By Lacy Hebert
Best Defense office of analyzing intelligence analysis
One lesson that Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says he takes from his years of experience in the intelligence field is that challenges can be overcome as long as U.S. intelligence agencies invest, prioritize, and most importantly, collaborate. "If there's one thing that we know," he says, "it's that we absolutely can't do any of this alone."
This does not just include three-letter agencies collaborating and working together, however. Flynn, speaking at the Brookings Institution recently, said that it is essential that the United States partner with other countries, with foreign law enforcement, and with non-governmental organizations to share knowledge and experience. By contrast, he said, it is the failure to cooperate, the withholding of knowledge, the going it alone, that results in gaps in our intelligence and makes us vulnerable.
For example, said Flynn, a former director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command, al Qaeda in Syria is a serious problem for not just the region, but for the international community as a whole. Foreign elements fighting there will improve and develop their skills and then are likely to bring those skills back to their home countries or elsewhere. One side effect of the Syrian civil war is that the international community has begun talking about this, he said.
I know it sounds bizarre, but we are at a point where the Israelis are more aligned with Saudi Arabia on the crucial question of the day -- what to do about Iran -- than they are with the government of the United States. "For the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel. It's incredible." That's a Saudi prince talking. So what is the logical consequence of that realignment?
Well, other Saudis are in Washington quietly but clearly saying they would permit an Israeli overflight through their airspace. And that may be just a first step. Where does it lead? I think, possibly, to the concept of Israeli and Saudi strikes launched from the bases in Saudi Arabia where the U.S. Air Force used to operate. Stranger things have happened. The Saudi and Israeli F-15s even have interchangeable parts. Flying out of Saudi would make striking Iran far simpler than trying to stage it out of Israel and doing a bunch of aerial refueling on the back and forth. Being that much closer, the joint Israeli/Saudi force could hit many more targets -- i.e., we'll do the nuclear sites, you do the air defense sites and then their missile launchers. Then we'll do an air cap against retaliatory strikes. It would be interesting to see if Israeli jets were tasked to intercept Iranian warplanes in Saudi airspace. Maybe, along the lines of the old Russian move in various wars, Israeli pilots would fly Saudi F-15s.
Of course, as a friend points out, Iran would be likely to respond with a series of its own attacks, some of them pretty hard to intercept. We'd see at least some retaliatory missile strikes against Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Jeddah. And likely some cyberhits on Saudi bank accounts around the world.
And, of course, the effects on the world economy would be interesting.
Lt. Don Gomez, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
I served twice as an enlisted paratrooper in Iraq and it was that experience, of being in a country we knew so little about, which led me to separate from the Army and go to school for Middle East Studies. I studied Arabic in Morocco and Egypt while an undergrad and then went to London for graduate school. I spent a year there interviewing aging Iraqi veterans in seedy London pubs for my graduate dissertation on Iraqi military perceptions of the Iran-Iraq war and the experience of the Iraqi veteran.
I've since rejoined the Army and feel much better prepared to be dropped into a foreign country -- especially in the Middle East -- and "do the right thing." I make a concerted effort to read the news about Iraq -- however dismal -- to see what's going on there precisely because I have spent a significant amount of time on the ground and back home thinking about it. This past year, on my blog which is named after a speech Saddam Hussein gave during the Iran-Iraq War, I've been writing about my experience in Iraq in 2003, which has been both rewarding and terribly painful.
And I'm not the only one. A friend of mine who worked on the controversial Human Terrain System left Iraq and got his Ph.D. in Middle East Studies and has recently finished his book, The Death of Mehdi Army. Over the last several years I've met many people who have served and have had the same or similar experiences. There have been numerous articles written on the influx of post-9/11 veterans rushing to Middle East studies. FP's Marc Lynch wrote about it in 2009, arguing that the influx of post-9/11 veterans may bring more emphasis on Iraq, which has been largely ignored in Middle East Studies.
So while certainly there are those who are done with it and want nothing to do with Iraq, there are others, like myself, who feel more engaged than ever. Whether I like it or not, my existence is forever entwined with Iraq, and I choose not to ignore it.
Lt. Don Gomez is a prior service Army officer currently assigned to Fort Hood, TX. This article represents his personal views and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.
AZHER SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images
If you didn't read the entire discussion the other day about why Jim Gourley no longer cares about what happens in Iraq, despite having given a big part of his life there, do yourself a favor. Find a quiet place, sit down, and read all the comments. I think this is one of the best discussions I've ever seen on the blog. I learned. I appreciate people taking the time to write.
Here are some of the observations that struck me:
"CompanyGrade": "I would go back. Not to revisit any achievement but for my wife. Maybe it would explain to her all the things I've never been able to talk about."
"Mitch281": "'The reason my unit was so successful...' I feel like every Joe says this about his battalion/brigade/regiment/division. Few soldiers are going to publicly admit that their units spent 12 months not making much of a difference. Even if it is true."
"AbrahamRash": "Like that drunken hook-up that you secretly know deep down inside is a bad idea even at the time you're chasing after it, the morning after, you don't even leave a note. You just walk. Just like Americans did with Iraq."
From our favorite Akademie: "I truly believe that our force protection policies have this (perhaps unintended) consequence of keeping us apart...... I am not arguing with Jim's feelings, they are genuine and widely shared. I just don't believe it had to turn out this way."
And always dependable Gourley also scored again with his slapshot response: "Iraq has already given and taken from me everything it's going to."
So suggested "Outlaw9" in a recent comment. Very interesting. I hadn't heard of this before. I knew SF trainers were active, but did that become SF shooters? Anyone got more?
