Streetwise Professor

October 17, 2015

An Innocent Abroad: Fred Hof and the Intellectual Failure of American Foreign Policy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:05 am

Fred Hof, former “special advisor for transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State,” has written a self-flaggelating flagellating piece about his-and the United States’-failure in Syria. It is part damning indictment of himself and the State Department, and part damning indictment of Obama.

A recurrent theme-implicit, not explicit-is Hof’s incredible naiveté. He was repeatedly fooled by the man he was supposedly working with-Bashir al-Assad-and the man he was working for-Barack Obama. He was fooled because he romantically projected his own beliefs on them, and because he engaged in wishful thinking, when he would have been better served to live by Lily Tomlin’s credo: “We try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.”

Hof was-and remains-genuinely shocked that Assad reacted brutally to the first outbreak of opposition to his regime:

I did not think it inevitable that Assad—a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century—would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach.

. . . .

By firing on peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, gunmen of the Syrian security services shredded any claim Assad had to governing legitimately. Indeed, Assad himself—as president of the Syrian Arab Republic and commander in chief of the armed forces—was fully responsible for the shoot-to-kill atrocities.

Hof actually believed that computer savviness was some marker for civilized values? He believed that Assad would actually care if his crimes were witnessed by the world? Cringemaking.

Look. Dictum 1 of the Dictator’s Handbook says, in bold, italicized type: “Every dictator who has attempted ‘political outreach’ to opponents has ended up at the end of a rope or bleeding in the dirt. Crush all dissent mercilessly.”

Furthermore, Hof’s optimistic view was completely oblivious to Syria’s history. In the 1970s and early-1980s, Assad’s father faced an extreme threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood came close to assassinating him, and he responded by extirpating the organization in Syria, most infamously by attacking Hama with armor, artillery, and air power, resulting in the deaths of thousands (which Brotherhood propaganda has succeeded in inflating to 40-50,000). Assad no doubt had intelligence about the resurgence of the MB within Syria, and throughout the Middle East generally. He no doubt understood that the “Arab Spring” was largely the Muslim Brotherhood Spring-something that those in the West generally and the US in particular still fail to grasp. Even if he didn’t know these things, he certainly feared them, and was not going to take any chances that the protests in Deraa were fronting for, or would be exploited by, the Brotherhood.

In other words, the chances he would not have responded to any protest with extreme force were somewhere between zero and none.

But the US, and this administration in particular, not only seems oblivious to the Muslim Brotherhood’s malignity, it actually thinks that it is a progressive force in the Middle East.

Hof also took at face value Assad’s representation that he would sever all ties with Hezbollah in exchange for a return of the Golan heights. This was wishful thinking in the extreme. Just how far did Hof think that the Iranians would let Assad proceed down this path? Iran’s interest in Syria is primarily because it is their vital bridge to Hezbollah. Iran is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. If he had tried to sell out Hezbollah to achieve a deal with Israel, the Iranians would have been in a race with the Brotherhood to kill him.

Indeed, Hof understood this at some level, but chose to ignore it:

Fully complicit in the Assad regime’s impressive portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Iran relies on its client to secure its overland reach into Lebanon.

As for the man he worked for, Hof reminds me of Flounder in Animal House: “You fucked up! You trusted us!“:

My failure to predict the extent of Syria’s fall was, in large measure, a failure to understand the home team. In August 2011, Barack Obama said Assad should step aside. Believing the president’s words guaranteed decisive follow-up, I told a congressional committee in December 2011 that the regime was a dead man walking. When the president issued his red-line warning, I fearlessly predicted (as a newly private citizen) that crossing the line would bring the Assad regime a debilitating body blow. I still do not understand how such a gap between word and deed could have been permitted. It is an error that transcends Syria.

“Such a gap between word and deed” is the essence of the Obama way. And please. Obama ran in 2008 on disengaging militarily from the Middle East. He ran on the view that US military intervention was inevitably counterproductive. He ran in 2012 bragging about ending the war in Iraq, and took the opportunity to remind the world yet again of his belief of the futility of American military engagement in the Middle East.

You see, there are some words that Obama utters that conform to his deeds almost exactly. The key is understanding which words he means, and which ones he doesn’t. Hof again let his magical thinking delude him into believing that Obama meant the things he said that Hof agreed with, instead of realizing that these words contradicted Obama’s core beliefs, and were uttered for the sole purpose of meeting “a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements.”

Hof deserves credit for admitting his failures so openly, and I can sympathize on a human level. What is disturbing is that his failure is symptomatic of deeper institutional failures in the United States foreign policy establishment. The examples are many, but Syria alone provides some particularly damning ones. How long has the US been chasing the Assad chimera? Remember Warren Christopher panting after Assad père during the Clinton administration? Nancy Pelosi meeting with and gushing over the Chinless Ophthalmologist in 2007? John Kerry chasing after Assad for years, finally dining with him and his wife in Damascus, then saying this?:

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

In the same year, when he once again wanted to go to Syria, his visit was blocked by the Obama administration.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” he said after his March speech. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

He mentioned some of the requests, including the purchase of land for the US Embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural centre, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq and Bahrain, and said Mr Assad had met each one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

A few years later, of course, Kerry was comparing Assad to Hitler and pressing for air strikes- a call that Obama spurned. A perfect demonstration of Kerry’s lack of judgment, discernment, and just plain seriousness.

