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War is the Unfolding of Miscalculations… Assad, Trump, Putin, and Syria 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The die has been cast. Last week the Trump administration signaled that the regime of Bashir Al Assad was not a priority for American policy in the Middle East. The comment was perplexing as the Assad regime has worked with the Iranians, and Hezbollah, both enemies of the United States to crush a revolt against his regime that began during the Arab Spring. Assad’s methods included the use of Sarin nerve agent and relentless attacks on civilians and were condemned by much of the world. In 2013 President Obama attempted to gain political support for military action against the Assad regime but was rebuffed by congressional Republicans as well as anti-war Democrats. The Syrian rebels were joined by radical Sunni Muslims of various Al Qaeda affiliates and later joined by the so called Islamic State. The Syrian army was on the point of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.

From 2013 on President Trump constantly said that military action in Syria was against U.S. national interests, something that continued until last week. Then Assad, apparently emboldened by the Trump Administration’s statement that changing his regime was not a priority for the U.S. launched a aerial attack using chemical weapons against civilians. The images which were shown throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle evidently made an impression on the President. Within hours of suggesting that military action was possible it began.

From Mar-a-Largo where the President is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, the President said:

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched… It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

I agree that it is the vital interests of the United States to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons, but why this and why now especially since it did not seem to be a priority less than a week ago?

Right now we know precious little about the action, except that it was sudden and done without any congressional consultation, and little consultation with allies. Will Congress do its duty and demand details before allowing the administration to commit us to another war that in no way is covered by the 2001 authorization for use of force that has been used for all the actions involving the war on terrorism conducted by the Bush and the Obama Administrations, or will Congress roll over and do nothing, thus allowing the executive branch to take the nation to war with no oversight?

The genie of war is now out of the bottle. We do not know what will happen next, the potential branches and sequels to this action are many, and few of them promise anything in the way of peace in Syria. There is now danger that the U.S. will become entangled in a complex war that has no good outcome.

The question, what will happen next is unknown. Can President Trump work with Russia’s President Putin, Turkey’s President Erdrogan, as well as well as other regional leaders to bring something resembling peace to the region? I hope that can happen but I wouldn’t bet on it as history shows that all too often that these things take on a life of their own.  As Barbara Tuchman noted: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

I have a couple of articles that I will post soon about the dangerous nature of what we are witnessing. But for tonight I will pause and try to get some sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Unfolding of Miscalculations: Syria 2015

russian jet in flames

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The tensions fuel by the incredibly complex and dangerous war in Syria just when up, as I like to say the “pucker factor” is very high, in fact it is getting close to stage ten. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations” and it seems that right now there are whole a lot of miscalculations going on.

Yesterday a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was blasted out of the sky by a Turkish F-16. Reports conflict, Turkey say that the Russian aircraft had violated its airspace multiple times and had been given multiple warnings before the shoot down. The Russians claim that the aircraft was on the Syrian side of the border and that the attack was an unprovoked violation, and Russian President Putin called it a “stab in the back.” Russia is accusing Turkey of backing DAESH, while Russia’s forces, which are supposedly there to fight DAESH are spending more time attacking Syrian President Assad’s non-DAESH Syrian opposition, including Turkoman Syrians fighting the Assad regime in the area where the jet was shot down. Some think that it might be payback for the Russians bombing the faction supported by the Turks.

Admittedly, Turkey has a right to self-defense and the Russians are operating in Syria without any kind of international mandate. That being said, the Russians are there at the behest of the Assad government, which even if we don’t like it is still the legal government of Syria, a long term ally and client of Russia, going back to the old Soviet days.

However, the feud between Russia and Turkey goes back hundreds of years. They hate each other, and this hatred goes back to the days of the Tsars and the Ottomans. The hatred is generations old, and is cultural, religious and political. Maybe that is why we in the west do not understand it, but I digress… 

The fact is that the actions of both nations, as well as most other nations in the West including the United States have helped to stoke the fire of the Syrian war, which is threatening to escalate into a regional conflict. I am not going to go into all the details of what has brought us to this point, because they are too many to cover. Some of course are saying that it could lead to a World War, but I do think that cooler heads will prevail. Of course I could be wrong, as Tuchman wrote, “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”

It is now time for President Obama to step up to the plate, and not rattle sabers, but to help pull everyone back from the brink. He needs to work with Russia’s President Putin to deescalate the crisis. Since everyone involved has a stake in what happens it Syria it cannot be ignored. The nations involved need to sit down and come up with a way to defeat DAESH and bring peace to Syria and Iraq. Of course this is easier said than done, especially since bullets are flying, blood is flowing, and tensions rising. The fallibility of human beings has been demonstrated time and time again in this war, and as Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death, and live ammunition.”

In 1962 President Kennedy faced the real possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had just read Tuchman’s The Guns of August which had just been published. He was shocked by the words of German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who when asked how World War One started replied “Ah, if only one knew.” Kennedy asked General Curtis LeMay what would happen if the Soviets did not back down, and the officer replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy could not go down that road, he referred to the book when he remarked, “If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, “How did it all happen?” and to receive the incredible reply: “Ah, if only one knew.”

The downing of this Russian jet shows just how easily things can spin out of control. It is time for calmer heads to prevail and walk this back before things get really out of hand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

Iran nuclear talks

Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

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The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

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The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

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It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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NATO Patriots to Turkey as Syria Teeters on the Abyss

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M-104 D Patriot Missile (Patriot PAC-3)

There are times when wars and conflicts grind on day after day seemingly without end and without any kind of resolution. There are other times that in the midst of such conflicts events occur that are not routine. In the case of the Syrian revolt and civil war this was such a week.

For months, actually nearing two years the conflict in Syria has simmered. With each passing week the rebels have gained ground and support while the regime of Bashir Al Assad has engaged in ever more repressive and violent measures to stay in power.

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German Luftwaffe Patriot System

This was a significant week in the Syrian crisis as three NATO member nations, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States announced the deployment of the latest version of the Patriot Surface to Air Missile to Turkey in response to Turkey’s request for NATO assistance. Additionally it was announced that the United States has confirmed that Syria has fired its SCUD missiles against its own people even as the Russian Foreign Minister announced that it was possible that the Assad regime would not survive the revolt. In addition it has been reported that the Syrian regime is readying its chemical weapons for possible use.

The Patriot units being sent to Turkey are six full batteries manned of advanced Patriot PAC-3 missiles manned by close to 1200 troops. The PAC-3 missile is currently only in service with the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. Other NATO forces use the PAC-2 or PAC-2/GEM versions.

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Syrian SCUD Missile and Launcher

The events of the past week point to possible escalation of the Syrian conflict which has for some time threatened to involve Syria’s ancestral rival Turkey. There is little love between the Turk and the Syrian Arab dating back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has done a remarkable job in giving sanctuary to Syrians fleeing the violence and has had to deal with Syrian artillery attacks as well as the shoot down of a Turkish Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean.

With American and other NATO troops on the ground in Turkey the chances that a Syrian attack on Turkey could directly involve the US and NATO in another war grows.

Praying for Peace

Padre Steve+

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