Preventive Action & Weapons of Mass Destruction Part I

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Preventive action is a term often confused with preemptive action. Admittedly, the terms are similar in appearance. The two are also linked by the fundamental principle of ‘strike your opponent before your opponent can strike you.’ This is where the similarities end. Preemptive action is an attempt to stave off or defeat an imminent invasion or establish a strategic advantage in the opening minutes of such a conflict. A preventive action is a measure launched to neutralize a potentially imminent offensive capability from being obtained by an unfriendly or rogue nation-state. A threat which the initiating nation-state has determined it cannot live with. In contemporary times, the acquirement of Nuclear, Biological and/or Chemical (NBC) weapons by a rogue nation-state qualifies as such a threat.

At the moment, North Korea is a nation meets the criteria of a rogue nation-state possessing NBC weapons and a ballistic missile capability to deliver them. Pyongyang’s journey to obtaining nuclear weapons began in the early 1990s. The United States attempted to persuade North Korea from halting its nuclear weapons program without success. Tensions rose and nearly came to a head in June of 1994. The 1994 Korea crisis led to a brief, yet palpable war scare. Neither side wanted a conflict, and preventive action at that point potentially could have led to a major conflict. US plans to launch airstrikes against the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, to prevent North Korea from acquiring the raw material needed for nuclear weapons, were shelved. The US shifted gears and adopted diplomacy, and economic persuasion as its primary policy tools for halting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The effort led to the Agreed Framework, signed in October of 1994. The purpose of the agreement was to replace North Korea’s then-current reactor with light water nuclear reactors that could not produce weapons grade plutonium, and the eventual normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.

Here we are some twenty-three years later. The North has nuclear weapons and its relations with the US are anything but normal. Even more alarming is the progress North Korea is currently making in its ballistic missile program. There is growing concern that it could have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii, Alaska, or perhaps even the West Coast within the next few years.

Is preventive action an effective policy option for dealing with NBC threats? Back in 1994 it might have halted North Korea’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Or, it would’ve led to a major war in the region. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Preventive action is a controversial policy tool available to governments to minimize or end the threats from NBC weapons in the hands of unstable regimes. Its detractors claim preventive action goes beyond what is acceptable in international law. Should a threat come to light that requires preventive action, the matter should be referred to the UN Security Council, which has the jurisdiction to authorize military action.

Diplomacy, deterrence, economic sanctions, and economic persuasion have also been used in many instances over the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st Centuries with varying degrees of success and failure. The majority of modern nation-states prefer non-aggressive, internationally accepted counterproliferation methods. Comparative assessments, and selective case studies suggest that nonaggressive policies are more effective in stopping rogue nations from acquiring and using NBC weapons.

Supporters of preventive action in the 21st Century argue that in the Post-Sept.11th world preventive action, as well as preventive war ( Note: there is a distinct difference between the two) is necessary in some instances. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a preventive war regardless of how it is viewed in contemporary times. Iraq harbored Islamic terror groups that were decidedly anti-US and anti-West, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was believed to possess and be developing chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the US government was not inclined to simply accept the Iraq situation as status quo. After all, on September 11th, 2001 Al Qaeda launched an attack that killed thousands of Americans and the terror group did so with a fraction of the resources that are available to a nation-state. It is difficult to imagine how President Bush could have allowed what was a clear and present danger in the Post-Sept.11th world to go unchecked.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 now. By the time the first US aircraft were over Iraq in March of 2003, whatever biological and chemical weapons Iraq had were long gone. Very little evidence of an NBC weapons programs was ever found. For what it’s worth, my guess is that most of what Saddam could not destroy was transported clandestinely to Syria and beyond. Iraq had the benefit of a head start. It was apparent by September of 2012 that the US and its coalition was coming in at some point unless Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors unobstructed access to sites across Iraq. Frankly, by that point nothing short of removing himself from power would’ve satisfied President Bush. So, while the US prepared for war and built a coalition, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to believe that the Iraqi regime was destroying as much evidence as possible and simultaneously sending whatever it could to Syria and beyond. Preventive action/war in Iraq failed miserably to achieve its objectives.

The civil war in Syria, however, offers a case study of how non-aggressive policy tools failed to bring an end to Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons program and use of nerve gas against opposition forces. This instance will be examined in Part II of this article, along with how preventive action fared in a handful of other instances. It will be published on Monday night. Later next week, Part III will look at how preventive action can be used by the US to successfully neutralize North Korea’s goal of building a ballistic missile capable of reaching North America.