No. Fred Hof is not the problem. Fred Hof is a symptom of a bigger problem: the intellectual failings of American foreign policy.

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October 12, 2015

From the Ridiculous to the Absurd Is But A Single Step: A New Rebel Group Magically Appears in Syria

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

If there’s been a bigger debacle for the US military since St. Clair’s Defeat in 1791 than the fiasco of arming the “moderate” Syrian resistance, I would be hard pressed to name it.

First, there was the fact that the pitifully small number of recruits that we managed to scrape together were either killed or captures no sooner than they had set foot into Syrian territory. Then, other groups turned over arms and equipment to al Nusra to secure safe passage. Then the Russians bombed the snot out of our (CIA-trained) forces while Kerry mewled in protest.

So it was announced that the Pentagon-run train and equip program was being terminated. But check that! The mission has not been ended. Train no: equip yes. We will just give arms to “leaders” we’ve vetted and let them hand them out to . . . whomever.

Meanwhile, in a 60 Minutes interview Obama said that he had been skeptical of arming the opposition from the get-go. (This is no doubt true: remember his dismissive remarks from last year about the futility of arming pharmacists and farmers and expecting them to beat an organized army?)

This immediately raises the questions: (a) then why did you, as commander of chief, permit the program to proceed? (b) if you were going to let it proceed, why didn’t you demand changes to give it a reasonable chance of achieving some success?

What’s more, despite Obama’s alleged skepticism, he is permitting yet another effort. This one would make Rube Goldberg proud. This is so bizarre that you might think I’m playing some sort of joke on you, but I swear, I’m just passing along what’s been reported.

Lo and behold, last night, almost at the exact same time Obama was heaping scorn on the idea of supporting armed opposition groups, a new Syrian resistance group magically appeared: The Democratic Forces of Syria.

It’s sort of the Rainbow Coalition of Syria. Kurds. Arabs. Assyrian Christians. So you should feel all warm and fuzzy about the inclusiveness of the new group.

If you believe the formation this group, and its allegedly ecumenical nature, was spontaneous and indigenous, I have some oceanfront property in Wyoming to sell you.

Bolstered by American arms, the mission of the new group is to advance on Raqqa, and drive ISIS from its Syrian capital. The Kurdish YPG has gained some success against ISIS, and would obviously be the core of any new force.

But we aren’t arming the Kurds! Because that would infuriate Erdogan and Turkey, and he could very well back out of his agreement to allow the US access to Incirlik, and do other nefarious things to kneecap the American efforts (such as they are) against ISIS. So we’re doing this instead:

Officials emphasized that U.S. military aid will go directly to the Arabs, not the Kurds, but the Kurdish fighters stand to benefit from the decision. To date, Washington has hesitated to hand equipment directly to the Kurds. Instead, they send materiel through the central government of Iraq. The new aid will be transported directly to Syria, where Arab groups are expected to launch a new offensive in and around Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital, while the Kurds continue to hold border areas where together they have succeeded in routing the militants.

The Kurds are the most effective military force in the region, and the Arabs have been completely unheard from in this sector, so we arm the latter and let the former cool their heels.

From the ridiculous to the absurd is but a single step.

To quote Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

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October 8, 2015

Why Don’t Journalists Scrutinize the Oracle of Syria?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 5:04 pm

One of the most irritating things about coverage of the war in Syria is that virtually every story relies on a single source, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for the bulk of its (alleged) in-country information. This story from Reuters is an example.

The problem is that the Observatory isn’t in country at all. It’s a one man operation run by Rami Abdulrahman from his flat in London,where he’s lived for 15 years.

Despite the distance, and the fog of war, Rami provides exceptionally detailed reports on military operations by all sides in real time. Not a sparrow falls in Syria without Rami’s knowledge. Particularly suspicious are his precise casualty counts. It’s never “around 20 were reported killed.” It’s always “22 were killed” or “27 were killed.” There is seldom that precision in mass casualty reports even in the US, sometimes for days after the event occurs.

Rami’s distance, the extremely fragmented nature of the contestants (the opposition groups number in the dozens), the inherent uncertainties of first person accounts, the incentive of those on the ground to lie, his inability to verify information, and on and on and on should raise serious doubts about his accuracy, even if you don’t wonder about his potential interest. His background strongly suggests a Muslim Brotherhood connection. (The MB was the heart of the anti-Assad opposition for years before the war broke out. That’s who Assad père was trying to wipe out in Hama in 1982.)

