Archive for the 'Hard Power' Category

This photo sort of looks like a ship, right? It is, but then again it’s also something else.

UMM QASR, Iraq (March 22, 2012) P-309 was the ninth patrol boat delivered to the Iraqi Navy under FMS program. (U.S. Navy photo) UMM QASR, Iraq (March 22, 2012) P-309 was the ninth patrol boat delivered to the Iraqi Navy under FMS program. (U.S. Navy photo)

This is not just a military asset; it's an economic asset and a political asset with strategic effects in each of those spheres. A military planner working on security assistance has a challenge in thinking big enough to recognize this ship and those who sail in it as more than a militarily important system.
Photo from NAVSEA PEO Ships website

For this example, the vessel–an Iraqi patrol craft made by an American company and part of a U.S. foreign military sales contract–is not just one of the assets Iraq’s military needs to protect a very crowded and consequential waterspace. It’s also a multi-decade relationship, where both countries get to know each other on an operator-to-operator level as well as on other levels. That relationship can have strategic effects as the lieutenants become admirals, and the relationship builds trust, access, and communications paths outside the formal diplomatic process and regionally as well as bilaterally.

One of the patrol spaces this ship protects drives the entire country’s economy–the oil platforms and pipeline infrastructure–and its shipping. This is recognizable to a military planner, though the economic part takes a bit of wider thinking to understand how U.S. security cooperation fits into it with training and equipment. But let’s add something important on here: U.S. policy is to support Iraq’s reintegration into the region, and it’s a top foreign policy priority for the U.S. with regard to Iraq. The military sphere tends to be a bit easier in reconnection than some other spheres; navies, since they’re mobile sovereign territory in international waters, can be the fastest of those–especially when the U.S. is acting as an honest broker. To pull off that kind of multinational reintegration is not solely a military function, but can utterly depend on the military aspect. If the U.S. really wants a whole-of-Executive-Branch (much less whole-of-government) approach to a policy problem, DoD’s mass has to be subordinated to the overall effort, even when it might not necessarily make short term military sense.

The example above isn’t perfect. Security assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan has been far from the standard situation seen by a security cooperation office, and special authorities in the law made security cooperation in these countries much different than in other countries. A more forceful example would be where the host nation is paying for every penny of the asset, since feelings about “what ‘we’ are giving ‘them'” emotionally colors the discussion, and it’s worthwhile to emphasize that foreign military sales is not necessarily coming from the U.S. taxpayer. On the other hand, the nonmilitary effects of this ship and crew, and the regional effects of what this ship does and the separate bilateral relationships that navy has with regional navies and the U.S., are pretty clear and useful to bring out the challenge of thinking about security cooperation as more than arms sales or exercises.

Many folks seem to miss the nonmilitary and regional effects of the military-to-military relationship built out of security cooperation, or even that the process is heavily structured in U.S. law. This post about security cooperation misses important considerations about what security cooperation is and what it’s supposed to do (this one by the same author is better, though of different focus). A comment of mine on that War On the Rocks post identifies structural problems in the argument, and there are other opportunities for quibbling, but that post proves that it’s worthwhile to outline some basics of SC with a view towards those regional and extramilitary effects.

Security cooperation (SC) is not very familiar to most operators in the Department of Defense. SC’s a difficult skill set. SC can pay off not only as a force multiplier, but also to provide diplomatic effects which can be game-changing. DoD personnel may only experience SC once, as an exercise or engagement event, or by doing a tour that includes a collateral duty associated with foreign military sales (FMS). More experience is in the foreign area officer (FAO) commmunity, whose officers can wind up doing SC from several angles over multiple tours, but there aren’t many FAOs around. Because the skills needed are relatively obscure inside DoD, understanding of what SC is becomes fragmentary and often misses the point. American SC can suffer from that bad understanding. (The way U.S. government agencies in the Executive Branch staff and train for SC missions doesn’t help the problem, either.)

DoD isn’t the agency where SC initially gets defined—because SC is not solely a DoD mission; it’s a State mission for which Defense is the executive agent.

