Ukraine Update 27 March, 2022

  • The White House was forced to walk back potentially explosive remarks made by President Biden during yesterday’s speech in Warsaw. In the speech, Biden called Vladimir Putin a ‘butcher’ who ‘cannot remain in power.’ The remarks were largely viewed as escalatory among America’s NATO allies with French President Emmanuel Macron remarking, “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation — that’s the objective.” Granted, Macron has his own more self-serving reasons for not wanting to escalate the situation with a presidential election on the horizon. Then there is Macron’s continued hope that the war provides the opportunity for France situate itself in a position to Europe in the post-Ukraine War era.
  • The head of Ukrainian military intelligence noted today that Russia’s new strategy appears to be dividing Ukraine into two separate states with one being controlled by Moscow. Since Russia’s failure to occupy the entire country so far appears to be permanent, the Kremlin is turning to an alternate plan containing more attainable political goals.
  • In the past twenty-four hours I have spoken to a handful of chemical and biological weapons experts who claim a consensus is growing in Western defense circles that Russia will use chemical weapons in the coming days. The subject has been lurking in the background for the past week as Russia’s advances in Ukraine have come to a halt, with little prospect of resuming anytime soon.
  • Finland has suspended rail services with Russia, terminating the rail link between the European Union and Russia. All passenger, commercial and cargo services have ended for the moment. Finland’s national railway operator announced the halt will start on Monday.

Ukraine Update 14 March, 2022 (Evening, brief post)

  • Negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials was cut short on Monday due to a ‘technical pause.’ These talks, the fourth round since fighting began in February, were being conducted via video link. They are expected to resume on Tuesday.
  • According to US officials, China is expressing some openness to giving Russia the financial and military aid it has requested. It is not certain whether or not China has made a final decision about providing assistance. The partnership between China and Russia has caused increased concern in the West and is proving to be a major roadblock in isolating Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian claims that Ukraine is preparing to use chemical weapons have continued despite no solid proof being provided by the Russian government. There’s growing concern in Western circles that the empty claims are part of a Russian plan to stage the ‘discovery’ of Ukrainian chemical agents and use the incident to its advantage politically and militarily.

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.

 

A Brief Postscript on the Syrian Strikes

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Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump  administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.

Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential.  If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.

Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.

Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.

 

Preventive Action and Weapons of Mass Destruction Part II

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More than once in the past thirty-five years, preventive action has been implemented, or at least contemplated by a nation-state. There are also a handful of times when it should have been used and wasn’t for whatever the circumstances at the time. For Part II and III of this piece, four crises involving weapons of mass destruction and preventive action to varying degrees will be examined. The first is Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli airstrike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was carried out in 1981. The second case study is President Obama’s 2012 declaration of a ‘Red Line’ in Syria. The third presentation will be the Iranian nuclear crisis and the reluctance of the US and Israel to use force to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program while it was in its early stages. The final crisis to be looked at will be the current North Korean nuclear crisis and the effects that preventive action could have had in the past, as well as its place at the present time.

Operation Opera

In 1976, Iraq purchased a nuclear reactor from France. The French, and Iraqis maintained that the purpose of the reactor was peaceful and it was unable to produce weapons-grade material. Israel was not so certain of Iraq’s intentions. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein was a nightmare scenario for the Israelis to contend with. The conclusion was reached in Tel Aviv that preventive action would likely be needed to ensure the reactor, named Osirak by its French manufacturers, was never brought online. Long before Osirak was up and running, diplomatic efforts aimed at halting the reactor program were initiated with France, and the United States. Simultaneously, clandestine actions were launched with the intention of fatally wounding Iraq’s nuclear program. And while all of this was going on in the late 70s, Israel’s vaunted air force was preparing to launch an attack on the reactor should it be necessary.

In November of 1980, Prime Minister Begin was informed by his country’s intelligence services that Osirak would be fueled and operational by June, 1981. A cabinet meeting was held and Begin’s ministers voted 10-6 in favor of authorizing the attack.