Yet I have yet to see one serious journalist inquire about him or his operation, or question his/its reliability. Instead, he is universally treated like some sort of oracle, all knowing and all seeing. Is it just because it’s too hard to report from Syria, and just too easy to pretend that the guy in London knows everything there is to know?

Since the vast bulk of stories rely on this single, doubtful source, it all must be questioned. And he must be questioned, not least by those who rely on him as their primary source. And you must question any article that relies heavily on him. Which means, you must question pretty much every article about Syria.

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October 7, 2015

We Need to Choose Our Battles, and Syria Isn’t It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:04 pm

The hysteria over Russian actions in Syria continues. The Russians are making token strikes-at most-against ISIS, and are focusing their firepower on other anti-regime forces in the west of the country.

Well, of course they are. Putin’s objective is to save Assad’s regime. Its core area in the west. The greatest threat is in the west. So that’s where the bulk of the blows will fall.

Today’s cruise missile attack, launched from the Caspian is partly showing off (especially showing off the fact that Iran and Iraq had to concur), but it also makes military sense as part of a preparatory bombardment supporting a counterattack by regime forces, which is apparently in progress. This demonstrates that the Russian air campaign is part of a coherent military operation which integrates air and ground elements. This presents a stark contrast to the air-only US campaign against ISIS, which cannot achieve any decisive result whatsoever. (It remains to be seen whether Russian air support is sufficient to overcome the extreme shakiness of the Syrian army, which wasn’t much to start with and which has been relentlessly ground down by four years of brutal war.) (In contrast to the coherent Russian effort, the US attacks in Syria yesterday involved destroying two “crude oil collection facilities.” Really. No excavators were available?)

There is also hysteria about Russian lying about what they are doing.  This is like attacking a cobra for striking. It’s what they do.

Most of the frenzy focuses on the Russians’ targeting of “our” rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Yes, this is quite deliberate, and a strike at the US for having the temerity of supporting the anti-Assad effort. Putin views this as a part of a broader struggle against the US.

So should the US respond to the challenge frontally, in Syria?  No. And it’s not even a close call.

First, what is the strategic objective to be gained? I find it hard to see an important security interest in Syria. And overthrowing Assad because he’s a monster could be justified, except that monsters-and arguably worse monsters than Assad-will take over. An Assad rout would likely result in a bacchanal of sectarian violence which would result in the extirpation of non-Sunni communities in Syria. There has not been one Middle East war that has ended in anything closely resembling peace, and the circumstances in Syria are even less favorable to such an outcome than in Iraq and Libya.

Second, the idea that the there is a serious “moderate” opposition in Syria is not true today, and arguably never was true. The FSA’s day passed years ago, and our track record of identifying moderate, secular forces in this region is appallingly bad.

Those that are pushing this fantasy include John McCain, who is detached from reality on this issue. Others include journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, who have been flogging this narrative for four years, and are frantically doing so now: the more implausible the narrative becomes, the more frenzied they become. One should note that Hassan is tightly connected with UAE, which has been the main supporter of the anti-Assad opposition from the beginning, and Weiss’s connections are murky, and his pom-pomming for a Syrian opposition that is lousy with Islamists raises questions.

(And by the way: I thought the CIA program to arm the opposition was supposed to be covert. Why are we blabbing about it?)

Third, what can be done? The idée du jour supported by left (Hillary Clinton) and right (several GOP candidates, including Rubio, Fiorina, and Christie), is a no fly zone. This is superficially appealing because it relies purely on American airpower, and thus does not require a ground commitment. This virtue is in fact a measure of the non-seriousness of the idea.  It would not have been militarily decisive before the Russians arrived because Assad’s air force played only a marginal role in the conflict. Now it would require a confrontation with the Russians, because it is the Russians that are flying. Why engage in a confrontation that could lead to unpredictable developments elsewhere, and which (per the above) would not result in any material strategic gainer the US?

Rubio goes further, plumping for a “safe zone” that somehow will magically be radical Islamist-free. How this would work outside of some Harry Potter-esque fantasy is beyond me. Further, note the “safe zone” idea is a favorite of Erdogan. Who has been a major supporter of the Islamist groups in Syria. It appears for all the world that Rubio has bought a bill of goods from the GCC and the Turks about the Syrian opposition.

If you look at the correlation of forces (as the Soviets put it), and the strategic stakes, deeper US involvement in Syria makes no sense. The odds of prevailing are low, and the gains from winning are trivial, and likely non-existent.

Russia’s aggressiveness is indeed a concern, and someone with Putin’s mindset will be emboldened if he believes that he will meet no resistance. But an asymmetric response, an indirect approach, is more advisable. Russia’s vulnerabilities are economic and financial, and its greatest sensitivities are on in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine.