Let’s define some terms here. SC includes

  • security assistance (SA), which itself includes
    • foreign military sales (FMS) weapons sales,
    • International Military Education and Training (IMET),
    • a multi-page list of other programs that somehow fit or get shoehorned into the process, and
  • security cooperation (Sc), a confusingly named subset of the bigger SC which mainly deals with exercise events with host nation or meetings between military personnel.

The first one, SA, is covered under federal law. (Note: IANAL and doing this off the top of my head.) U.S. Code Title 22 is the main law that covers diplomatic and consular functions and is for the Department of State what Title 10 is for DoD. The second part of security cooperation, the non-FMS part also called security cooperation, has rules under Title 22 but is more under a section of Title 10. That part of title 10 used is different from what you might expect, and it’s administered by personnel working under a different rule set than those under the full operational command of a COCOM. DoD personnel in country doing SC serve under the direction and supervision of the Chief of the United States Diplomatic Mission to that country (usually the U.S. ambassador to that country). Security cooperation, including security assistance, is a diplomatic function, under the Ambassador’s control in country. FMS cases and IMET and exercises have significant State Department approval and coordination–and additional coordination and approval by other agencies, and in some cases White House/Congressional approval–even though DoD has the mass and the executive agent role. The effect can sometimes be that the poor bureaucrat in the other agency is either like Horatius at the bridge or Niedermeyer in the riot, trying to get the massive influx of DoD people to go a different direction. It also can become counterintuitive, since American businesses might be fighting for the contract, or if one player–even a host nation–decides it’s worth lobbying for their interests more effectively to Congress than another player.

Note here that the Security Assistance Management Manual, the reference used in the War On The Rocks post, isn’t the controlling document. The law both trumps one agency’s manual and also highlights the diplomatic and interagency nature of SC. It also implies that the SC function is something we do as an ongoing and sustaining function of a country team, rather than something switched on once a COCOM has commenced large scale operations.

Since SC is a diplomatic function, one has to consider SC less like a military operation and more like a diplomatic operation. Results will be diffuse. They will have “one step forward two steps back” aspects. Results will be hard to measure in many respects. The effort will be like a coalition effort, with occasionally immense frustration on the ground and in the staff paying off strategically, but in different spheres than expected, or with effects long after the staffer is gone. For a planner looking for consistent positive results with a focused engineering-style goal oriented mindset this is anathema. A DoD planner or operator wants to get from point A to point B in a direct and uncluttered manner. Diplomacy, especially the work performed by Department of State colleagues on the country team on ground in country, is more chaotic and messy. If done right, SC advances the national interest of the United States; builds networks, access and relationships beneficial to the U.S.; eases stresses among and between partners; provides a common operating framework in the field; and provides a useful diplomatic tool as part of an embassy country team.

(Oh, by the way: There’s no Title 10 “command” in security cooperation organizations. There is no sheriff’s badge, no salad fork, no “forces”, even though the responsibility can weigh heavily, and DoD personnel could be in remote and dangerous locations. You’re a part of the embassy country team. There’s not even an organic Article 15 or medal-awarding authority, unless you’re a general for whom a COCOM has specifically delegated it in writing.)

For representatives of either agency to best advance U.S. national interest in the long term, both Defense and State have to be able to restrain some of their agency-level cultural impulses to achieve SC most effectively. Training, both in State’s A100 class for their newly commissioned officers, and at the Defense Institute for Security Assistance Management or similar venues for DoD personnel interacting with a country team, helps introduce the cultural difference to each agency. Other agencies with a hand in SC, such as the Departments of Commerce or Treasury, have a much smaller presence and make do with corporate knowledge and help from the larger groups interacting around them. (Homeland Security mainly interacts through Coast Guard personnel, who are more acquainted with DoD’s foibles and when in theater interact often with country teams with and outside the security cooperation office in the embassy.) Some aspects can cause real friction without planners realizing its source, such as when a J5 officer assumes there’s a J5 in State, or that a Post’s plan is written with the same process as DoD’s, or that the plan is followed as closely as a DoD plan would be. On the ground, people on the country team have to make it work through force of effort and personality.

