Saturday 8 September, 2018 Update: US Considering Its Military Options If Syria Uses Chemical Weapons

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The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?

The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.

Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.

With that in mind,  any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.

 

Saturday 30 December, 2017 Short Update: Iranian Protests Continue

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The protests going on in Tehran have surprised much of the world, and appear to have caught the Iranian government flatfooted. This round of protests has not stemmed from the questionable results of a presidential election, as the 2009 protests and subsequent Green movement did. This time around the grievances are economic in nature. Rampant corruption, and a declining standard of living are the causes that have brought Iranian citizens out to protest the government. The regime is likely to come down hard on the protesters. Security forces have been clashing with students around Tehran University and other parts of the capital. Those protests are expanding across the country right now. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, however, this challenge to the Iranian government is not likely to evaporate quickly.

The Trump administration warned Iranian leaders last night that the world is watching events unfold. It is unlikely that Iran’s government will pay heed to the US comments. They have already been labeled as ‘opportunistic’ in government statements. Iran has enough problems to deal with in the streets at the moment, though it would be useful to consider what, if any, impact the protests will have on Tehran’s ventures abroad. From its involvement in Syria and Yemen, to the regional confrontation with Saudi Arabia, Iran has been very active. Will that continue to be the case if the internal situation at home deteriorates?

 

 

NATO Slow In Waking Up to the Russian Military Threat

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Contrary to what its press releases, and statements by alliance officials proclaim, NATO has been playing catchup to Russia in the military arena since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead of taking steps which would seize the initiative from Moscow and serve to dictate the flow of events, the alliance has been doing the exact opposite. It is no secret that NATO’s options are limited. After all, it is a defensive alliance in title, and purpose, having been created  as a counterweight to the expansive policies and actions of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War revamped NATO’s priorities and mission. Western Europe no longer needed defending to the degree that it had from 1949 to 1991. Peacekeeping in the Balkans, and an expanding role in the Global War on Terror defined NATO over the next twenty three years. During that time, the once massive military infrastructure that had been created to challenge Soviet military power was downsized, or dismantled, and largely forgotten.

As Russia began emerging as a viable military threat in 2014, NATO was slow to react. New missions, and duties were not provided with the necessary support and command infrastructures. During the Cold War years, every military unit assigned to NATO belonged to a respective parent command, was keenly aware what its role and mission would be in a time of conflict, and practiced incessantly to master that role if the balloon ever went up. In recent times this has not been the case. Ground, air, and naval units have been tagged for missions they’ve never previously undertaken or trained for, with little or no support from the alliance.

Now, as 2017 is nearing an end, NATO looks eager to start rectifying the command dilemma. Since November, the alliance has been working on a plan to stand up an entirely new naval command, likely to be labeled the North Atlantic Command. Russian naval activity in the Atlantic has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. The latest concern is Russian submarine activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. The importance of these cables cannot be overstated. They carry nearly all of the communications on the Internet. Cutting them would bring the web to a crashing halt. Tapping them would provide Moscow with valuable insights on global internet traffic.

This activity, as well as other maneuvers by Russian attack submarines is compelling NATO navies to refocus on Anti-Submarine Warfare, or ASW as it is commonly labeled. There has been little, if any emphasis on ASW since the Cold War ended. There was little need. For most of the 90s and 00s, Russian subs rarely ventured out into open ocean. Since 2014, however, Russian sub activity has been on the rise, ops tempos have increased dramatically, and new subs are coming on line at a rapid pace.

In early 2018 it will be useful to take a detailed look at how NATO intends to deal with the growing Russian threat at sea, as well as in the air, and on land. Although the attention of the world will continue to be focused mainly on what’s happening in North Korea, the chill in US-Russia relations, and recent moves concerning the situation in Ukraine suggest  a flare up in Eastern Europe or at sea between NATO and Russian forces is very possible.