Four journalists have been killed in recent weeks in Basra, which appears to be the most dangerous city in the world for reporters.
Another ugly fact: Over the last 10 years, sixteen employees of the Al-Sharqiya channel have been killed.
Meanwhile, lots of bombs also killing people in Baghdad. And nasty little Tarmiyah, too. David Petraeus meditates on that in a piece here. Best line: "As important as the surge of forces was, however, the most important surge was what I termed ‘the surge of ideas' -- the changes in our overall strategy and operational plans." Overall, it is the most complete assessment I've seen by Petraeus of the surge. His conclusion on Iraq today: "time is running short." Calling Tom Friedman!
Ramzi al-Shaban/AFP/Getty Images
David Ignatius, for my money the best intelligence reporter in the business, reports that last year, the Turkish government informed the Iranian government of the identity of as many as 10 Iranians who had been meeting in Turkey with Mossad officers.
His overarching conclusion in this interesting, detail-rich column, is that, "The Netanyahu-Erdogan quarrel, with its overlay of intelligence thrust and parry, is an example of the kaleidoscopic changes that may be ahead in the Middle East. The United States, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all exploring new alliances and struggling to find a new equilibrium -- overtly and covertly."
What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
(HT to Jeff)
I also was struck by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Andrew Stewart's summary in British Generals in Blair's Wars of how he spent his time when the was the British commander in southern Iraq: 15 percent with his British forces, 20 percent with NGOs and other civilian authorities, 25 percent with Iraqis, and 40 percent with the forces of other nations: "It took that much effort to be able to understand them, and for them to understand me."
Stewart offers up what apparently was a hard-won lesson when commanding multinational forces that report back to different capitals: "Unless you have an independent manoeuvre unit that is unconstrained and whose rules of engagement you control, then you will not attain the rapidity of reaction and the freedom of manoeuvre you need on operations." In other words, don't fight unless you have a maneuver unit entirely under your control, along with the rules of engagement governing its actions.
All in all, I would say that this is the best new book on military affairs I've seen this year.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
British Generals in Blair's Wars offers some new views of, and information about, the Iraq war. It made me wish I had interviewed more Brits for my books Fiasco and The Gamble. On the other hand, I doubt they would have told me back then, in the thick of things, some of the things they say here. In sum, for the British, the Americans appear to have been friendly but often unthinking allies, rather painful to deal with.
Most startling to me in this volume was the revelation that L. Paul Bremer, III, the American proconsul in Baghdad in 2003-04, had officially requested the removal of the British commander in Iraq, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Andrew Stewart. This is discussed by Stewart and others. "I was charged with not killing enough people," he recalls. "The CPA asked for my removal." Another officer, Gen. (ret.) John McColl, adds that, "The demarche had gone from Bremer to Washington to London without the military commanders being consulted. Indeed, they, the [U.S.] military leadership, seemed to be content with the British approach."
In the spring of 2004, adds Col. (ret.) Alexander Alderson, when he and another British officer tried to brief U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan on counterinsurgency doctrine, the American officer pounded the table and stated that he was not going to face an insurgency. "Damn it," he shouted, according to Alderson, "we're warfighting."
I also was surprised to see Maj. Gen. (ret.) Jonathan Shaw's comment that the Americans decided in December 2006 on "the surge" in Iraq later the same winter without consulting the British: "This shift happened over Christmas 2006 after all our Whitehall briefs which had focused on transition and reductions in troop levels. I arrived with national orders to reduce our footprint, at a time when the US was increasing its."
But Colonel Alderson does note that as the surge occurred, "There was now a much greater level of coherency in what the US was trying to achieve." I had observed the same phenomenon in Iraq in 2007 and had tried to write about it in The Gamble, but did not summarize it as well as Alderson does in that one sentence.
(One more to come.)
Jonathan Pollard, the convicted spy, had an odd piece over the summer in the Jerusalem Post denouncing Israel for a variety of failings, among them this one: "Israel also remains the only country in the world ever to voluntarily cooperate in the prosecution of its own intelligence agent, refusing him sanctuary, turning over the documents to incriminate him, denying that the state knew him, and then allowing him to rot in a foreign prison for decades on end, cravenly forgoing its right to simple justice for the nation and for the agent."
Does the Pollard case shed any light on the Snowden case? I don't know.
By Scott Modell and David Asher
Best Defense guest columnists
With presidential support for military action in doubt, America's power and prestige on the line, and Assad gassing his people, Obama needs to have a plan B on Syria. Outsourcing WMD policy to Vladimir Putin won't do a thing to stop the Syrian government killing machine.
Fortunately, a strategic option exists that could be even more powerful and effective against Assad, his Iranian backers, and their Hezbollah lackeys. Going beyond sanctions, the Obama administration should assemble a coalition of the willing and begin actively targeting the indispensable elements of Syria's financial, economic, and logistical support structure, including support from Iran and Hezbollah.
Despite a wide range of sanctions, Syria and its allies are able to rely on critical infrastructure that is compromised, complicit, and corrupted -- from ports, border crossings, and airlines to banks, freight forwarders, and shipping companies.
Neutralizing these nodes requires a non-kinetic containment and disruption effort to encircle the Syria conflict zone and stem the critical flow of men, money, and supplies to the Assad regime. Such a strategy, in concert with a sustained precision bombing campaign against key sources of regime support, was effective in Kosovo and could be in Syria as well.