The benefits of SC have national influence, not just military, from public affairs/public diplomacy to changing policies in a country. SC also has a regional influence: in the ability to use the U.S. effort as a go-between between two partners unhappy with each other, in the ability to build regional ties with the U.S. invited to play, and in the ability to influence regional decisions based on a calculation from a nation that has to deal with what the U.S. has done in the neighborhood. It could well be that host nation has no culture of maintenance and the equipment they paid for is failing. It could be that the country’s using the military to dispense largesse domestically, and the U.S. interest in improving capacity isn’t perfectly aligned with that national desire. It could be that there’s a Red Queen effect, where the security cooperation guys are running as hard as they can to stay in place capacity-wise. It could also be that those frustrating efforts pay off in unusual ways. The military planner will do well to reach out to those other American agencies, to actually listen and adjust planning based on that reaching out, to see the role of SC as more than military capacity building, and to plan for a long and difficult but rewarding SC effort.



Please join us at 5pm (Eastern U.S.) on Sunday 5 January 2014, for Midrats Episode 209: “Kenya and East Africa with Alexander Martin”:

Many continue to focus on the “Pacific Pivot” and/or IndoPac, but the news seems to keep finding its way back to Africa.

This Sunday we’re going to leave IndoPac and all that in order to focus the full hour discussing the eastern part of Africa with a returning guest Alex Martin who will give us a first hand report from a personal and professional perspective.

Alex graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to lead infantry, reconnaissance and special operations units in multiple combat deployments. Upon leaving active duty, Alex started a private maritime security company that served commercial shipping interests in the Indian Ocean. In July 2013 Alex joined Nuru International and currently serves as a Foundation Team Leader in Kenya.

The last time we talked to Alex was shortly after he and his Marines were involved in retaking a ship from Somali pirates.

Join us live if you can (or pick us up later if you can’t) by clicking here.



seacontrolemblemMatt Hipple is joined by Zack Elkaim and James Bridger to talk about rebellions in Africa: the Central African Republic, Mali, and Nigeria, as well as the future prospects for Somalia. Today’s podcast is one of our best, and we highly encourage you to give it a listen. Enjoy our latest podcast, Episode 14, My Other CAR is a Mali (download).

Remember to subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher Stream Radio! Leave us a rating and a comment!



seacontrol1Matt and Chris wax on about the new budget deal and military benefits before finally discussing the incident between the Chinese and American navies, the Pacific balance, robotics, and books for the holidays. Remember to tell a friend and subscribe on Itunes or Stitcher Stream Radio. Leave a rating and a comment. Enjoy, Episode 13 of Sea Control, The Queen’s Shilling (download).



Sea-ControlMatt, Chris, and Grant are joined by Scott Cheney-Peters for a CIMSEC party on the China ADIZ, corvettes, procurement, and Iran. Grant checks out because he’s has a sub-par phone. Remember to subscribe to us on Itunes, Xbox Music, and Stitcher Stream Radio. Without further ado, here is Sea Control 11: Sand Pebbles.

Also, as promised in the podcast, a link to some international law-y goodness: “Limits in the Seas, No. 114.”



Please join us at 5 pm (Eastern U.S.) on 24 Nov 13 for Midrats Episode 203: Bob Work and Global Maritime Power:

When one hangs up the uniform after decades of service, but still wants to contribute to their nations national security needs, what paths can that take? How does one find a path forward, and what are the keys to success?

In a budgetary challenge not seen by the US military in two decades, what are the important “must haves” that need to be kept at full strength, and what “nice to haves” may have to be put in to the side?

What are the legacy ideas, concepts, and capabilities that the Navy and Marine Corps need to make sure they maintain mastery of, and what new things are either here or are soon on the way that we need to set conditions for success now?

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be Robert O. Work, Col. USMC (Ret), presently CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and former Undersecretary of the Navy from 2009-2013.