One last thing. The sputtering denunciations of Putin, notably again by McCain and others, are profoundly counterproductive. They only contribute to Putin’s image as some sort of colossus, which only encourages more aggressiveness and more admiration for him. At the other extreme, the administration’s mewling protests that the Syrian intervention is a testament to Putin’s weakness is just plain pathetic, especially since it is not accompanied by any countermoves anywhere.

Unfortunately, this administration is has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the strategic dexterity to respond effectively, or even coherently. We will have to wait another 15 months at least for a reach change. Unfortunately, there’s not much to look forward to on that front, as none of the Republican candidates have impressed in the least. Rubio particularly disappointed not just because of the safe zone inanity, but because of his clueless remark that Syria is a battle for the future of Sunni Islam: (a) this is not our battle, and (b) it it mimics Saudi and Qatar Sunni chauvinism, and their interests are not ours, in the slightest. (How often has our anger at Iran blinded us to the fact that the Saudis are a deeply malign force too? I actually have a grudging respect for the Iranians. At least they are quite open about their hatred for us.)

We need to pick our battles, and Syria isn’t it. The obsession with it is distracting from the true objective, which should be to construct a coherent strategic response to Putin that exploits our comparative advantages, rather than confronting him where he can exploit his.

 

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September 30, 2015

Let Putin Find Out the Hard Way

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:13 pm

I have no need to demonstrate my anti-Putin bona fides, but I just roll my eyes at the hysterical response to his intervention in Syria, and today’s launch of Russian bombing operations.  There is much shrieking about the fact that the Russians say they are bombing Isis, but in fact launched a raid on Homs where Isis was not present.

The Russian response is, basically: “Hey, they all look alike to us.” There is much truth to that.

This is not that complicated:

  1. Russia is intervening to save Assad from imminent defeat, and to protect its ports in Syria.
  2. Isis is not the most immediate threat to either Assad or the Russian facilities.
  3. Therefore, Russia will focus on non-Isis targets, while claiming to be fighting Isis.

This is really not that much different than the Turks using Isis as a pretext to attack their real enemy, the PKK.

Yes, this campaign will help Assad, and Assad is an evil bastard. But the Islamists that are dominating the anti-Assad forces are evil bastards too. Many are Al Qaeda offshoots, and others are indistinguishable from Al Qaeda in their ideology and agenda. Or from Isis, for that matter. They are Sunni supremacist Islamists. And wouldn’t you know, we are fighting Sunni supremacist Islamists around the world, and have been for going on 15 years.

There are no good guys in Syria. Stop pretending there are: there is considerable reason to doubt there ever were. And any differences between Isis and the non-Isis Islamists the Russians are bombing are trivial. They do all pretty much look (and act) alike. And what’s more, pretty much everyone in the West looks the same to them: they all think your head would look just splendid mounted on a spike in the front yard.

And yes, Assad’s forces will slaughter his foes if they win. But Assad’s foes will slaughter Assad’s supporters if they win. Syria is a charnel house being fought over by demons.  There is a symmetry of evil.

It is particularly rich that those who are shrieking about Russian involvement say that it will radicalize Sunnis.

Um, where are these people been? Since like 700AD, let alone since 2001 or 2011? Radicalization is a done deal, and the most that the Russians can do is gild that lily.

Moreover, I actually find myself agreeing with some in the administration here. If you truly believe that Syria is a pointless slaughter that we should avoid at all costs (and I believe that is the case today), why would you oppose Putin jumping in? The administration believes (rightly) that we have no current military options that would generate results that even remotely justify the costs: the military realities are exactly the same for Putin. Yes, he will likely secure a rump Syria with its shambolic Russian port facilities (which is more than we could gain). But his airpower is going to be no more decisive than ours, and he is putting himself at risk of getting sucked in more deeply in ways that will cost him blood and treasure that he can’t afford.

As I said before: don’t interrupt an enemy while he is making a mistake.

As for the US, Russian involvement is leading some to advocate getting more heavily involved ourselves. Another military adage is: don’t reinforce failure. Failure is the charitable way of describing US policy in Syria. Don’t reinforce it. Let it go. It’s past our ability to save, or even palliate. It’s done. Both sides.

Let Putin find out the hard way.

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September 19, 2015

Putin Has Made His Sandbox. Let Him Play In It.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:04 pm

In my humble opinion, too many people are way overthinking what Putin is doing in Syria. It seems pretty straightforward. A long-time Soviet and Russian client was on the verge of collapse: the loss of Idlib earlier this month, after a long battle which ground inexorably against Assad, represented a major blow. Syria is Russia’s only outpost in the Middle East, and is also important to Iran, with which Russia cooperates because they share a common enemy: the US. Absent Russian intervention, Assad’s destruction appeared imminent.

Meaning that this is more of a rearguard action, defending the rump of the Syrian state, than an offensive thrust. And it is a reaction to events, not a part of some grand geopolitical strategy.

Some get this.

Donbas is a precedent. Direct Russian military intervention only occurred last August when it seemed that the Ukrainian army was on the verge of crushing the rebels. Once the situation stabilized, Putin seemed-and still seems-to be willing to accept a stalemate.