Such a comprehensive effort should include the following measures:
These are just a few ways in which the United States and its allies can work together more effectively to non-kinetically attack Assad's Syria and its supporters. As the Obama administration considers next steps on Syria, it should take a close look at resetting its entire approach to the Middle East and ask, what is really going to weaken the strategic foundations, resolve, and external capabilities of Syria and the greater Iran Action Network?
Scott Modell, a former CIA officer, and David Asher, a former State Department official, are authors of Pushback: Countering the Iran Action Network, published recently by the Center for a New American Security.
Like I said the other day, I expect that even if Congress declines to authorize the use of military force in Syria, President Obama will order a variety of covert actions in support of the rebels.
How can we know if these are occurring? Basically, I think we should look for things happening that the rebels would have liked to do a long time ago but were unable to carry out. For example, assassinations of senior Syrian officials. I could see, for example, stealthy drone attacks on the convoys of the officials who oversaw the use of chemical weapons -- but credit being given to Syrian rebels. I also think we could see things like signals intercepts being passed to the rebels, as well as other helpful intelligence, like real-time satellite imagery. Basically, any anomalous action bears a second look.
Fast transmission of targeting info could significantly boost the effectiveness of the opposition, I think. I've been told that, during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. provided Saddam Hussein's air force with good photo imagery of Iranian military targets, such as major supply depots and corps-level headquarters, and that the subsequent Iraqi airstrikes broke an Iranian offensive and so changed the balance of the war.
Yet even as I discuss this, I wonder: If the rebels win, how will they treat Armenians, Jews, Christians, and other minorities?
I hope so. By going to Congress for approval before intervening, he seems to be asking for someone to get him out of this mess.
Until the end of last week it looked to
me like he had painted himself into a corner on Syria. He didn't want to
intervene, but he threw around some red line language about the consequences of
the Syrian government using chemical weapons and in
August the bill on that had come due.
I take no joy in saying that the president looks really bad in his handling on this. Bumbling, stumbling, fumbling. I've heard his handling of Syria referred to as "Operation Rolling Blunder." Getting involved there militarily is something almost no one in the United States wants, aside from a few old-school hawks in Washington. In fact, it is possible that I know the majority of people in the United States who favor intervention. They could fit into a Starbucks even after some full-fat lattes.
If their desired attack ever happens, my guess is that it will last about a week. It would begin with missile strikes against air defense systems (radars and communications nodes), then move to hits on airfields by long-range stand-off missile-like "bombs" launched offshore by B-2s (because cruise missiles really can't crater airfields) and also hits against other command and control systems. Finally, it would assault "regime targets" -- command bunkers, intelligence headquarters, ruling class hideouts.
And then what? Will this limited action remain limited? Will it help the Syrian rebels? Should we be helping them?
It is not clear to me how American intervention would improve the situation. Also, I am struck that I don't know a single person in the U.S. military who thinks that attacking Syria is a good idea. Even with Iraq in 2003, there was a minority of officers who supported that invasion. Here's James Fallows's astute summary of the state of the argument, and his assessment of the latest move.
My guess: While Congress talks, Obama will quietly step up all kinds of covert aid to the rebels, but not publicly intervene.
During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on Feb. 5, 2013.
Recently I was at a foreign policy discussion in which a participant said that everybody agrees that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, despite everything else that went wrong with the boneheaded invasion of Iraq.
I didn't question that assertion at the time, but found myself mulling it. Recently I had a chance to have a beer with Toby Dodge, one of the best strategic thinkers about Iraq. He said something like this: Well, you used to have an oppressive dictator who at least was a bulwark against Iranian power expanding westward. Now you have an increasingly authoritarian and abusive leader of Iraq who appears to be enabling Iranian arms transfers to Syria.
And remember: We still don't know how this ends yet. Hence rumors in the Middle East along the lines that all along we planned to create a "Sunnistan" out of western Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
Meanwhile, the Iraq war, which we left just over a year ago, continues. Someone bombed police headquarters in Kirkuk over the weekend, killing 33. And about 60 Awakening fighters getting their paychecks were blown up in Taji. As my friend Anthony Shadid used to say, "The mud is getting wetter."
By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist
The so-called "Arab Spring" has now turned into a larger Mideast autumn that is reflecting warfare and conflict approaching the bloody religious wars that Europe went through during the 16th and 17th centuries.
We are seeing the beginning of a wider regional war along the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis and beyond -- not an "axis of evil," but rather an axis of instability and conflict. It could go further, linking to similar areas of violence to the east (in Afghanistan-Pakistan) or to the west to the mess in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of democracy breaking out everywhere, it seems that war is breaking out everywhere. Syria is the nexus for the current dangerous inflection point. It is in many ways similar to the Netherlands of the 16th century, that area of rebellion against the Hapsburgs/Catholic Church that rocked the world for over 80 years as the Reformation swirled about.
As we all know, voices are clamoring in Washington to "make it go away." Or rather to make the critics of the Obama administration quiet down. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry argued for airstrikes on airfields reputedly being used by the Assad regime for combat missions, including chemical weapons attacks. Kerry's proposal was vetoed during a recent principals meeting at the White House by none other than General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So much for war-mongering generals. Additionally, in recent months, Hezbollah has entered the conflict with thousands of fighters to help retake the city of Qusayr from the Syrian insurgents. Today, Qusayr is a ghost town with fewer than 500 inhabitants. Recall, too, that Hezbollah are the same bubbas that brought us the Marine Barracks attack in 1983. Reports out today indicate that the Lebanese Army has had several firefights with local Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels. Just great, a re-ignition of the Lebanese civil war might be in the offing.