After 27-years of active duty service in the Marine Corps, Work joined the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), where he focused on defense strategy and programs, revolutions in war, Department of Defense transformation, and maritime affairs. He also contributed to Department of Defense studies on global basing and emerging military missions; and provided support for the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

During this time, Work was also an adjunct professor at George Washington University, where he taught defense analysis and roles and missions of the armed forces.

In late 2008, Work served on President Barack Obama’s Department of Defense Transition Team.

He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois; and has Masters Degrees from the University of Southern California, the Naval Postgraduate School; and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Join us live (5pm EST) or pick the show up later by clicking here.



(This article originally appeared at RealClearDefense on October 24th, 2013.)

ROK-Navy-2010

In an earlier article for the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), I argued that in order for the U.S.-South Korean alliance to effectively counter threats emanating from North Korea (DPRK), South Korea (ROK) must gradually move away from its Army-centric culture to accommodate jointness among the four services. In particular, as Liam Stoker has noted, naval power may offer the “best possible means of ensuring the region’s safety without triggering any further escalation.”

The appointment last week of former ROK Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Choi Yoon-hee as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seems to augur a shift in focus in the ROK’s strategic orientation. Given that the ROK’s clashes with the DPRK have occurred near the contested Northern Limit Line throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, President Park Geun-hye’s appointment of Admiral Choi as Chairman of ROK JCS seems to be appropriate. Indeed, during his confirmation hearings two weeks prior, Admiral Choi repeatedly vowed retaliatory measures in the event of another DPRK provocation.

Furthermore, by tapping Admiral Choi to head the ROK JCS, President Park also appeared to signal that she is mindful of the feverish East Asian naval race. The ongoing naval race among three East Asian naval powers (China, Japan, and South Korea) is rooted in historical grievances over Japan’s wartime atrocities and fierce competition for limited energy resources. These two factors may explain the ROK’s increased spending to bolster its naval might.

General Curtis Scaparrotti (left), head of USFK, and ROK CJCS Admiral Choi Yun-hee (right)

General Curtis Scaparrotti (left), head of USFK, and ROK CJCS Admiral Choi Yun-hee (right)

Indeed, the ROK Navy has become a great regional naval power in the span of a decade. The ROKN fields an amphibious assault ship, the Dokdo, with a 653 feet-long (199 meters) flight deck. The ship, named after disputed islets claimed by both the ROK and Japan, is supposedly capable of deploying a Marine infantry battalion for any contingencies as they arise. Given that aircraft carriers may offer operational and strategic flexibility for the ROK Armed Forces, it is perhaps unsurprising that “funding was restored in 2012” for a second Dokdo-type aircraft carrier and more in 2012 and that Admiral Choi has also expressed interest in aircraft carrier programs. Moreover, the ROKN hassteadily increased its submarine fleet in response to the growing asymmetric threats emanating from North Korea and Japan’s alleged expansionist tendencies. As the Korea Times reported last Wednesday, the ROKN has also requested three Aegis destroyers to be completed between 2020 and 2025 to deal with the DPRK nuclear threats and the naval race with its East Asian neighbors.

Thus, at a glance, it would appear that the ROK has built an impressive navy supposedly capable of offering the Republic with a wide range of options to ensure strategic and operational flexibility. However, this has led some analysts to question the utility and raisons d’être for such maintaining such an expensive force.

Kyle Mizokami, for example, argues South Korea’s navy is impressive, yet pointless. He may be correct to note that the ROK “has prematurely shifted resources from defending against a hostile North Korea to defeating exaggerated sea-based threats from abroad.” After all, at a time when Kim Jŏng-ŭn has repeatedly threatened both the ROK and Japan, it may be far-fetched to assume that Japan may “wrest Dokdo/Takeshima away by force.” It would also make no sense to purchase “inferior version of the Aegis combat system software that is useless against ballistic missiles” which does not necessarily boost its naval might.

roknavydestroyers

However, what Mizokami may not understand is that the seemingly impressive posturing of the ROKN does not necessarily mean the expansion of the Navy at the expense of diminishing Army’s capabilities. As my January piece for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and Michael Raska’s East Asia Forum article argue, the greatest barriers to service excellence for the ROKN may be South Korea’s uneven defense spending, and operational and institutional handicaps within the conservative ROK officer corps. One telling indication which bears this out may be the fact that the expansion of the ROKN and Admiral Choi’s chairmanship of the ROK JCS did not lead to the reduction of either the budget allocated for the ROK Army or of the existing 39 ROK Army divisions in place.