 

Thoughts on the US Strike Against Syria Last Night

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As a strong supporter of President Trump and his policy goals I was surprised by the talk of military action against Bashr al-Assad and his government that started to emanate from Washington DC beginning Wednesday night. Most Americans recognize the debacle that Syria has become and regard the mess as partly the result of the previous administration’s failed foreign policy. The last thing we want is to become embroiled fully in the tinderbox which Syria has become.

As a foreign policy advisor and geopolitical expert, on the other hand, I agreed with the tone and message on Syria that was coming from Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump. Bashar al-Assad crossed a line by using chemical weapons against his own people. His actions demanded a firm, immediate response which would affirm that further use of chemical weapons by Syria will not be tolerated.

As an American I fully support the cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria. After eight years of the previous administration’s penchant for leading from behind, last night the United States of America reclaimed its place as leader of the Free World. The military action ordered by President Trump was measured, limited, and delivered the proper message to Assad, Russia, and our allies across the globe.  It was not a shot across the bow, or the implementation of a ‘red line,’ but a justified punishment and message to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

What comes next is not as clear-cut as last night’s US action was. Tillerson spoke in broad terms yesterday about a coalition forming to stop Assad. He also said Russia has been either complicit or incompetent in reining in the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The cruise missile strikes certainly raise the prospect of the proxy war in Syria heating up and will certainly raise tensions before Tillerson leaves next week for a visit to Moscow.

On the topic of Russia, today Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attack as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense also stated its intention to increase the capabilities of Syria’s air defense system following the attack. At current, Syria’s air defenses are centered around single-digit Soviet manufactured Surface to Air missiles from the Cold War era like the SA-5 and SA-4. These systems are very limited in their abilities to contend with cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk. In comparison, Russia’s newer double-digit SAM systems such as the SA-21 Growler, which is currently defending Russian forces in Syria, has the ability to detect and engage low flying cruise missiles.

Over the weekend we’ll take a look at some of the other topics emerging from the US strike, as well as try and chart in more specific detail what might come next in Syria, and for US-Russian relations.

Syria: The Coming Storm

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The Syrian Crisis has entered a new phase with the reported chemical weapons attack on 21 August. The US is preparing to intervene in the civil war if it turns out that the chemical weapons usage was in fact committed by the Syrian government’s forces. As time goes on, it appears that Bashir Assad was responsible for the attack. Western military intervention is all but certain at this point. However, the size and scope of that intervention has yet to be decided upon. Neither has the diplomatic side of the intervention equation.  The only cast-iron certainty at this point is that the number of questions outnumber the answers available by a considerable margin.

It is widely held that the US and her allies have not yet intervened in Syria. That is not true. The US and her allies have not overtly intervened militarily. Up till now the United States military role has been behind the scenes and limited to the delivery of weapons to opposition groups deemed to be ‘acceptable successors’ to the Assad regime. It is safe to assume that US Special Forces groups are operating in Southern Syria to help instruct the opposition fighters on weapons and tactics, as well as paving the way for a larger US military role in the future should the situation call for it. The time for that larger role could be fast approaching.

If and when it comes, what will intervention look like? Will it be unilateral, or will the US build an international coalition to confront Assad’s regime? Will it be a limited strike restricted to the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles and air launched stand-off weapons against a small number of targets? Or will it take the shape of a larger effort to topple Assad? An operation using the Libyan blueprint as its foundation.

Given the outrage caused in Washington by the use of chemical weapons, the destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical weapons stockpiles should be an immediate objective of any intervention. Destroying them will not be an easy task. Assad no doubt has them dispersed in hardened, well defended locations throughout the country. When the locations are determined, it will not be as easy sending a fighter or bomber overhead to drop bombs on them. Air defenses have to be degraded, command and control sites neutralized and most importantly, air superiority must be established across the width and breadth of Syria.

The aforementioned things need to be done prior to any military action aside from a limited strike. Right now, the US forces in the area are limited to four destroyers and an unknown number of attack submarines in the Eastern Med, as well as a contingent of USAF aircraft in Jordan. More military assets will be needed. The numbers and types of forces that move into the region in the coming days will provide an idea of what type of action is coming. British aircraft are already arriving at RAF Akrotiri. US aircraft are probably not far behind. Akrotiri, bases in Jordan and the large airbase at Incirlik, Turkey are all available locations for US warplanes, as well as warplanes belonging to the other nations of a forming Anti-Assad coalition.