 

 

Wednesday 8 November, 2017 Update: Trump Has to Pressure China to Act On North Korea Now

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Not surprisingly, the media has been reluctant to grasp the message embedded between the lines of President Trump’s speeches, and remarks concerning North Korea on his Far East tour. It is apparent US patience is wearing thin when it comes to the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. However, Washington’s diminished willingness to endure is not the result of a personal restlessness on the part of Trump. It exists in view of the fact that the North Koreans are fervently working to produce a functioning ballistic missile that can reach US shores, along with a hydrogen weapon that can be attached to it. In the early days of the Trump administration it was made clear to him that North Korea has been moving rapidly in that direction, emboldened by US reluctance to effectively address his nation’s WMD programs over the past twenty years. Trump is not handling North Korea in the same manner as his predecessors did. Kim Jong Un has taken some time to digest the new reality and figure out a way to contend with the increased American pressure. His new strategy is to engineer a workable missile and weapon before the United States can stop him. In essence, Kim has turned the twenty-three year old marathon between the US and North Korea into a sprint to the finish line. President Trump, his foreign policy, and military advisers recognize this even though the media refuses to.

Trump is now in China for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean tensions will undoubtedly dominate their discussions. The two presidents have been working to handle the North Korean situation together, however, it appears as if that approach has earned a limited return. Trump will likely inform Xi that time is running out and if China is resolved to decisively influence the situation now is the time.  Xi’s position is understandable. He does not want to see a war erupt between North Korea and the US and her allies in such close proximity to China’s borders.  Nor does he want North Korea to collapse beneath its own weight and be replaced by unified Korea that is pro-US.

To avoid either one of these possibilities from becoming reality, any Chinese move needs to be centered around changing the North Korean regime internally. Despite the image of Kim Jong Un controlling every facet of the North Korean government, factions do exist in Pyongyang. There is a pro-China faction that, if cultured and funded properly, could serve as the instrument to remove Kim from power and replace him with one that is more moderate in tone, and does not pose such a flagrant threat to the US. A Beijing-backed coup attempt carries a host of potential dangers as well as rewards. Yet at this point in the game, if the choices for Xi are to do nothing or do something akin to playing with fire, the Chinese President’s best option may be to choose the fire option and accept the risks of being burned.

Thursday 17 August, 2017 Update: Barcelona Terror Attack Forces Europe to Reconsider its Priorities

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Today’s events in Barcelona serve as a grim reminder that the problems Europe faced in 2016 are still alive and well in 2017 despite individual and collective efforts by EU member-states to create the illusion of improving conditions across the continent. Since President Trump was inaugurated in January he has served as a scapegoat for all ailments European. In the aftermath of the populist tsunami last year, EU leaders have countered by portraying Trump and his seemingly anti-EU positions as the common enemy to be challenged. The true challenges facing Europe like terror, and the renewed refugee influx, have been minimized by pro-EU politicians and the media. Non-starter issues such as the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Trump’s tweets, and European diplomatic forays into non-European matters have replaced them.

Although the number of refugees arriving in southern Europe is increasing once again, little is mentioned of it by pro-EU politicians and the European media. The same held true for terrorism until today. Apparent terror incidents in Germany are systematically ruled to be otherwise with astonishing speed. The same European media outlets which covered last year’s incidents with intense focus have downgraded their level of coverage, as was seen with the most recent car attack in Paris. Then came today’s Barcelona attack. As of the time of writing, thirteen deaths and over 80 wounded bystanders have been confirmed. Two men are in custody and a manhunt is underway across Spain for a third man, as anti-terror operations take place at various points around the country.

As much as the EU, and many Europeans try to pretend otherwise, terrorism is no less of a problem today compared to last year. If anything, terror is becoming an even greater security threat. ISIS and other Islamic terror organizations have an infinite pool of potential attackers to select from, and the EU, for fear of appearing politically incorrect for lack of a better term, is dragging its heels in monitoring the people who are potentially serious threats.

Today should serve as a wakeup call for Europe. The threats and problems which the EU have tried to keep hidden in the background still remain front and center. The responsibility for the Barcelona attack falls at least partly on Brussels which prefers to keep the collective EU head buried in the sand rather than confront terror as the danger that it is.