Moreover, if, as Mizokami argues, the ROK seems bent on pursuing strategic parity with Japan—and to a lesser extent, China—I should point out that it does not even possess the wherewithal to successfully meet this goal. As I notedin late August, in order for the ROK to achieve regional strategic parity with its powerful neighbors, South Korea must spend at least 90% of what its rivals spend on their national defense. That is, the ROK’s $31.8 billion defense budget is still substantially smaller than Japan’s $46.4 billion. If anything, one could argue that the ROK’s supposedly “questionable” strategic priorities have as much to do with political posturing and show aimed at domestic audience as much as they are reactions to perceived threats posed by its powerful neighbors.

Finally, neither the ROK military planners nor Mizokami seem to take into account the importance of adroit diplomatic maneuvers to offset tension in East Asia. In light of the fact that the United States appears reluctant to reverse its decision to hand over the wartime Operational Control (OPCON) in 2015, the ROK may have no other recourse but to deftly balance its sticks with diplomatic carrots to avert a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula.

In short, it remains yet to be seen whether the ROK will successfully expand the scope of its strategic focus from its current preoccupation with the Army to include its naval and air capabilities. One cannot assume that this transformation can be made overnight because of an appointment of a Navy admiral to the top military post, or for that matter, because it has sought to gradually bolster its naval capabilities. Nor can one assume that they are misdirected since a service branch must possess versatility to adapt to any contingencies as they arise. Instead, a balanced operational and strategic priority which encompasses the ground, air and maritime domain in tandem with deft diplomacy may be what the ROK truly needs to ensure lasting peace on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia.

Photo credit: U.S. Forces Korea, SinoDefence, ITV



Please join us live on Midrats this Sunday, 29 Sep 13 at 5 pm Eastern U.S. for Episode 195: The Pacific Pivot Ground Element:

What is the role of ground forces as the conversation revolves around the Air Sea Battle Concept?

Is an emphasis on air and sea power sending the right message, driving balanced thinking, and sending the right messages to our friends and competitors?

Building off his article in the May 2013 Armed Forces Journal, Back To Reality, Why Land Power Trumps in the National Rebalance Towards Asia, our guest for the full hour will be Major Robert Chamberlain, USA.

He has served two tours in Iraq (2003-4 and 2007-8), studied refugees at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and is currently finishing his dissertation in Political Science at Columbia. He teaches International Relations at the West Point and, of course, the views he is about to express are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Join us live or listen from the archive later – if you can’t join us live – by clicking here.



Speaking at the Association of the United States Army on the 12th, Admiral James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience that in future ground wars the tempo will be “shorter, faster-paced and much harder” because America’s adversaries will work to create a “fog of war.” Thus, the Admiral suggested that the Army “place more emphasis on the growth industry…of protecting American citizens abroad” in order to adapt to the fluid geostrategic environment.

photo-630x472

VCJCS Admiral James Winnefeld speaking at the Association of the United States Army on September 12th.

Indeed, since the sequestration went into effect in March, many defense experts have been debating what the future may hold for the Army, the Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Whatever their respective views may be on the utility of landpower in future wars, all seem to agree on one thing: that in the sequestration era, the ground components must fight leaner and smarter.

For John R. Deni, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, the answer seems to lie in the “Army-led military-to-military activities” which may provide stability in politically volatile regions “if only because most military forces around the globe are army-centric.”