On 7 June, 1981, Operation Opera was launched. Israeli F-16A Falcons, escorted by a smaller number of F-15As bombed Osirak. The attack inflicted serious damage on the reactor and nearby support buildings. 10 Iraqis, and 1 French technician were killed in the attack, and Israel later paid compensation to the family of the French citizen.

The attack was achieved its objective of seriously delaying Iraq’s nuclear program. At the time Israeli and Western intelligence estimated the strike had delayed Iraq’s nuclear ambitions by a decade. If the raid had not been launched, it is probable that Iraq would’ve been armed with nuclear weapons by 1991. How this may have affected Operation Desert Storm is open to speculation, but it likely would not have been favorable to the US-led coalition and Israel.

Israel faced intense political condemnation for the operation, but it weathered that storm. Iraq did not retaliate. It was too involved in its war with Iran to spare the men or material to focus on Israel. There was even a degree of cooperation between Iran and Israel in regards to Osirak, which will be discussed in detail at some point in the future.

Operation Opera was a picture-perfect case of successful preventive action. The danger of a nuclear-armed Iraq was removed from the table. The action also served as a message to other Arab powers considering their own nuclear programs. Israel would turn to preventive action again if it felt its own existence were threatened.

Obama’s Red Line

Promising to launch preventive action if a situation warrants, and then doing exactly the opposite is a guaranteed way to lose credibility in a New York minute. Especially if the man making the empty promise is the president of the United States.

To the surprise and dismay of many, that’s exactly what happened to Barack Obama in 2013. The previous year, in the midst of his reelection campaign, the civil war in Syria was intensifying. Inevitably, it also became an issue on the campaign trail. In July, 2012 there were reports that the Assad regime was moving its stockpile. In a press conference following month, Obama declared that the movement or use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a red line. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said at a press conference. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Obama had thrown down of the gauntlet. He placed Assad on notice in clearly expressed terms. Any movement, or use of chemical weapons would result in a US-led military response. Almost one year later in August of 2013, Assad crossed the red line and used chemical weapons against rebel forces near Damascus. The attack killed upwards of 1,400 civilians. It was expected that the US would shortly begin military operations to destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons before they could be used again. The world held its breath and waited for US missiles and bombs to rain down on Assad. But Obama failed to follow through on his threat with preventive action. He chose diplomacy instead. Subsequently, a US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal came into being.

His reasoning for the change of heart was calculated. He knew that any US military action against Assad would bring US-Iran negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to a dead stop. In the grand scheme of Washington politics and the legacy of a president, ending Iran’s nuclear program trumped Syria. The fact that he was leaving American prestige in the dirt along with the red line rhetoric mattered little to Obama.

In the short term, American prestige did not suffer too much. The agreement made strides in reducing Syrian chemical weapon program. Assad’s regime appeared to be complying in earnest and there was no further use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Obama hailed it as a major victory in the battle to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Diplomacy had prevailed where preventive action could have had an adverse effect on the conflict and led it down a path the world wasn’t ready for.

The introduction of Russian forces into Syria in 2015 left egg on the face of Obama and called into question exactly how solid the agreement really was. Rumors abounded of Assad’s forces squirreling away some batches of sarin for use in the future. Obama ignored the rumors and consequences of Russian troops on the ground in Syria for as long as he could. However, the US was swiftly losing influence in all things Syria. His attempts to reassure the world otherwise failed to turn the tide of international opinion. The consensus was that Obama’s red line was an abject failure that served to encourage and assist crisis in Syria. The world order that was sustained by US deterrence had vanished.

The use of sarin gas by Syrian government forces in April of 2017 was the final nail in the coffin for Obama’s red line. Assad, as suspected, kept some chemical agents in reserve for use at a time and place of his choosing. Preventive action in ’12 or ’13 might have halted his chemical program or degraded it enough, or the potential damage US military action would have visited upon his regime could have given him pause. The Syrian president gambled and won. His regime is strengthening with every passing day and Obama’s red line is atop the dust bin of history.

Note: Part III will be posted between 8 and 10 June, 2017