Moving to the east we find the "sectarian violence" in Iraq at levels not seen since the American surge in 2007. Could yet another civil war be igniting there -- this time absent the armed umpiring of the United States and its allies? It may already have. The link here is precisely Iran's support for the Assad regime and its client quasi-state farther south, Hezbollah. From a purely military standpoint, Tehran's line of communication with its political allies and co-religionists farther west in Syria and Lebanon runs directly through Iraq. This "rat line" is used by the Quds Force and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and has been in place in various forms ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003. See David Crist's recent book The Twilight War if you doubt me on this issue. The sectarian violence in Iraq is directly related to the Syrian violence -- make no mistake. One way for the insurgents' co-religionist Sunni allies in Iraq to influence events in Syria is to destabilize the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. In this way they can interrupt the flow of Iranian support to both Hezbollah and Assad through Iraq.
Afghanistan? There is no need for further discussion; war continues there and is likely to continue -- although the political ties of Tehran to Kabul may strengthen given President Karzai's recent strong denunciation of U.S. efforts to include the Taliban in peace talks. Too, Iran's oil goes to India, which is also a supporter of the Kabul regime, all of which makes Pakistan the odd man out and more likely to support Sunni co-religionists and political allies represented now by insurgents in both Syria and Iraq.
What about further west? Let's see, Egypt has severed diplomatic ties with Syria, never a good sign. Further south, in the always pleasant Horn of Africa, we find U.N. personnel have been blown up in Mogadishu by al Shabab. Although clear linkages to the conflict to the northeast do not exist, the forces behind this latest attack on the international order are of a religious bent that favors the insurgent-Sunni factions. Too, this sort of violent outburst does nothing to improve the stability of this entire region. Farther west we find the arc of instability running along the Maghreb (Tunisia and Algeria) as well as splitting south through Libya to troubling events in Mali and Nigeria; the latter country is itself in a low state of civil war divided along ethno-religious lines. Finally, to the north of it all is the NATO ally and Sunni co-religionist government of Turkey, warily eying the troublemaking regime of Vlad Putin, which supports Syria. But Turkey is now distracted by widespread, Westernized demonstrations against its own attempts to impose religious conservatism. None of this can be comforting for the major powers, which all have a stake in the Middle East and Africa. Get the picture? Heated outbursts to quiet political audiences are probably -- as Dempsey pointed out to Secretary Kerry -- ill-advised.
This regional conflict is not just about religion, nor is it all about longstanding political relationships and ethnic tensions -- it is all of the above. I am compelled to ask, what should the United States do that it is not already doing? This presupposes I know the range of action the U.S. government is already engaged in, but I would suggest these steps -- whatever they are -- are probably sufficient for now. Those who predicted the Arab Spring turning into a messy regional war were right. It has arrived.
This is the time for calm heads to prevail and avoid a much larger general war, but first we must recognize the real potential for this mess to turn into something along the lines of Europe's own wars of religion, something like the grim and destructive Thirty Years' War that began with a "Prague Spring" in 1618.
John T. Kuehn has taught military history at the Command and General Staff College since 2003 and retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.
By Joel Wing
Best Defense guest Iraq analyst
Iraq recently passed a milestone when the United Nations reported over 1,000 people killed in May 2013. That was the highest number of casualties since 2008. People are beginning to fear going out, and businesses are shifting to safer areas and closing earlier. There are also ongoing protests in Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahaddin, and Ninewa against the government, which are increasing sectarian tensions in the country. Together this has raised fears that the country is heading back towards civil war. While the situation is obviously getting worse, a more apt analogy would be Iraq in 2003 when the United States was facing a growing insurgency, and had no strategy to confront it.
The April 2013 raid upon the protest site in Hawija incited the current wave of violence in Iraq. The demonstrators there were openly connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi insurgent group. When the government decided to go into the camp looking for the murderers of a soldier killed at a checkpoint just outside the site, the security forces used excessive force leading to dozens of deaths. This was just the event militants were looking for. They claimed Baghdad could not be trusted, and that the authorities were going to crack down on the activists using the military. The insurgents therefore said the only legitimate response was to defend themselves through armed action. Following Hawija there were attacks throughout the north, west, and central parts of Iraq by both militants and tribal groups. This was on top of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq. Together that accounts for the skyrocketing casualty figures, which jumped from 319 in January according to the United Nations to 1,045 in May. Attacks have continued at that pace to the present, marking a new turn in the country's security situation.
In response, Baghdad has launched a series of raids and large-scale military operations across several provinces, which have proven ineffective. In May for instance, there was "The Ghost," which focused on the desert regions of Anbar province. Currently, Iraqi forces are deployed along the Syrian border in Anbar and Ninewa as those two provinces hold provincial elections. These operations have garnered increasing criticisms from local politicians and the citizenry who claim that there have been arbitrary arrests, roads have been shut down hindering travel, and property has been destroyed during searches of houses. This points to the counterproductive tactics the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are currently employing. Since the United States military departed the country, the ISF has stopped using counterinsurgency tactics. Instead, the military and police man checkpoints with bomb detectors that don't work, and conduct mass raids in which not only fighting-aged men are arrested, but their families as well. The majority of these detainees are then beaten and tortured before they are released. Human Rights Watch, for example, detailed the Federal Police arresting 41 people, including 29 children, in Taji, Salahaddin in November 2012. 12 women and girls were held for four days in the police headquarters where they were beaten, electrocuted, and suffocated with plastic bags over their heads before they were released. There is no way that these tactics can stop the insurgency. Rather than protecting the public and being proactive, the ISF is doing the opposite, and turning the people against the government in the process.