As for the military effect, the major resources committed appear to be aircraft, and ground units to protect them and their bases. The US campaign against ISIS shows that air power alone is unlikely to be decisive. The Russians have Assad’s army to work with, but it is battered and demoralized after four years of war, and even with air support is unlikely to be capable of sustained offensive action. It is probably on a par with the Iraqi army in terms of combat effectiveness (and may be worse), and past months have shown that even with US (and some Iraqi) air support, the Iraqi army can’t wage offensive warfare. I seriously doubt the Syrian army can either, even with additional Russian air support. Thus, the most likely outcome of the Russian intervention is to stave off Assad’s defeat and perpetuate the stalemate.

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Washington and Europe, but since they haven’t done anything in the past four years and had no plans of doing anything serious going forward, this reaction is decidedly overwrought.

The administration persists in its pathetic insistence that Assad must go. Today Kerry repeated this demand, but said Assad’s departure doesn’t have to happen on day one or month one. What about century one? That seems feasible.

The US wants to negotiate Assad’s departure, and somehow thinks it can enlist Russia in this effort. That is utterly delusional, especially now that Russia has upped its commitment to Assad. It is also delusional because by making it clear that the US will not do anything serious to combat Assad (especially since that would anger its new BFF, Iran). Our negotiation leverage is therefore bupkis. Therefore, it is better for Kerry and Obama to keep quiet, and let the world think that they are neutered losers, rather than speak up and remove all doubt.

The biggest loser in this is Israel. Iran cares about Syria primarily because it is its bridge to Hezbollah. Israel has periodically launched air attacks in Syria to prevent the movement of advanced weapons (especially anti-aircraft missiles) to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Russian presence complicates Israel’s problem greatly. But of course, this is probably a feature not a bug from Obama’s perspective.

The puzzle is Turkey. Turkey wants to see Assad’s destruction, and is perfectly fine with replacing him with Islamist radicals. Russian intervention reduces the odds of Assad’s defeat, and this is a defeat for Turkey. I have no idea how someone as erratic  as Erdogan will respond. One response will likely be greater covert support for the jihadists fighting Assad.

In sum, Putin’s actions in Syria will perpetuate a grim status quo, rather than cause a dramatic change in the strategic situation in the Middle East.  What happens going forward depends in large part on developments on the ground. If the current level of intervention is insufficient to slow the crumbling of the Assad regime, how much further will Putin be willing to go? His resources are constrained. As I wrote earlier, he faces daunting logistic difficulties in mounting a bigger intervention.

Regardless, we (in the US) are cast in the role of spectators: as Anthony Cordesman notes (perhaps stating the obvious), at present the US has no realistic military options in Syria. Obama made that choice four years ago, and reiterated his choice in 2013. Putin is now making his choice, and will have to live with the consequences: his options are no more palatable that the US’s (though he does have a coherent objective, which the US does not have and never had). We should leave him to it.

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September 12, 2015

Let Vlad Have His Victory, and Hope He Pays Dearly For It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:07 pm

The last few days have seen a frenzy of outrage at Russia’s reinforcement of Assad in Syria, including the deployment of naval infantry at some bases in the country. As someone with a solid nine years of writing to establish my anti-Putin cred, I can still say that I don’t see what the fuss is about.

Russia has long propped up Assad. This latest activity is a continuation of that policy, and is driven by Assad’s deteriorating position. Since Assad is going down, Putin feels compelled to step up.

The intervention is limited. The very fact that naval infantry is involved indicates its limited nature. Dismissing Michael Weiss’s hyperventilating about these being Putin’s “Dirty War Forces”, and focusing on military realities, Russian naval infantry has little combat power, and very little offensive capability. It can seize and defend ports and airfields, and carry out some commando-type direct action operations. And that’s about it. A low-endurance, low-firepower, light force not suited for grinding ground combat in a large theater like Syria. It is there to defend ports and airfields that will be used for resupply and perhaps to intensify the air campaign against the anti-Assad forces.

The targets will in the main not be Isis. Other jihadi groups pose a more serious threat to Assad, and that is who he (and the Russians) will focus on. Indeed, by complicating air operations, Russian presence will impede the US campaign (such as it is) against Isis.

The main reason for the outrage at the Russian action is that it aids Assad, and Assad is a very bad man.

Yes, he is. And the time to do something about him is long past. Four years past. Three years at the low end. But Obama and the rest of the west harrumphed and said that Assad must go, but did nothing. Red lines were drawn, and trespassed, with no consequence. Since then, the war in Syria has descended into an apocalyptic battle between Assad and a mind-numbing array of psychotic, murderous jihadi groups: Assad’s enemies are very, very bad men too. (Even if Assad’s overthrow had been engineered in 2011 or early 2012, it is doubtful that any good would have come with it, given Obama’s and Europe’s neuralgia to securing the peace in the aftermath of the toppling of a dictator. See, for instance, Libya.)

