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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!



The Russian Planning for Next Week’s Summit is Going Well!

There’s a reason that both Finland and Sweden have moved towards a war footing over the past year and this type of Russian military behavior is it.

There’s already been a lot of commentary this week about the President, his attitudes toward NATO and the EU, what may or may not happen at the NATO summit this week, speculation about worst case scenarios over what the President might do at the NATO summit this week, and speculation about worst case scenarios over what the President might do at his one on one summit with Vladimir Putin next week. There’s not much more that both can be said and/or needs to be said. Expect it to be bad and hope it isn’t the worst case.

The President of the United States does not believe in alliances. This is one of the few consistent positions he’s held and, as we’ve discussed here repeatedly, it dates back to 1987. The President of the United States views every relationship as zero-sum. That in order for one side to win, the other side has to lose. And that for the President winning means not just coming out ahead, but doing so by cruelly punishing one’s counter-party. And the President doesn’t really have any understanding of, nor care to learn anything about, why the US built the post World War II and then the post Cold War order the way it did. As I wrote back in January 2017:

It is true that both NATO and the EU were created at a different time and for reasons that are only partially why they are important today. The real genius of both NATO and the EU, regardless of how they’ve developed and recognizing that no institution or organization ever develops perfectly and that reasonable, rational adjustments to both institutions should be made as needed, is that they knit Europe together. Despite what the populist-nationalist or national-populists or whatever they finally agree on calling themselves say, the purpose of NATO and the EU isn’t the destruction of sovereignty or national independence. Rather both organizations serve as a forcing function. They force the European member states of both organizations to work together, to cooperate, to recognize that sometimes there are bigger and more important issues than simply national interests.

The proof that NATO and the EU have been successful is that there has not been a war in Europe between European states over national interests*, including national pride or economic disputes since the end of World War II. By stitching Britain and France and Germany and Belgium and Denmark and Spain and Portugal and France and Greece and Italy and Iceland and Norway and now all the member countries from Central and Eastern Europe together, NATO has made war in Europe among the Europeans less likely. The same for the EU. When Germany and France have a dispute they and their allies no longer spill blood and treasure across the fields of Belgium. Instead they meet in Belgium and talk it out. The forcing function, forcing these states and societies to work together, means that the uniformed and civilian personnel of all these countries have studied and travelled and worked and vacationed all over Europe. They all have counterparts and colleagues from the other European NATO and EU member states. Their children’s friends are the children of their colleagues from other countries. This is the real, tangible benefit of the EU and NATO. It’s not a common market or a mutual defense pact. The real benefit is that the EU and NATO have broken the reality of over a thousand years of conflicts, capped off by World Wars I and II, in Europe and among the people of the nation-states that make up Europe.

This is what the President doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand, and even if he was forced to learn it, would discount it because it makes no sense to how he understands the world. For the President the world – the personal world, the professional/business world, the world of politics, and the global system – are red in tooth and claw. They are all a war of all against all where the strong survive and the weak are prey. And might makes right. NATO and the EU were designed and intended to break that dynamic within both Europe and the global system. To break the constant cycles of a war every generation in the core of Europe. Wars that in the 20th Century came very close to consuming the entire world. Preventing that, even if it appears costly in up front commitments, is a tremendous bargain in preventing the waste of blood and treasure that a major war in Europe would cost.

Open thread!

* I am aware that the conflict in the Balkans, the war between the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims of what was Yugoslavia, was a European war. However, it was on the periphery of Europe and didn’t divide the continent and lead to a broader war such as World War I or World War II. More recently, Russian irredentist violence in Georgia, Crimea, and the Donbass is also war, but here too the major powers at the core of Europe haven’t take sides against each other leading to a much broader and deadlier conflict. This isn’t to downplay the reality, the suffering, the destruction, and the loss of life in any of these conflicts, just to put them in perspective.



