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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that US Forces and personnel will be immediately, or as immediate as is ever possible when the military is involved, withdrawn from Syria.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 The personnel being withdrawn were working on the civilian side of the Stability Operations we are conducting.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.



Andrea Mitchell’s Interview with DNI Coats

Andrea Mitchell interviewed Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats this afternoon at the Aspen Institute. Some news was made.

This is very, very important information that the DNI decided to share. Specifically, he is not in the loop, at least in regard to matters pertaining to Russia, in regard to what the President is and is not doing! That’s astounding. And it reinforces Susan Glasser’s reporting in The New Yorker (emphasis mine):

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

Unlike Putin, Trump did not brief his own diplomats on the Helsinki meeting. The American Secretary of State, national-security adviser, and Ambassador to Moscow, who attended the lunch after Trump and Putin’s private session, have been publicly silent on the substance of the meetings, leaving it to the Russians, for now, to make claims about what was actually said and done behind closed doors between the two Presidents.

The information provided to America’s top diplomats, those whose job it is to deal with Russia, was just as sparse and potentially incomplete. The Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Russia, Wess Mitchell, on Tuesday briefed the State Department group that has been pulled together to discuss Russia policy before and after the summit. There was no mention of any agreements. “There is no word on agreements,” a senior U.S. official told me. “There is no information on the U.S. side about any agreements.” So was Putin lying? Was Trump? Was it possible there was a misunderstanding, and that Trump thinks he made no commitments and Putin thinks he did? “It is terribly disturbing,” the senior official said. “The point is that we don’t know.”

A U.S. Ambassador in Europe, who has extensive experience dealing with Russia, told me that he and other State Department officials who would need to know have received no post-summit briefings, or even talking points about what happened, both of which would be standard practice after such an important encounter. “Nothing,” he told me. “We are completely in the dark. Completely.”

I’ve twice written about how, because the President is considered to be a security risk when it comes to intelligence/information by US, allied, and partnered intelligence officials, the US was going to be at a disadvantage in regard to intelligence matters. What we know from both Andrea Mitchell’s interview with DNI Coats and Susan Glasser’s reporting, is that the President is compounding this problem by not telling his own senior appointees what they need to know to actually do their jobs effectively.

Here’s the video of the interview. Since I wasn’t around to see the whole thing, I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but the parts of the interview I saw were very informative.

We are off the map and through the looking glass!

Open thread.



The Money! Follow the Money! Australia Broadcasting Corporation Three Part Documentary on the President, His Campaign, and Its Connections to Russia

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has reported a three part documentary series on the President, his campaign, and its connections to Russia entitled Trump/Russia: Follow the Money.

The first part aired last Monday and can be found here. Or on ABC’s iView platform (flash player required). A full transcript for the first episode is available at the link for the first episode. Here’s ABC’s synopsis for their documentary series and an excerpt of their interview with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper from the transcripts of the first episode.

It’s the story of the century: The US President and his connections to Russia.

In a Four Corners special series, award winning investigative reporter Sarah Ferguson follows the spies and the money trail from Washington, to London, to Moscow.

In this three-part series, Four Corners delivers a riveting account of the allegations and evidence from the characters central to the drama that has gripped the world.

On Monday night, the story begins:

Follow the Money: Four Corners follows the money trail from New York to Moscow, tracking the ties between Trump, his business empire and Russia.

Secrets, spies and useful idiots: in part two, Four Corners speaks to key protagonists at the centre of the unfolding drama over members of the Trump team accused of being compromised by Russia.

Moscow Rules: in part three, Four Corners investigates the central allegations that members of the Trump team, including possibly the President himself, actively colluded with Russia to subvert American democracy.

Months in the making, filmed across the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, Sarah Ferguson charts the extraordinary allegations, interrogating the evidence and interviewing central characters in this unfolding story that could be lifted from the pages of a blockbuster spy novel.

A three-part investigative special series reported and presented by Sarah Ferguson, begins Monday 4th June at 8.30pm. It is replayed on Tuesday 5th June at 1.00pm and Wednesday 6th at 11.20pm. It can also be seen on ABC NEWS channel on Saturday at 8.10pm AEST, ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: It starts with a road trip across America in 2014.

Before the US Presidential campaign was underway, before Donald Trump was a serious candidate, two Russian spies were criss-crossing the country, gathering intelligence on the US political system, looking for and finding vulnerabilities.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, US DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Two of the defendants allegedly travelled to the United States in 2014 to collect intelligence for their American influence operations.

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: Initially, and traditionally, these kinds of operations are very innocent in their overt behaviour and appearance.