Others beg to differ. Generals James Amos and Raymond Odierno and Admiral William McRaven seem to second Admiral Winnefeld’s claim when they argue that today “the need to conduct large-scale aid and consequence management missions, both within the United States and internationally, is certain to grow.” General James Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant, also recently echoes this view when he advocates a lighter but mobile Marine Corps because he believes tomorrow’s conflicts will likely involve “violent extremism, battles for influence, disruptive societal transitions, natural disaster, extremist messages and manipulative politics.”

However, if the United States Armed Forces is truly concerned about raising a cost-efficient and versatile ground force, it can merge the Army, the SOCOM and the Marine Corps into one unified service branch. This idea is not new. As far back as 1994, the late Colonel David Hackworth advocated the merger of the Army and the Marine Corps because their missions seemed to overlap. He went so far as to claim that the Department of Defense (DoD) could save “around $20 billion a year.” Nevertheless, absent in Hackworth’s column was a coherent blueprint for how the DoD could effectively unify its ground components into a cohesive service because Hackworth did not flesh out his strategic vision for what 21st Century wars may look like.

Which raises a very salient question as to what America’s strategic priorities should be. In a perceptive op-ed, Mark Fitzgerald, David Deptula and Gian P. Gentile aver that the United States must choose to go to “war as a last resort and not a policy option of first choice.” To this must be added another imperative. The United States Armed Forces must prioritize homeland defense as its primary mission and rethink the mistaken belief that the United States can somehow secure its interests through “lengthy military occupations of foreign lands.”

Thus, this newly merged service must redirect its focus towards countering cyber warfare and CBRNe (Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear and explosives) attacks and should work towards bolstering its counterterrorism (CT) capabilities. This is because, due to the convergence of the global community, the United States may be vulnerable to attacks from within by homegrown terrorists and drug cartels—all of which may wreak havoc and may even cripple America’s domestic infrastructures.

Reorientation of its mission focus may also require that the new service reconfigure its size. After all, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Washington should remember that the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength.” One solution is to adopt the so-called “Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM)” centered around the combat group concept which may reduce the strength of the new service “yet in the end produce a force that has greater combat capability…[and] more sustainable.” This model may provide the United States with a deployable fire brigade in the event of a national emergency or an international crisis. Already, the bases from which to adopt this viable model exist in the form of Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes.

Should the United States decide that it needs to project its hard power abroad to guard its interests, it could deploy the Special Operations Forces (SOF) components of the new service in tandem with UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to selectively target and neutralize potential threats. While the SOF and UAV surgical raids should not be viewed as substitutes for deft diplomacy, they can provide cheaper and selective power projection capabilities. Moreover, doing so could minimize the risks inherent in power projection and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) missions which may potentially mire the United States in messy and protracted conflicts.

Marines from MARSOC honing their rifle marksmanship skills. Photo by MARSOC Public Affairs

Last but not least, this new service could buttress interoperability and capabilities of allied forces around the globe through military-to-military exchanges. Although Deni was referring specifically to the Army-led initiatives when he suggested this, he may be correct that military-to-military engagements may help to promote America’s image abroad as a trusted guarantor of peace. But even more important, such activities may “mean fewer American boots on the ground.” However, implementing what the retired Marine General James Mattis refers to as the “proxy strategy” may be a better means by which the United States could “lead from behind.” Under this arrangement, while “America’s general visibility would decline,” its allies and proxies would police the trouble spots on its behalf.

Contrary to what many in the defense establishment believe, the austerity measures wrought by the sequestration have not been entirely negative. If anything, this perceived “crisis” has provided the much-needed impetus for innovative approaches to national defense. The proposed merger of the ground forces may provide the United States with most cost-effective and versatile service branch to defend the homeland and safeguard its interests abroad.



Russia has saved the world from loose WMD before; in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia arranged the Lisbon Protocols with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to systematically destroy or return massive nuclear stockpiles. If only Syria had the stability of post-Soviet chaos. If the Syrian “Lisbon Protocol” fails and the regime collapses, the presence of WMD is a guarantor of intervention, most likely by the US.

Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let's say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.

Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let’s say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.