Der Spiegel’s Editors Have Sussed Out The Trump Doctrine

Der Spiegel’s editors have sussed out the Trump Doctrine. That the President expects that he, and as an extension of himself the US, will be treated “fairly or else”. From Der Spiegel’s Klaus Brinkbaumer:

The most shocking realization, however, is one that affects us directly: The West as we once knew it no longer exists. Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No. It is impossible to overstate what Trump has dismantled in the last 16 months. Europe has lost its protective power. It has lost its guarantor of joint values. And it has lost the global political influence that it was only able to exert because the U.S. stood by its side. And what will happen in the remaining two-and-a-half years (or six-and-a-half years) of Trump’s leadership? There is plenty of time left for further escalation.

Every Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., senior DER SPIEGEL editors gather to discuss the lead editorial of the week and ultimately, the meeting seeks to address the question: “What now?” Simply describing a problem isn’t enough, a good editorial should point to potential solutions. It has rarely been as quiet as during this week’s meeting.

Europe should begin preparing for a post-Trump America and seek to avoid provoking Washington until then. It can demonstrate to Iran that it wishes to hold on to the nuclear deal and it can encourage mid-sized companies without American clients to continue doing business with Iranian partners. Perhaps the EU will be able to find ways to protect larger companies. Europe should try to get the United Nations to take action, even if it would only be symbolic given that the U.S. holds a Security Council veto. For years, Europe has been talking about developing a forceful joint foreign policy, and it has become more necessary than ever. But what happens then?

The difficulty will be finding a balance between determination and tact. Triumphant anti-Americanism is just as dangerous as defiance. But subjugation doesn’t lead anywhere either – because Europe cannot support policies that it finds dangerous. Donald Trump also has nothing but disdain for weakness and doesn’t reward it.

Clever resistance is necessary, as sad and absurd as that may sound. Resistance against America.

Combine this with Chancellor Merkel’s recent statements,

as well her remarks which I wrote about here last May when describing how the President’s preferences had brought the American century to and end after 72 years.

The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the last few days.

We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.

and you can begin to see that Chancellor Merkel has fully realized that the US is, at best, an unreliable ally for the foreseeable future.

The outstanding question right now is what is Chancellor Merkel actually going to do. Will she be able to pull in French President Macron and leverage the EU as a counterweight? Does she have the political will, let alone political capital, to increase Germany’s defense sector spending to compensate for the vacuum being created from the President’s longstanding hostilities to America’s allies and partners and his belief that they are taking advantage of us, ripping us off, and laughing at us. Does she have the political capital within the EU to be able to get France and other EU member states to also step up their defense sector spending? And can she do this without making it look like she’s doing it to both oppose the President who doesn’t actually want a strong, unified EU as a counterweight and seem like she’s leading the way to appease the President’s oft stated, but largely inaccurate statements about NATO member spending. Can this be done as Britain lurches its way through Brexit? And can it be done while Putin continues his active measures campaign and cyberwarfare against the US, the EU, and other states?

Chancellor Merkel and President Macron have their work cut out for them. They and their teams have to quickly figure out how to navigate a rebalancing of both the global system and the Western Alliance that has underpinned it since the end of World War II. There is no doubt that the global system needs to be reconceptualized. That is needs to be rebalanced. That the post World War II and post Cold War system are out of date. The complication here, what really makes it a wicked problem, is that because of who the President is and what he beliefs and what his preferences are, this reconceptualization and rebalancing is not being done in a thoughtful and proactive way. It does not include discussions between allies, partners, and even peer competitors to work out the most feasible, acceptable, and suitable – even if it is not the most optimal (perfect) – solution to reconceptualizing and rebalancing the global system to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Ordinarily everyone would expect the US to take a leading role in this process. Instead, because of the President’s preferences for bilateral relations and unilateral actions, the US has accelerated and precipitated the need for this process while abdicating its role within in it. America first increasingly looks like America alone. And America alone will be costly not just for Americans, but for the rest of the world as well. The price to be paid for Making America great again…

Open thread!

* One final point: I am actually working on, if by working on we mean trying to wrap my head around, a book on the Trump Doctrine. Which will likely be titled The Trump Doctrine. So if any of you who have written and published books have suggestions on how to get this thing published, feel free to shoot me an email. The longest thing I’ve written in over a decade of work for the military is the 60 page or so cultural assessment of the operational environment for the Levant plus Iran.