But that was just kind of foundation building.

Establish a presence, get online, and again, for a long time it would appear to be innocent. But it turns out after time that they weren’t.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: The spies were the forward team from the infamous Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg the front-line organisation in Vladimir Putin’s asymmetrical war against US democracy.

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: For me, I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in 50 years in Intelligence, but it’s very, very disturbing, just viscerally disturbing that an adversary country was aggressive, so aggressively meddling in our political process.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: What was different when you say viscerally disturbing? What was different?

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: I came to understand the magnitude and the aggressiveness and the dimensions of this, it was viscerally, you know, made me ill.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: It made you ill?

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: Yeah.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: Did you share that with your colleagues?

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: Yes. I think it affected all of us that way.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: The spies left America undetected the intelligence they gathered would fuel the cyber war in the coming Presidential election.

SERGEY ALEKSASHENKO, FORMER DEPUTY CHAIRMAN, CENTRAL BANK OF RUSSIA: The idea, underlying idea of Mr Putin was to disturb the situation as much as possible.

To create different tensions, points of tensions, points of social discontent, of political fighting. So, to create turbulence in the stable society.

To make America weak.

The idea of Donald Trump to make America great again, the idea of Vladimir Putin to make American institutions weaker.

SARAH FERGUSON, REPORTER: Do you have any doubt at all about Putin’s authorship of the campaign against America?

JAMES CLAPPER, US DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2010-2017: I do not.

You have to remember, Putin’s personal history.

He’s a KGB officer.

And so, I think there’s an innate resentment and aversion to the United States and what we stand for and our system.

Part two airs tonight (Australian time) at this link and focuses on, among others, Carter Page and George Papadopolous. Here’s their extended interview with Carter Page from tonight’s episode:

And here’s their extended interview with Tim O’Brien, one of the President’s biographers, discussing the way the President conducts business:

Part three should air next week.

I expect Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow will be on CNN any minute now condemning Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull for allowing Australia’s national and government funded broadcaster to undermine the President 1/2 an hour before he meets one on one with Kim Jung On and only a pair of interpreters.

Open thread!



The Lajes Vector: Congressman Nunes Gets Stiffed

As was the case with Congressman Nunes’ memo and his decision to prematurely end the superficial House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) investigation into the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaign against the US, Congressman Nunes didn’t seem to accomplish much as a result of the DOJ briefings he demanded yesterday. From the AP:

It was unclear how much information was given to lawmakers. According to a U.S. official familiar with the meeting, the briefers did not reveal the name of an informant. They brought documents but did not share them, and made several remarks about the importance of protecting intelligence sources and methods. The person declined to be identified because the briefing was classified.

Nunes attended both briefings Thursday. According to the U.S. official and another person briefed on the Capitol Hill meeting, Nunes did not speak at all during the briefing. The second person also declined to be named because the meeting was classified.

According to the AP’s reporting, the DOJ and FBI did not provide the covered human source’s identity despite it having been speculated about in right wing online media sources since March and circulating in the news media for the past ten days or so. This is significant. This was Deputy AG Rosenstein and FBI Director Wray reinforcing that they will not disclose methods and sources to Congress or the White House via their pets in Congress, which is as it should be as sources and methods are outside of need to know for congressional oversight. I’m sure this won’t stop right wing news and social media from promoting the absolutely bizarre conspiracy that the highest echelons of the DOJ and the FBI, as well as the career personnel in the national security division conspired with both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign and Vladimir Putin to frame the current President as a Russian dupe in order to prevent him from being elected. While keeping it all secret!

That’s always been the most insane portion of all of this. That there was a far ranging conspiracy to prevent the President’s election that included President Obama, the appointed and career leadership at the DOJ, FBI, DNI, CIA, and NSA, as well as career personnel in the DOJ and FBI’s national security directorate. That it was all coordinated with Secretary Clinton’s campaign. And that they were all conspiring with Vladimir Putin. All to prevent the President from being elected by tainting his campaign with the false narrative of being not just favored by Vladimir Putin, but actively seeking to work with and/or working with Vladimir Putin. And that the parties to the conspiracy were so successful in their secret plotting against the President and his campaign that they lied to reporters from The New York Times and other news media all the way through the election in order to keep the conspiracy a secret. And, as a result, the conspiracy actually failed and the President’s campaign was successful and he was elected because no one knew about it. Which, of course, makes no sense and is belied by every reported fact over the past two years about the President’s campaign and the people working on it.