The Russian arrangement is not yet official and may be Assad’s play for time. The chemical weapons are potentially more powerful against the US than rebels. Likely, a reality causing Secretaries Kerry and Hagel to eschew the term “regime change” is that the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) to the US increases as Assad teeters. Though rightfully loathed, Assad and his men secure their CW and have so far resisted handing party favors to associates.

As the regime crumbles, CW facilities may find themselves overwhelmed or guards shifted to critical fronts, doors open to terrorists or unscrupulous brokers. Though some argue we do not have a dog in Syria’s fight, a whole henhouse is under threat if those dogs break loose. There are only three likely solutions if a Russian deal fails:

  1. This can work for both of us. "Kill yourself," is my final offer.

    This can work for both of us. “Kill yourself,” is my final offer.

    We understand your position. Meet us halfway at, "die and go to hell."

    We understand your position. Meet us halfway at, “die and go to hell.”

    Political Agreement: If only all parties could agree to a two-part plan to stop murdering one another and share power. Guards stay on post, conflict ends, and world moves on after the noble work of aiding refugees. The rump of Assad’s regime keeps its pulse and constant pressure to the switch. Unfortunately, with parties whose non-negotiable point is that the opponent “die”, and multiple Al-Qaeda (AQ) militias, this seems nigh impossible.

  2. Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have Machiavelli and a hand cannon?

    Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have Machiavelli and a hand cannon?

    Russian Military Operations: Russia is a big fan of Syria. Russia has a naval presence in the country and a large portion legitimacy and energy policy invested in the management of the regime. Russia would like to keep Syria’s CW from groups connected to their own domestic extremistss. Most cynically, with very public domestic problems, military operations to save the world from CW seem a likely move for President Putin. In the words of Orwell, “War is Peace.”

    Russia has particular advantages in their contact with Assad’s regime. They likely could access exact locations for the regime’s CW in a pinch. The world has no high standard for Russian intervention, so a sting operation to grab or destroy the vast stores of CW without any follow-on reconstruction would not be shocking to the global community. This also serves as a guise for direct military support for regime survival.

    That said, Russia has managed the Syria narrative well and knows the US could not abide Assad’s weapons falling to extremists. Russia has enjoyed the umbrella of security provided by primarily US operations against extremists in the Middle East and likely has no desire to get bogged down or gain unwanted attentions. Russia is still just “a” rather than “the” “Great Satan.” It would likely leave the mess to the final and least pleasant option:

  1. It has gotten very... VERY old.

    It has gotten very… VERY old.

    American Intervention: In a conflict with too many “thems” and not enough “us’s”, the fog of Syria’s war is thick. Unfortunately, nothing is unclear about the peril of loose CW or the peril of a necessary US military response.

    Boots: The number and location of  all weapon sites remains a mystery, requiring resources spent in the search phase of “seek and destroy” operations. The time or scale necessary also removes the critical element of surprise. A lengthy chain of smaller operations warns enemies to secure weapons at un-sanitized sites while they still can. A massive simultaneous operation would strain an already creaking military budget and drop the US fully into the war, leaving the US in control of large swaths of territory and people it could not just leave to extremists.

    Strikes: Dead suffocated civilians, lack of verification, and PR for terrorists lies at the end of an aerial campaign. Though the US has invested in weapons that can neutralize chemical weapon stockpiles, most leave a large margin of error or have almost as toxic byproducts. The explicit refusal to consider striking Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles should be evidence enough of the unsavoriness of such an operation.

    Unfortunately, loose CW is not an option in a war-torn hellscape crawling with groups who have plotted against US interests and citizens for over two decades.

Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.

Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.

Though an embarrassing stolen march, the Russian deal is the US’s best chance is to avoid Syria. Nonetheless, US policymakers must plan for the worst while stumbling upon the best. The US must accept the real-world possibility of Assad’s collapse and subsequent unlocking of Pandora’s Chemical Box; many rightly desire to have nothing to do with the conflict, but while we may not be interested in Syria, Syria is very interested in us.

This article was originally posted at CIMSEC.

 



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