On Syria Part I

5765767

If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.

Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.

The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.

Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.

Monday 19 March, 2018 Update: Putin Secures Re-Election

45535356536

Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. He secured a fourth term in office with 77% of the vote. The result was hardly a surprise. Putin’s grip on power in Russia is ironclad and he faced no serious challengers in the campaign. The election was hardly fair, by Western standards, and has been described by some people as a sham. Even Edward Snowden was critical of the election results in his adopted homeland. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to his criticism.

As tradition dictates, many world leaders have sent formal congratulations, and spoke of desires to work together with Moscow on common issues. Behind the polite façade of diplospeak, there is less of a consensus about Putin and future relations with Russia. In Europe, many leaders and political parties are wary of Russia’s ambitions, and view Putin as a growing threat. Nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or under the thumb of Moscow during the Cold War make up the bulk of this group. Other European nations, mainly EU member-states in Central and Western Europe, are less critical. From Brussels to Berlin the priority has been to repair relations between Russia and the West. Germany has led the repair effort in recent years, though Angela Merkel has little to show for it. EU sanctions against Russia remain in place but they have not persuaded Putin to cooperate on the Ukrainian issue or any of the other matters simmering between Russia and the West.

The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United Kingdom over the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil will affect relations between Europe and Russia in one form or another. The EU is standing beside Britain in calls for Russia to disclose its development of Novichok, the agent used. The United States joined the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany in condemning the use of a nerve agent on British soil, and agreeing Russia was the party responsible for the attack. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow mirrored the move a short time afterward, expelling 23 British diplomats from Russia. Tensions remain high, with Russia denying it had anything to do with the attack.

With the election behind him now, Putin might be looking to use the crisis with England to his advantage. Russia could use a victory of some type. In Syria, and Russia it appears to be mired in military and diplomatic stalemate, with no change in sight. It’s unclear exactly how Putin can turn the current issue to his advantage, but if anyone can bring it about, it’s him.

Thursday 15 March, 2018 Update: Western Leaders Stand With Britain as UK-Russia Crisis Moves to the Next Stage

23543523

Western leaders have accused Russia of being responsible for being behind the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter at their home in the United Kingdom. In a rare, yet encouraging show of unity, the leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement condemning the attack and calling upon Russia to live up to uphold peace and security. The statement was released one day after Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the nerve agent attack. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov labeled the allegations as ‘unacceptable.’ Moscow is expected to respond by ordering the expulsion of British diplomats from Russia in the coming days. Putin will possibly go beyond that and attempt to prod Britain in another way. Do not be surprised to hear about increased Russian air activity in close proximity to the British Isles over the coming days. Business might be about to pick up for the RAF Typhoons on QRA.

 

Author’s Note: Apologies for the shortness of this update. Scheduling conflicts have minimized the time I have available to write today.

Thursday 12 January, 2017 Update: US Armor Arrives In Poland

web-94

The US Army is returning to Europe in force. Treads on the ground instead of boots, if you will.

Following almost two years of preparation and planning, the first elements of a US Army armored brigade are arriving in Poland. In a scenario that practically nobody in the world could’ve foreseen happening in 1989 without the aid of NATO winning a land war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, US forces will be deployed to Eastern Europe. The deployment is not a permanent one per se. Some interpretations of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act argue that it prohibits the permanent stationing of US troops in Eastern Europe. The agreement, however, holds no stipulations concerning the placing of equipment. Consequently, the equipment will remain in place and US troops will be rotated in periodically, every nine months or so.

Moscow’s reaction to the arrival of the US troops was predictably negative. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denounced the move, stating: “We perceive it as a threat. These actions threaten our interests, our security. Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It’s [the US], not even a European state.” For the moment, the rhetoric appears to be the only card Russia is playing. There are no signs of a countermove being planned in the Kremlin. Next Friday Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and Putin is likely waiting to see the direction US-Russia relations take before deciding if a countermove will be necessary.

The first rotation of US soldiers is coming from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team/4th Infantry Division based at Fort Colorado and consists of 3,500-4,000 troops. The first contingent of men and equipment will be stationed in Zagan, Poland which is also home to the Polish 11th Armored Cavalry Division, also a heavy maneuver unit like the 3/4th ID. It’s ranges and training areas will be put to good use and permit US and Polish tankers to train together regularly. After the brigade is entirely in Europe it will fan out to other bases across NATO’s eastern flank, giving other member-nations concrete indications of the US commitment to Europe’s security.

This move comes three years after the last US armor departed the continent. Budget constraints forced the last two permanently stationed heavy maneuver brigades to be shipped home. In the wake of this deployment, US defense planners might be looking at permanently returning tank-heavy forces back to Germany as the next step should US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate through 2017.

 

 

Baltic Anxiety

536535456556

While campaigning last year, President-elect Donald Trump made it clear that he expected America’s NATO partners to increase their contributions to the common defense should he become president. Otherwise, the US commitment to NATO would need to be scrutinized and reconsidered. His opponents at the time twisted the comments to make it appear that Trump intends to pull the US out of NATO and embark on an isolationist foreign policy. Added to this was Vladimir Putin’s very vocal preference to see Donald Trump become the next US leader. In Europe, there some very genuine concern at this, especially in certain Eastern European nations. However, the majority of Europeans did not expect Trump to win the election so the concern did not reach a point of alarm.

Trump won the election in November and his improbable victory has rocked the world. In the weeks following his win, politicians and citizens in Western Europe were too preoccupied preparing themselves and their nations for the political ramifications of Trump’s victory to worry about the ramifications to NATO.

In northeastern Europe it is an entirely different story. The Baltic States, the fragile eastern outposts of the NATO empire, are a tense place these days. Politicians, military officers, and citizens in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are quite concerned, to say the least, that the US commitment to their sovereignty and freedom will diminish when Trump takes office. The seemingly isolationist bent of Trump’s foreign policy ideas, along with his fond words for Putin have sparked a sense of quiet urgency. Enough so that the Baltic nations are all increasing efforts to strengthen their defenses.

Citizens in all three nations are joining volunteer militias and signing up for military training in larger numbers. If the shooting starts, the value of organizations such as Latvia’s Home Guard and Estonia’s Kaitseliit would be minimal though. Their members are part time volunteers without the training of professional soldiers. When it comes to equipment, these groups face financial obstacles in obtaining modern weapons and gear like night vision goggles. These citizen-soldiers can do little to help defend against a determined Russian advance into their countries. Their moment would likely come after the Baltics have been subjugated, acting as partisans to disrupt activity behind the lines. There is precedence for this. During World War II, after being overrun by the Germans early in the Russian campaign, partisan activity sprang to life in the Baltics and was a thorn in the side of the German war machine until the Baltic states were liberated by Russia in 1944.

The citizens of the Baltics are not alone in their concern about the intentions of Russia. NATO has committed to the deployment and stationing of over 3,000 troops in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland as well. This force is small by military standards and its ability to mount a credible defense is debatable. Many observers consider the force to be a tripwire, not expected to stand up to the weight of a Russian thrust westward.

To their credit, the Baltics are not standing by idle. As they watch, and wait, each nation is also preparing. The preparation serves two purposes: deterring Russia from military action, and showing the new American leader that their nations are in fact pulling their weight when it comes to NATO.