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.



The Turkish Gambit: Erdogan Issues An Ultimatum To the US In Syria

This broke late last night/early this morning:

ANKARA – The United States needs to withdraw from northern Syria’s Manbij region immediately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.

President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq, including Manbij – a move which risks a possible confrontation with U.S. forces allied to the Kurds.

Speaking to reporters, Cavusoglu also said Turkey wanted to see concrete steps by the United States to end its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara said earlier it had been told by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that Washington would not provide the YPG with weapons anymore.

There isn’t a lot of reporting yet on this. But this is worrisome as it would be operationally problematic for US forces to pullback from Manbij. It is also troubling because Erdogan, a NATO ally and partner of the US, specifically sought permission from Moscow for its escalating operations in Syria, not it’s US ally’s.

Moreover, less than 48 hours before the Turkish military operation — ironically dubbed Olive Branch — the Syrian regime in Damascus declared that a Turkish air operation would be met by Syrian missiles. The Syrian statement came while Turkey’s army and intelligence chiefs were in Moscow to get Russian approval and thus, the Syrian statement was interpreted as complementing a previous Russian warning against flying over Russian-controlled airspace over Syria.

The moment Turkish F-16s were in action and Turkish tanks rolled toward Afrin, no one was left with any doubt that Operation Olive Branch had the Russian green light.

The Russian position clearly indicates that the Syrian portion of the chessboard is important for Moscow in its game against Washington. Russia apparently saw a further opportunity to weaken NATO and create more fissures between Ankara and Washington by acquiescing to the Turkish military move into Afrin. The imperatives of Russia’s proxy war against the United States have preponderance over the uncertainties and problems that Turkey’s move could entail.

What we’re seeing is Erdogan’s need to shore up domestic support by targeting Syrian Kurdish groups allegedly connected to the PKK combining with Russia’s desire to drive a wedge into NATO as part of its active measures campaign against the US.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has blamed the US of trying to take control of the whole of Syrian-Turkish and Iraqi-Turkish borders by creating alternative authorities in Syria, pointing fingers at the SDF.

“Washington carries out open, and discreet delivery of arms to Syria for transfer to those groups that cooperate with them, especially to the SDF,” he said on Monday.

According to Mensur Akgun, a Turkish international relations professor, Russia’s move was understandable in light of Turkey’s firm stance on the PYD and YPG, and Moscow’s annoyance with the group’s close cooperation with the US.

“They are getting great support from the US. Washington is using the group, particularly in the east of the Euphrates [river], as a balancing force against the other powers there. They are using the group in order to increase the US presence and activities in this region,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I think this has become obvious with the announcement of the new border force planned to be set up there. Moscow, in my opinion, showed green light to Turkey’s operation to decrease the US influence in the region.”

Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former MP from President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, believes it was Moscow’s way of increasing tensions between Washington and Ankara.

“Russia does not publicly support such a military operation, but it opened the gate for this operation because it basically starts a proxy war between Turkey and the US [through YPG],” he told Al Jazeera.

He added that if the US, Kurds and Turkey fight each other, that would be regarded as a very positive trend by the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and opposes all of those sides.

At this point we have to wait for more information to become available, but this is a very dangerous game being played. The US led coalition needs to maintain a presence in Manbij. It also needs to ensure that Syria’s borders are secure. Both of these have to happen as part of the campaign against ISIS. Turkey’s interest to prevent any Kurdish group from seizing and holding any ground that could be used as the basis for an independent Kurdistan, as well as its increasingly cozy relationship with Russia are very troubling signs. And as we can see with the Russians abandoning their historic support for the Kurds, the Russians are far more interested in rolling back US influence in the region and destabilizing, if not breaking, NATO than maintaining long standing support for a non state proxy. The Syrian Kurds are now learning that they are a disposable piece in Russia’s lukewarm war against the US and NATO. Given all the moving military pieces in play in the Levant, we are far more likely to stumble into something really bad happening here than almost anywhere else on the planet. The question now is, who blinks? The President or Turkey’s Erdogan?

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



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