spreading disinformation made to look like actual news reports or official municipal, state, and/or Federal responses to the disaster he’s created.

Either a military response against US forces in Syria and Iraq, our NATO allies and partners in Europe, and/or a cyberwarfare response within the US are all potential Russian responses to a US led coalition military response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta last week. These are the strategic complications that the US and its potential allies face in developing their plans and sequels to them. These are the strategic complications faced by the President’s senior military, national security, and foreign policy advisors.

The final strategic complication is the one we started with, the one the President created for himself this morning. By threatening Russian and its Syrian and Iranian proxies with the nice, new, and smart missiles he’s tweeted himself into a corner. He either has to actually do something in response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta or he will have destroyed any credibility on this type of matter in the future, as well as weakened America’s strategic communication capabilities. Regardless of the strategic complications on the ground in Syria, in Europe, or within the cyber domain, the President has boxed himself in. The President has finally tweeted himself into trouble that he can’t tweet himself out of. Either he orders a response and risks an escalation or he backs down and loses what little face he had.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.