Now it is too late to do anything to stem the holocaust. Regardless of who “wins”, the aftermath will be a bacchanal of sectarian slaughter.  And since stalemate is the most likely outcome, no one will win, and a bacchanal of grinding slaughter will occur anyways.

When questioned about Russia’s intervention, Obama recycled one of his tiresome memes, this one in the Putin-is-swimming-against-the-tide-of-history vein. He said the Russian effort is doomed to failure. This meme is quite convenient in that it relieves him of  any responsibility to do anything: history will take care of it! Given that at this time there is nothing that can really be done to prevent Syria’s descent into the abyss, and based on form, whatever Obama does is likely to make it worse, this is probably a good thing.

That aside, the issue becomes how do you define failure? With sufficient commitment of resources, Putin can likely ensure that Assad can maintain a rump state on the Syrian coast, and provide Putin a foothold in the Middle East. That’s enough for Putin.

As for vanquishing jihadi groups, let alone Isis, Putin couldn’t care less. Putin can realistically achieve his ambitions, and if he does, it is unlikely to have any material impact on US interests.  The effort is not doomed to failure, understood from Putin’s perspective, and the US should be rather indifferent to whether it succeeds or not.

Indeed, since Russian involvement is unlikely to have any effect on the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe, but will be a drain on already strained Russian resources, it could well be a plus for the US. Why should we care if Putin perpetuates his Syrian ulcer? Indeed, a cynical realpolitik type would probably conclude that we should stand aside and let an already struggling Putin throw his scarce resources into a battle where stalemate is the best that can be achieved. As Napoleon said: “Don’t interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” A Putin stuck in a Syrian quagmire is less able to make mischief elsewhere.

Seriously, if perpetuating Assad’s rule over a wrecked Syria is victory, what would defeat look like? If that’s how Putin wants to fritter away his limited capabilities, so be it. It won’t make the carnage in Syria any worse, and doesn’t injure US interests. Let Vlad have his victory, and hope he pays dearly for it.

 

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September 8, 2015

Dear Mr. President: FU. Sincerely, the Pentagon

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:16 pm

The Bowe Bergdahl case largely disappeared from view, likely because it was overtaken by so many other foreign policy foulups. The Isis explosion. The Syria implosion. The Iran capitulation.

But the story re-emerged yesterday. Well, sort of re-emerged: the coverage has been muted, at best, despite the fact that the charges are sensational.

Not only did the Pentagon charge Bergdahl with desertion: they charged him with “misbehavior before the enemy,” which could result in his incarceration for life. This is about the most serious charge that can be brought. The UCMJ equivalent of the white feather:

Article 99—Misbehavior before the enemy

Text. “Any member of the armed forces who before or in the presence of the enemy—

(1) runs away;

(2) shamefully abandons, surrenders, or delivers up any command, unit, place, or military property which it is his duty to defend;

(3) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property;

(4) casts away his arms or ammunition;

(5) is guilty of cowardly conduct;

(6) quits his place of duty to plunder or pillage;

(7) causes false alarms in any command, unit, or place under control of the armed forces;

(8) willfully fails to do his utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy any enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is his duty so to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy; or

(9) does not afford all practicable relief and assistance to any troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces belonging to the United States or their allies when engaged in battle; shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” ….

Maximum punishment. All offenses under Article 99. Death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

Based on what was reported about Bergdahl’s conduct, there is a colorable case that he violated (1)-(5), and (7)-(8).

The White House fought tooth and nail to stop the Pentagon from charging Bergdahl for desertion: bad optics, dontcha know, to have embraced a deserter’s family in the Rose Garden, and to have traded 5 hard core terrorists for him.

The Pentagon not only defied Obama on this: they doubled down and charged Bergdahl with desertion and cowardice before the enemy. A charge almost never used. So the Pentagon is saying: Mr. President, you embraced the family of an utterly dishonorable coward in the Rose Garden, and traded five terrorists for him.

FU, in other words.

I have been writing for some time that I suspect that there is intense conflict between the White House and the Pentagon. This event is clear evidence that those suspicions are true. (The ongoing Gitmo saga is another example.) The Bergdahl swap offended the Pentagon’s sense of honor, and this is its way of making that plain.

Unfortunately, this has largely fallen on deaf ears. There has basically been one AP story, which appeared on Labor Day. (My guess is that the administration pressured the Pentagon to bury the story on a holiday weekend.) As usual, the media covers for Obama.

It is a big deal-or it should be-when the Pentagon defies the president so flagrantly, and pugnaciously. That is the sign of a deeply dysfunctional civilian-military relationship. This is particularly disturbing when the nation faces so many security challenges simultaneously: under these circumstances, it is dangerous to have a military at odds with its commander in chief, and vice versa. This story is about much more than Bergdahl. But it is getting no coverage whatsoever. Instead, we get wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump Circus. Both are symptoms of a troubled Republic.