That places Iraq today much where it was in 2003-2005, immediately following the U.S. invasion -- rather than 2005-2008, when the civil war was going on. In the former, American forces were acting much the same way as the ISF. The Americans relied on sweeps and mass arrests with abusive stories emerging. Washington's political strategy of returning sovereignty and holding elections also backfired as it turned over the government to Shiite and Kurdish parties, while making Sunnis feel like they had no place in the new order. The result was growing resentment against the occupation by those who felt left out, and that bolstered the number of militants. The exact same thing is happening now. The Iraqi forces' tactics are turning the people away from the government, and increasing support for the insurgency. This is all made worse by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's autocratic tendencies, which have alienated many parties in the government. The country not only needs a better military strategy, but a political one as well that can end the ongoing protests and assure Sunni politicians that they have a role in running the country. Instead, things are going in the opposite direction. That doesn't mean things are heading towards another sectarian war, but violence is increasing and militants are finding a new life after they were almost extinguished. Iraq is a country that has suffered much more than most, with a series of wars, invasions, and sanctions that have ripped the society apart in the last three decades. Unfortunately, it is heading for more hardships.
Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
By Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Few in the West understand the stakes in the Syrian rebellion.
For Iran, maintaining the Assad regime is a vital interest in its attempt to break out of its Persian Gulf isolation. For that reason, the Iranian mullahs have put skin in the game -- troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as Hezbollah fighters that are deployed alongside units of the Syrian regular army and irregular police forces -- and Iran shows every sign of being willing to do more. Barring any dramatic action by NATO or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Syrian opposition can prevail. The next two years may well see an emboldened Iran astride the Levant, a complaisant Assad regime propped up in power, Turkey and Jordan swamped with Syrian refugees, and Turkey and Israel confronted with a strengthened, hostile Iranian presence on their borders -- in Turkey's case, flanking a vulnerable Turkish salient extending across Syria and turning north along the current eastern border with Iran.
For Iran, propping up an Assad government in Damascus gives the mullahs access to an unmatched, dominating presence in the Levant -- that stretch of geography from Israel's southern border to eastern Turkey -- that touches every frontline Mideast country. As well, a Syrian-Iranian victory offers Iran an outlet to the Mediterranean and access to the near-obsolete Russian naval facility at Tartus, a base that has begun to figure again in Russian plans for its navy. Wars never really return to the status quo ante, and a victory for the Assad regime, and a concomitant rise in influence and access for Iran to this strategic geography, changes for the foreseeable future the power balances and political relationships in the region and perhaps the world.
The consequences of a Levant dominated by Iran and Iranian aggressiveness should be carefully considered. Any hope for Lebanese independence will be lost, and supply lines through Syria and the Bekaa Valley -- and possibly from Tartus -- to Hezbollah will be fortified by Syrian and Iranian air defenses to make Israeli strikes more difficult. Israel will be under more pressure than ever, and Jordan more vulnerable.
One of the more consequential results of an Assad victory, though, will be rising tensions between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, with an exhausted Syria playing a passive, pass-through role. (It is interesting that, as Iranian attention shifts northwestward, the Saudis and other Gulf states will likely become bystanders to Sunni-Shia competition, instead of their accustomed role at the center of regional politics.)
As recent events in Turkey show, the pro-Islamist policies of current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan have caused an unusual tide of domestic dissent. In the face of an external threat, however, there is every reason to believe the nation Ataturk founded will unite, and the (majority Sunni) Turkish people will stand behind their ubiquitous flag. Turkey through Erdogan has been outspoken that Assad should go; the Turks have sheltered refugees and assisted rebel forces. They have earned Iranian enmity. In a post-rebellion Levant with Assad still in power, there can be little doubt what Iran's attitude will be toward Turkey. Even aside from the current proxy hostilities, the particular brand of Shia Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini installed after the Iranian Revolution makes mandatory Iran's enmity to the West, and to the Sunni sect. Iran's previous and more recent record of hostility to other governments, including aggression against States even outside the Mideast, is a good indication that it will be actively hostile to Turkey as well. Given free use of the interior of the Levant, with access to Russian arms and the resources of the Syrian state, Iran will be in an exceptionally strong geopolitical position to follow up its inclinations.
Competition between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran can take many forms other than outright war, though that possibility cannot be discounted if the two states find themselves directly at odds, the Turks feel themselves at a geographical disadvantage, and Iranian hostility to Sunni Islam takes a more violent form. However, Iran has other options than all-out war. It is the world's leading sponsor of modern terrorism, that strange mixture of murder and crime, and it has become adept at mobilizing and directing global networks of terrorist organizations and criminal mafias (which are often one and the same). An Iranian campaign against Turkey could well take place in Turkish cities, mosques, schools, and market squares, while marshaling strong conventional forces to dissuade a Turkish response. At the same time, the IRGC will most probably conduct terrorist attacks in Western countries and the United States as a demonstration and a warning of the cost of supporting Turkey, which has been a stalwart and supportive member of NATO since the alliance's beginning.
How the West -- and Europe in particular -- comes to Turkey's defense will be the most severe test of the alliance in its history. Today, Turkey balances between both sides of the Bosphorus. A Turkish intellectual once said to me, "Our generation thought the way for Turkey was toward Europe and the EU. But the younger generation (of which Erdogan is a member) has figured out that the EU is a white, Christian club. They will face east." The loss of the Turkish "bridge" to the Mideast, with all the explosive energy and industry of this growing, modern country, would be a disaster for the West. European policymakers may be tested to support an ally or give in to Iranian terrorist blackmail; if the choice is the latter, Europe will effectively have confirmed the "white, Christian club" and will have withdrawn from the Mideast. The choice for American policymakers will be as stark: The IRGC has already attempted at least one terror attack inside the United States, and there is every reason to believe it would be tried again in the case of U.S. support for its Turkish ally and, indirectly, Israel as well. As the Iranian nuclear program progresses, the long-term potential of Iranian short- or medium-range nuclear missiles should not be discounted.