What really needs to happen now is that the DOJ and the FBI need to ascertain who leaked the covered human sources identity to Chuck Ross at Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller. Leaks of covered human sources are direct threats to the national security of the United States. They place the covered human source at risk. They place anyone who is contact with the covered human source at risk even if these people are not subjects or targets of any intelligence or criminal investigation. When these types of leaks happen the families, friends, professional colleagues, neighbors, and even casual personal and professional acquaintances of the covered human source are placed at risk. And they make it much, much harder for the US to both recruit new covered human sources in the future and for the US’s allies and partners to share information from their own covered human sources.

Reporting on covered human sources – and I want to be very clear here – is protected under the 1st Amendment. Even though that reporting is also a direct threat to the national security of the United States. Ross is rightfully off limits because of the 1st Amendment, but whoever provided that information to him needs to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Stay clandestine!

Open thread.

* Just a quick note, before anyone asks in the comments, Congressman Nunes’ family came to the US from Lajes in the Azores. And ever since he got himself onto the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence he’s been trying to relocate significant amounts of US intelligence capability to Lajes, which makes no logistical or financial sense, but would enrich his relatives and their friends. I wrote about this here. And it’s why I use Lajes in the titles of my Nunes’ posts, like the title for a weird Ludlum like novel.



A Follow Up Regarding DNI Clapper’s Statements That The Russians Actually Influenced The Outcome Of The 2016 US Election

I just wanted to quickly follow up on AL’s earlier post regarding DNI Clapper’s remarks that:

“Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point. Less than eighty thousand votes in three key states swung the election. I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by this massive effort by the Russians.”

Was there active collusion between the Trump campaign — or the candidate himself — and Russian proxies or agents? Clapper does not go that far because he doesn’t have proof. But what he calls Trump’s “aggressive indifference” to the intelligence community’s detailed presentation of Russian activities is, in his view, damning enough. “Allegations of collusion and the results of the election were secondary to the profound threat Russia posed — and poses — to our system,” Clapper writes, and he does a fair job explaining why.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has just released a working paper entitledSocial Media, Sentiment and Public Opinions: Evidence from #Brexit and #USElection. Here’s a link to a pdf of the report, which I’ll also attach to the bottom of the post. I want to excerpt this bit from the introduction to the paper (emphasis mine):

We find that information about the Brexit and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is disseminated and absorbed among Twitter users within 50-70 minutes. This suggests that information rigidity could be very low for critically important issues with wide coverage or that news cycles in social media are short-lived. We also observe the differential impact of tweeting activities by user type. For example, “remain” supporters in the Brexit Referendum respond stronger and faster to messages created by other “remain” supporters when compared with the reaction to messages from “leave” supporters. Furthermore, human tweeting activity could be influenced by bots. The degree of influence depends on whether a bot provides information consistent with the priors of a human. For instance, a bot supporting the “leave” campaign has a stronger impact on a “leave” supporter than a “remain” supporter. Similarly, Trump supporters are more likely to react to messages spread by pro-Trump bots. Further examination shows that the sentiment of tweets plays an important role in how information is spread: a message with positive (negative) sentiment generates another message with the same sentiment. These results provide evidence consistent with the “echo chambers” effect in social media; that is, people tend to select themselves into groups of like-minded people so that their beliefs are reinforced while information from outsiders might be ignored. Therefore, social media platforms like Twitter could enhance ideological segmentation and make information more fragmented rather than more uniform across people. Finally, we provide a quantitative assessment of how bots’ traffic contributed to the actual vote outcomes. Our results suggest that, given narrow margins of victories in each vote, bots’ effect was likely marginal but possibly large enough to affect the outcomes.

And this section from Section E of the findings on p. 20 of the report (emphasis mine):

But again, even this small difference could have played an important role in the outcome of these close-call elections. Specifically, our analysis in Section 2.5 suggests that a percentage point increase in the share of pro-Trump tweets in total tweets is associated with a 0.59 percentage point increase in the share of actual pro-Trump votes. Therefore, the observed difference between actual and counterfactual pro-Trump tweet shares suggests that 3.23 percentage points of the actual vote could be rationalized with the influence of bots.

This is one econometric analysis of the effects of the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaign against the US in the 2016 election and the UK during the Brexit referendum. It is an important piece of unclassified, open sourced supporting analysis to DNI Clapper’s conclusions. But the research shows that there is a strong correlation between the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaign and shifts in voting in the US and the UK. This research is not conclusive. It does not and cannot put an end to the suspicions or concerns, but it is important as part of the larger explanation of what happened in the 2016 presidential election and the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Open thread!

Brexit_Election