Update (9/9/15). For further evidence of a deeply dysfunctional relationship between civilian command authority and the military, see this article about alleged distortion of intelligence about the “war” against Isis. This administration corrupts all it touches. The VA. The IRS. The EPA. And now, the military and the intelligence community.

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September 6, 2015

If You Are Going to Talk Smack About a Four Star, You Better Back it Up: John Schindler Doesn’t

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

Twitter is a strange place, part information gold mine, part cesspool. One of the distinctive phenomena is that of the Twitter exhibitionist who tweets incessantly, and gains a following of acolytes who retweet and tweet sick-making praise to him (or her). The exhibitionist often has some expertise, but usually gains a following more through repetition, bravado and the ignorance of the followers, who often don’t know any better.

One such exhibitionist is John Schindler, who in addition to being a Twitter exhibitionist, is one in real life: he had to resign his position at the Naval War College in disgrace because he texted below-the-belt selfies to a woman, who (a) did not appreciate it, and (b) was not impressed. Normal people would go under a rock and hide after such humiliation. But not Schindler. He laid low for a while, but soon returned to Twitter with a vengeance. He has parlayed his Twitter fame into appearances on Fox News and guest pieces at various publications, including the Daily Beast and the L.A. Times.

He is a nasty piece of work, as a look at his timeline shows. Recently he leveled a very bitter attack on the retiring Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno:

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Odierno’s sin? At the time of his mandatory retirement, he signed on as an advisor to Jamie Dimon at J. P. Morgan. So this apparently makes him a sellout and a whore.

What was he supposed to do? Take up needlepoint? Commit seppuku for “fucking over soldiers” and “losing wars”?

And let’s look at Schindler’s accusations. As for being a “mouth breather” and “idiot”, Odierno has a masters degree in nuclear effects engineering. A subject a little bit more rigorous than Schindler’s (history). It’s not a subject for dummies. (One of the most impressive profs I had at Navy was a Marine Corps major who was a nuclear effects engineer whom I called Major Mohawk. Smart guy.) Odierno also has a degree from where Schindler used to teach before his photography hobby got him into trouble.

As for losing wars, Odierno served in a variety of positions in Iraq from the invasion in 2003, where his 4th Infantry Division was part of the follow on force (because Turkey denied it from being deployed to launch a planned assault from Turkish soil). Odierno’s role in the occupation was subject to some criticism for overaggressiveness, but the division has in the middle of the hornet’s nest of the Sunni Triangle. He subsequently was in operational command of The Surge, which was far more successful than the efforts that preceded it.  He didn’t lose Iraq. In fact, he was instrumental it creating the possibility of saving it, before that was thrown away.

As for “fucking over soldiers”, which Schindler insinuates he saw: well, if you make a charge like that, you better back it up with credible evidence. Schindler does not.

As for working after retirement, it’s not uncommon for generals and admirals. Omar Bradley was chairman of the Bulova Watch Company. Matthew Ridgeway, a true American hero in WWII and Korea (whom I compared to Petraeus at the onset of The Surge), was on the board of Gulf Oil. Many flag officers have served on corporate boards after retirement.

The public record clearly does not support Schindler’s accusations, which border on slander. Odierno has had a distinguished public career. If you talk smack like Schindler did, you have to bring more than a Tweet to the game.

So what explains Schindler’s attack? That Odierno went to work for a bank (as an advisor, mind you)? Maybe: Schindler exhibits some Occupy tendencies, admitting that he is a socialist who believes the “power structure” is unjust. But the vitriol seems very personal, even for someone as routinely nasty as Schindler. I’m guessing that Odierno does not suffer fools, and that in his interactions with Schindler at NWC he made that plain, and it left a mark on Schindler.

As for the bulk of Schindler’s Twitter output, he cashes in (figuratively!) on his stint working for the NSA years ago. Kind of ironic, isn’t it, that a guy who blasts a four star general with decorations out the wazoo for trading on his government service does the same. Though for a lot less money. Come to think of it, that may be part of the issue here. Schindler brags about his counterintelligence expertise, which begs the question: if he was so good, why did he punch out? I am also skeptical about people who are so vocal about their work in intelligence: the real pros don’t brag.

His commentary on Twitter and on his blog is rather tedious and not that insightful. I guffawed at his presumptuous tweets announcing how he has to keep telling people that the US Secretary of State is a target of foreign intelligence services. Who knew? What would we do without such penetrating insights?

And I have to say that I have to doubt Schindler’s counterintelligence genius based on events that came to light after his scandal. For some months prior, Schindler had been trolled hard on Twitter by someone who trolled me as well, on Twitter and here on the blog: this troll appeared in comments on SWP as Mr. X (whom I am sure long-time readers remember with fondness!) and a variety of other incarnations every time I blocked the source IP. On Twitter, this troll had one account (before being banned) that had a handle based on Schindler’s XXCommittee blog name. This individual also emailed me a few times, including one in which she included a picture of a hanged Nazi war criminal and insinuated that come the revolution I would be dealt with by citizen’s justice.