Whether Assad falls or stays in office will result in historic realignments in the Middle East and the Mediterranean littoral -- the Levant, from which the state of Syria was carved. As Iran ups the ante and the West fumbles for a response, chances increasingly favor Assad's survival as an Iranian puppet. Iranian suzerainty over Syria and a breakout into the Levant will give it an enormous geographical advantage from which to attack both Israel and Sunni Turkey, already a foe in all but name. The confluence of these political, cultural, and military events presages not only an uncomfortable near-term future, but also the potential for prolonged and bitter religious war through this century. American policymakers should consider carefully future U.S. options as events unroll in Syria.
I was reclining in the bathtub at the Plaza Hotel last night (I am in NYC for a talk and this is where my hosts put me) wondering why the Plaza irked me so. As I sipped on my WPLJ (white port and lemon juice; hi Kenny), it occurred to me: I was in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, transported to midtown Manhattan.
As I lay atub, what nailed it for me were the plumbing fixtures painted gold, mixed with white walls and cheesy glass chandeliers -- even one in the bathroom, where the drains under the sink were gilded. The last time I bathed in such a place, I recalled, was the JVB at Camp Victory -- which featured bad food but good internet connections. (The latter matters more than the former to a reporter on that dusty war trail.) The Versailles-meets-pasteboard furnishings there were just awful, reminding me of my furniture-moving days as a Ute in Yonkers, and the Plaza is pretty much the same. Who is their interior decorator, Tony Soprano?
But, little grasshoppers, with one big difference: Oddly enough, the JVB in Baghdad had better internet connections than the Plaza does. And where do they get off charging $13.95 for a connection crankier than the one me and my dogs get at the Motel 6? (And it keeps bugging me to "upgrade to premium"!)
Then again, I don't think I am in the Plaza's prime demographic. Judging by folks milling about the lobby, they are marketing the place to Gatsbyesque foreigners who don't know any better. Anyway, the visit made me miss the Four Seasons in Amman, Jordan, where oft would I stop for a couple of days on my way back from Baghdad to DC (at my wife's request -- "Hey, Tom, before you fly home, get the stink off"). Now that was a snazzy hotel -- well run, good food, and fast connections. Decent pizza, great breakfasts, and nice tubs, too.
By Adrian Lewis
Best Defense guest columnist
The Creation of Cultural Amity: the Israeli Policy and Strategy, a Lesson and Model for South Korea, and other Small, Democratic Nation-States in Tough Neighborhoods
Amity, from the Latin, amicus, friend, friendly. Friendship and goodwill especially as characterized by mutual acceptance and toleration of potentially antagonistic standpoints or aim (so the two women kept up an elaborate pretense of warm amity); specifically: friendly relations between large groups (nations striving for lasting amity).
The North Korean Threat. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that [in 2004] North Korea has "one, possibly two" nuclear weapons. It agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in a 1994 deal with the United States but is now preparing to resume those activities. If unchecked, experts say, North Korea could produce five to seven nuclear bombs this year -- and eight to 10 by the end of 2005 -- enough to alter the strategic balance in East Asia. North Korea is probably capable of deploying nuclear or chemical warheads on ballistic missiles able to strike South Korea and Japan, and it has worked on the Taepo Dong-2 missile, which has an estimated range that could include Alaska.
In December 2012, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) successfully launched a three-stage rocket that placed a satellite in orbit. In February 2013, the DPRK/North Korea tested its third nuclear weapon. Following the test, on 12 February during a debate at the United Nations, North Korean diplomat Jon Yong Ryong threatened South Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK), with "final destruction." And, on 5 March, North Korea threatened to nullify the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953, suggesting a state of war will again exist between the two countries. In April, the leader of the DPRK threatened South Korea and the United States with nuclear war and prepared to launch missiles. For decades there has been a persistent threat of war from North Korea. When the DPRK achieves the technological ability to place a nuclear warhead on its new missile, the new, young dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, will have the ability to destroy Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo, Japan, fulfilling the threat made at United Nations. Alone, neither South Korea nor Japan possesses the ability to guarantee the security of its people. Only the military power of the United States can guarantee their national security, and the sustainment and commitment of that military power, is at least in part, a function of cultural amity.
Let me give you an argument: Cultural amity is a critical element in the national security of nation-states. This argument is particularly true of smaller nation-states dependent upon the military power of larger, more powerful nation-states for their security. The nation-state of Israel has created genuine affection, genuine concern, a very real cultural amity for itself in the hearts of many Americans. And this amity, to a large degree, guarantees the security and prosperity of the state of Israel. Cultural amity gives Israel the ability to influence decision-making in Washington. It gives Israel the ability to acquire resources and guarantees. The American people have been extraordinarily generous to the state of Israel. Few nations in history have been as generous to a foreign state, thousands of miles from its geographic borders. Cultural amity facilitates the Israeli acquisition of billions of dollars in economic and military assistance from the United States annually. It ties the American people, the nation, to the Israeli state in significant ways, ways which matter and produce real American resources for Israel. Other small, democratic nation-states in tough neighborhoods, such as, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines should learn from the Israeli example.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images
The sheikh says Twitter is bad, and that anyone using it "has lost this world and his afterlife." A bit extreme, but I understand the sentiment.