It turns out that Schindler was engaged in an email exchange with said troll, which came to light as result of a FOIA request to NWC. I figured out who the troll was. I know Schindler was told who the troll was. One clue that it is the same troll is the reference to the Hatch Act, which featured in Mr. X’s comments as well as in one of the emails in the linked piece. But he apparently never figured it out. So yeah. He’s your man to ferret out GRU agents (whom he sees behind every tree, BTW).

So go ahead, fanboys. Follow your hero. Retweet him. Even though he slanders far better men than he on zero evidence whatsoever. When he’s not engaged in art photography, that is.

 

 

 

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September 5, 2015

Amateurs Talk Tactics. Professionals Talk Logistics. And Idiots Talk BS.

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:46 pm

The last couple of days have seen a frenzy of excitement about the possibility of an imminent Russian intervention in Syria. The hive buzzed very loudly when the Pentagon said it had seen reports of increased Russian activity in Syria. This means only that they read the linked article and other stories appearing in places like Ynet, not that they are providing confirmation based on US intelligence.

Yet, connecting a few dots, the journalist behind the story claims to have discovered a heretofore unknown Rembrandt.

Please.

I have no doubt that Russia has an interest in propping up Assad. That it has, and may be reinforcing, regime protection, intelligence, and advisory elements on the ground in Syria. That perhaps even a few Russian pilots are reprising the role of their “Honcho” forebears in the Korean War. But as for a major Russian ground intervention in Syria, not even Putin is that crazy. An expedition to Syria would make the Soviet Afghanistan adventure look like Napoleonic or Alexandrine genius.

Put aside for a moment the bloodletting the Russians would put themselves in for. Let’s just look at the logistics, and remember that while amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.

  • Operations outside of bases would require the deployment of thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of troops just to defend the lines of communications of those operating at the pointy end of the spear.
  • A major expeditionary effort would require massive supply, and the Russians would have to operate at the end of a very long logistical tether.
  • The most direct supply line would run through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, that is, through Turkish waters. Turkey is Assad’s inveterate enemy. Would you run an operation which would require you to place your logistic jugular under your ally’s mortal enemy’s knife?
  • The alternative, through the Baltic, North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean, is very long, and also requires passage through narrow straits.
  • Russia’s navy is craptastic. It has extremely little sealift capability, and use of civilian vessels is problematic. This is what you need to support overseas expeditions. Russia has nothing even close.
  • Port capacity in Syria is limited, and it would be extremely vulnerable to sabotage and direct attack from the myriad anti-Assad forces. Again, large numbers of men and materiel would be required just to defend the ports. Tartus has four piers (and then only if floating piers are operational), and it can only handle four medium-sized ships: it is too small to handle even a Russian frigate or destroyer. You can’t support major ground operations through that soda straw.

Then there are other considerations, such as:

  • Russia is already militarily committed in Donbas, and has precious little additional capacity to deploy in Syria.
  • Russia has never, ever, engaged in a major overseas expedition, analogous to what the US has done routinely for the past 75 years. Syria is not Donbas, Abkhazia, or Transnistria.
  • The Russian economy is already in dire straits, and cannot afford to commit to a bleeding ulcer campaign in a peripheral region.
  • Another well-known military adage is: Don’t reinforce failure. Assad is failing.

Other than that, it makes total sense for Russia to go large in Syria to bail out a tottering client. Total sense!

The US should actually hope that Putin is this stupid. But he’s not.

To put things in perspective, one of the things that got the hive buzzing was the transit of a couple of Ropucha class amphibious ships, each with a cargo capacity of a whopping 450 tons (8-10 tanks), and an Alligator class gator, with a cargo capacity of 1000 tons. Hardly enough to support a major operation, which requires capabilities such as this. (And by the way, I saw Russian amphibious ships-sides streaked with rust-transiting the Bosporus on my visits to Istanbul in 2013 and 2014. This is like a shuttle run.)

And let’s consider the source, shall we? The story is being flogged by Michael Weiss. Based in large part on geolocators operating in mom’s basement, Weiss has predicted six out of the last zero times that Putin has mounted an invasion of Ukraine. (Full disclosure: I thought Putin was likely to invade last fall. I was wrong. I confess to having little confidence in my ability to predict his next steps there. But Weiss never betrays any contrition at his previous failed predictions.)

And the other things I could tell you, relating to Weiss’s The Interpreter’s mysterious funding (including its relationship with Khodorkovsky), and its use of anonymous sources and unverifiable sources that it translates. And there are some other things that are even more bizarre. But you’ll have to take my word for it.

So yes, Russia will provide materiel support to Assad. It will do what it can to facilitate Iranian and Hezbollah resources flowing to Syria. But a major intervention? We should be so lucky.

 

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