Myself, I would have put it in a more Wordsworthian way. I think that most social media are a sordid boon, and that late and soon, twitting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
So I say: Tweet less, live more. Technology is only liberating if you control it, rather than the other way around. We should not confuse data with meaning.
Colin Kahl's new report on containing a nuclear Iran (done with a couple of his homies) is long, but worth it. I was asked to suggest cuts to a draft and honestly couldn't find any. It is the best thing I have read about Iran policy in a long time.
The problem is that much what he is recommending for containment is expensive stuff like forward-deployed missile defenses and conventional forces, and defense budgets are going in the other direction. He also wants us to get more involved in Syria and in attacking Iranian networks of "covert operatives, surrogates and proxies" across the region.
My CNAS colleague Phil Carter, reacting to yesterday's item about how the experience of Iraq is affecting the Obama administration's consideration of intervening in Syria, sent me this thoughtful note:
Iraq has replaced Vietnam as the lens through which we see foreign policy decisions. However, I don't like the term "Iraq syndrome" -- in large part because it suggests there's something wrong, and that this is a condition to be ameliorated or recovered from. Instead, I prefer to think of our national sense of the Iraq war as "Iraq experience" or "Iraq wisdom." We gathered this experience and wisdom the hard way, acquiring it at a cost of trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of killed or wounded, to say nothing of the cost to the Iraqis. We ought not casually discard this wisdom and experience, or set it aside so that we can once again go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, to use John Quincy Adams' memorable phrase.
Tom again: I think he is right, but I think there also is a generational aspect to this. I think younger people -- and to me, that means anyone under 40 -- are more affected by this than are older people.
One of the great things about CNAS is that we actually have conversations like this. In my experience, not all think tanks do. You can find out more by coming to the annual hoedown on June 12. It is, as we have noted, the Woodstock of wonkery. But with better refreshments.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Quote of the day: Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, tells Dexter Filkins in this week's edition of the New Yorker that in considering intervening in Syria, "Here's what we wrestle with: there are huge costs and unintended consequences that go with a military intervention that could last for many years."
Another White House official tells Filkins, "The country is exhausted." I don't think that second comment is quite accurate. It is more that the country is tired of being involved on the ground in the Middle East and deeply skeptical of the efficacy of another try.
Filkins also quotes an academic expert who predicts that eventually all of Syria's Alawites will be pushed into Lebanon, with the eventual refugee flow doubling that nationette's population.
The vibe of the article is that the Obama administration increasingly is leaning toward intervention -- from the air, in aid and intelligence, but not with ground troops.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
By Joel Wing
Best Defense officer of Iraqi statistical analysis
Iraq recently saw a huge increase in the number of attacks and casualties in April 2013. Iraq Body Count recorded 561 deaths for the month, the highest since August 2009, while the United Nations reported 712 killed, the most since June 2008. That caused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go on national TV to call for calm, and warn against the rise of sectarianism and violence. (3) The cause of the deterioration in security is the combination of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and retaliatory attacks by other insurgent groups for the government raiding a protest site in the town of Hawija in Kirkuk province. The former will eventually end, while the latter could lead to increased support for militants. Either way, it appears that talk of a renewed civil war is premature. Yes, militants are becoming more active in the country, but they are for the most part isolated in certain areas; Shiites are relying upon the government to respond to them rather than militias, and the majority of the population is going about their business.
Al Qaeda in Iraq launched its latest offensive in December 2012. That was marked by increased casualty rates, high profile, mass casualty attacks, and bombings in southern parts of the country. On April 29, for instance, two car bombs went off in central Karbala, two more detonated in Amarah in Maysan governorate, followed by another vehicle-based device exploding in Diwaniya the next day. Operations in southern Iraq are a hallmark of AQI's offensives, and take advanced planning, intelligence gathering, and the stocking of supplies, because they take place outside of where the group usually works. Recently, al Qaeda has been able to launch larger offensives and sustain them for longer, because they have witnessed an increase in fighters, and a lack of resistance by the Iraqi security forces. After the U.S. withdrew in 2011, it emptied its prisons leading to many detainees going right back to fighting. The Iraqi army and police also no longer carry out counterinsurgency operations after the exit of the Americans, and are more of a reactive force now carrying out raids and mass arrests, which cannot prevent attacks, and cause resentment against those areas that are targeted. This campaign will eventually end, likely in a month or two, as AQI runs out of supplies and has to restock. That will cause a decrease in deaths, until it ramps up again in the summer as it has during the last few years. The media usually misses this ebb and flow in insurgent operations, focusing instead upon the monthly casualty totals, rather than analyzing the larger trends.
Another source of increased instability is the reaction to the government's raid upon a protest site in the town of Hawija. On April 23, Iraqi security forces moved into the camp looking for assailants who had attacked a nearby checkpoint, which killed one soldier and left three wounded. The demonstrators had been given an ultimatum to turn over the attackers, but did not respond. The organizers were also connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi Army insurgent group, providing another impetus for the government to act. Following the raid, protesters and militants carried out a series of retaliatory strikes across Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, and Tamim provinces, while several activists said they were giving up peaceful protests and taking up armed opposition to Baghdad. This is far more dangerous than the al Qaeda in Iraq offensive because it could mark a sea change in public opinion amongst some Sunnis. Some protest leaders like Sheikh Abu Risha of the Awakening Movement in Ramadi have called for moderation since the Hawija incident, but the vast majority is pushing for arming themselves, at least in self-defense, if not outright opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This could turn many young Sunni men towards militancy, and give groups like the Naqshibandi and the Islamic Army of Iraq a new source of support and recruitment. These organizations have a much broader appeal to Iraqis than al Qaeda, because they have presented themselves as nationalist groups out to protect Sunnis from the Shiite government, rather than being part of a global jihad against the West. If the insurgents are able to make headway with the demonstrators, that could increase violence over the long-term.
Still, the combination of al Qaeda in Iraq's offensives and growing support for the wider insurgency does not mean that Iraq is heading towards a new civil war. First, most operations by militants are in specific cities, and even then only affect a small percentage of the population. (10) Even cities like Baghdad, that have the largest number of deaths, might only have 100-150 per month out of population of over 7 million. Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar can see a steady stream of dead and wounded each month, while Haditha and Rutba hardly have any throughout the entire year. This localized nature of violence means that the vast majority of Iraqis are not affected unless they live in certain areas or neighborhoods. Second, the Iraqi civil war from 2005-2008 was marked by Sunni insurgents being met by Shiite militias. So far, the Shiite community is relying upon the government to take care of security rather than taking matters into their own hands. This is despite constant efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq to incite them by bombing every religious holiday and event. All together that means that Iraq is in for a rough immediate future with casualty figures likely going up, but it is nothing like the peak of violence when Sunnis and Shiites were at each others' throats and large swaths of the country were being cleansed. The real problem in Iraq is not the activities of the insurgency, but rather the political deadlock in Baghdad. That's likely to take a generation to resolve, and should get a lot more attention than the daily images of bombings and shootings in the country.
Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.
AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images
By Emma Sky
Best Defense bureau chief, Iraq
The famous Iraqi sociologist, Ali Wardi, wrote about the dual personalities of Iraqis. For many of us who served in Iraq, this is something we also seem to have developed.
I spent the weekend in Texas, staying with American friends I served with in Iraq. Although we had not seen each other in years, conversation came easily. Our shared experiences away at war had created life-long bonds. We reminisced about our time together -- the sense of purpose, the camaraderie, our small victories. We laughed. We drank. We ate unhealthy fast food. We gossiped about people we knew. Together, we visited the memorial at Fort Hood to pay our respects to the 450 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division killed in Iraq.
But all weekend I also surfed the Internet for news and chatted with Iraqi friends. Iraq is spiraling out of control. Following the arrests in December of the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, Sunnis took to the streets, revealing their widespread sense of alienation in the new Iraq and demanding the end of what they consider a government policy to marginalize them. As with other protests in the Arab world, they were initially driven by legitimate grievances. But against the backdrop of provincial elections, little was done to address the concerns of the protestors -- despite calls to do so from the top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani. Politicians instead exploited the demonstrations for electoral gains. President Maliki took the opportunity to distract attention away from the lack of services and rampant corruption, presenting himself as the defender of the Shia, in the face of Sunni regional powers intent on overthrowing Shia regimes -- Syria first, then Iraq. Sunni politicians, for their part, sought to benefit from the demonstrations to rail against government oppression to gain support for their own electoral campaigns.
Last week, the Iraqi Army entered Hawija, near Kirkuk, to arrest people accused of attacking Iraqi Security Forces. In the ensuing violence, 200 people were killed. There are reports of desertions from the Iraqi Army. Kurds have moved peshmerga into positions in the disputed territories. Tribes are forming militias to protect themselves from the Iraqi Army. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed in Anbar -- and the province has been put under curfew. Ten satellite channels, including al-Jazeera, have been banned, accused of spreading sectarianism. Bombs exploded in Shia towns. The speaker of parliament called for the government to resign and for early elections.
By seeking to eliminate his Sunni rivals, Maliki has removed the wedge that the U.S. military drove between Sunni extremists and the Sunni mainstream during the Surge, at such great cost. There is a growing sense that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are merging into one, with Shia regimes, backed by Iran, battling against Sunnis, including al Qaeda elements. We may be witnessing the breakdown of the post-WW I settlement and the nation-states established under the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Many Iraqis still cannot fathom how the United States could lose interest in Iraq and simply walk away after so much investment. They explain it in terms of conspiracy theories: a "secret agreement" between the United States and Iran; a "deal" between Biden and Maliki to divide up Iraq.
Will our legacy from the Iraq war be a regional power struggle ignited by the resurgence of Iran, the contagion of sectarianism into Syria, the horrific violence of jihadist groups? Is this in our national interest? Can we not do more to make Iraq a more positive influence in its neighborhood?
As the situation deteriorates, I wonder, will the United States proactively develop, articulate, and adopt strategies to engender a better balance of power in the region -- or reactively respond to the inevitable fallout with tactical measures.
Emma Sky is a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute. She served in Iraq 2003-2004 as the governorate coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and 2007-2010 as the political advisor to General Odierno.
Lady Emma Sky
The other day a couple of commenters discussing innovation in the military mentioned one change (fwiw, the company-level intelligence cell) as a big reason why "we won in Iraq."
Hmm, I thought: Did we actually win that war? I am not sure. It doesn't feel like it. Yes, we got out with our shirts on. But win?
I thought about this again when I read this thoughtful comment by Lt. Gen. James Dubik in the May issue of ARMY magazine:
America is confusing "withdrawing from a war" with "ending a war." The two are very different. A war ends when strategic objectives are met or an enemy is defeated and recognizes its defeat. In Iraq, the war continues -- albeit at a level that the Iraqi security forces are, so far, able to handle and the Iraqi government can manage.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.