Category Archives: Analysis

New SpecOps Forces in Syria: A New Entree or Stirring the Ravioli?

The Obama administration’s announcement today that the United States would send less than 50 Special Operations forces to Kurdish territory in Syria stands as one of his most high-profile decisions on the subject of Syria’s now four and a half year old civil war.

For a president who has fought for so long to keep the United States out of another entanglement in the Middle East, the policies enumerated today came as a surprise to many. After all, the President, who staked his foreign policy claim as being diametrically opposed to many of predecessors policies in the Middle East, has repeated the phrase ‘no boots on the ground’ (or other, similar iterations) throughout his tenure in the White House.

Similarly, the White House seems again to be entering into Syria with plenty of good intentions but no real strategy, the perfect ingredients for mission creep, the dreaded fear of critics from his left as well as isolationists to his right. However, several key factors suggest that this is not the wholesale change that many suggest and instead is merely a slight tweak to the already existing policy consisting of airpower, selective use of raids, and symbolic action, especially against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

First, the nature of the deployment suggests a limited interest in bringing about real change in U.S. policy in the country. Less than 50 soldiers – White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized the ‘less’ in the phrase repeatedly today while remaining opaque on any further numbers – is not really sufficient to bring down anything other than small and relatively weakly defended targets. Even with air support – whose efficacy is constantly being called into questioned given the ferocity of the campaign and ISIS’s relatively strong staying power over the last year – less than 50 troops does not signal an about face in U.S. policy, a strong commitment to changing the facts on the ground in a total and meaningful way.

Similarly, the fact that the Special Operations forces enter the conflict under the auspices of advising local forces suggests that the White House is not interested in inserting U.S. forces directly into harm’s way. An astute observer could point out that this was exactly how Kennedy began involvement in Vietnam War under his watch, but this is precisely the point. Everyone watching the conflict is going to be analyzing the actions of these 50 from every possible angle and most American observers – as well as others – will have Vietnam firmly in mind when evaluating their actions. Mission creep is always an concern, whether stated or unstated, and given the lack of will in the U.S. for engagement in Syria, direct military action endangers the existing mission. While few expect 50 Special Operations forces not to fight at all, the politics surrounding their deployment will make large involvements difficult without a major shift within Washington and the United States regarding the Syrian conflict.

Additionally, the same factors that have bedeviled the United States since the beginning of the Syrian war continue to hamper U.S. ambitions in the country. The multilayered nature of the conflict and the ever-shifting web of alliances means that the U.S. will continue to have difficulty finding long-term allies. Day after day, groups make and break an ever expanding list of temporary agreements, often putting groups that envision a secular and diverse Syria on the same page with religious extremists and al-Qaeda. The recent and spectacular failure of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria shows how badly the situation has deteriorated and how few recruits remain amenable to working with the U.S. against ISIS in the region. As has been pointed out repeatedly but somehow lost on starry eyed dreamers hopeful for a more muscular U.S. policy in the country, a not insignificant number of the groups fighting in Syria are not in line with U.S. ideals and would not necessarily represent U.S., Russian, or European dreams for the future of the country, thus further limiting the pool of potential recruits.

In the search for dependable allies in the country, the U.S. has consistently fallen back to championing the cause of the Kurds. While the Kurds have proven dependable cobelligerents in Syria and beyond, the relationship between the leading group, the YPG, and the regime is at best unknown and there is a good chance that fighting in league with certain elements of the Kurdish resistance will serve Assad and provide a conduit through which U.S. military information can pass directly (and illicitly) to Damascus. Similarly, there are significant limits to relying on groups that have frayed relationships with a number of Syria’s many minority groups. Charges of ethnic cleansing have been repeatedly leveled at Kurdish groups operating in Syria, and recent accusations from Amnesty International can and should call into question the sterling reputation that Kurdish groups enjoy carte blanche in certain U.S. policy circles.

These actions – and the distrust that they sow – will make it difficult for Kurdish groups to hold onto to areas in which they are not the majority long term without slipping into the brutality that the U.S. is trying to stop. While there are no perfect sides in any war, the relatively narrow attraction of Kurdish forces to the larger Syrian population poses a particular problem for U.S. forces operating in the country. Despite the impressive gains made by Kurdish forces over the last year, Kurdish groups still have tenuous control over much of their forward operating territory. Similarly, Turkish concerns about Kurdish control over Syria, particularly border areas, tempers the strength of Kurdish gains and gives pause to astute observers who might be willing to throw the full weight behind Syrian Kurdish forces. U.S. forces – ever cautious given the United States’ discomfort with full-fledged combat – need the safest, most flexible staging area possible, meaning that the expanding Kurdish-controlled territories from which U.S. forces will operate is in reality much smaller than it initially appears. This limited area and constrictive alliance should dampen the enthusiasm of anyone expecting a major policy change towards the conflict.

All of these issues present serious challenges to U.S. efforts to mount a serious campaign against ISIS and the Assad regime within Syria but pale in comparison to the elephant in the room: U.S. ambivalence in Syria. While Washington’s rhetoric has not significantly shifted since the early days of the conflict – Assad has lost legitimacy and cannot be part of Syria’s future – it has never advanced a serious plan to take on Assad directly, despite several notable opportunities to do so, most significantly in the aftermath of the gas attacks in August 2013 that nearly led to major world involvement in Syria’s war. Again, a desire to avoid major entanglements in the Middle East has been at the forefront of the minds of many U.S. policymakers and voters, limiting American involvement in the region despite the growing humanitarian concerns.

These reservations might not have proved the undoing of Washington’s aspirations for a democratic Syria if not for the steadfast and – recently – exponentially increasing support from Moscow and Tehran for Assad. The Russian airstrikes that began on 30 September sent a message not only to the United States and Europe, but also to Russian allies in the Caucuses, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe: Moscow is willing to go to great lengths to defend its allies, regardless of their behavior, strategic importance, or adversaries. Recent news that Russia is transporting Iranian arms into Moscow gives further evidence of how deep of a commitment Tehran and Moscow have for their long time but beleaguered ally. Tehran and Moscow have signaled both to the West and their allies around the world that Syria represents a fundamental part of their sphere of influence. Washington and its allies have not responded in a way to give observers any reason to think otherwise.

The most recently announced U.S. plans in Syria are nothing more than the continuation of the token efforts in Syria that the U.S. has insisted on pursuing throughout the conflict. Although the deployment of 50 plus or minus Special Operations forces – advising or otherwise – might give the United States the ability to conduct small raids on high value targets or bring about small but critically important counterterrorism objectives, they do not suggest that Washington has changed its tune in Syria somehow. For better or worse, symbolic is about as deep as it gets for Washington’s policy in Syria these days. In the coming days, discussions in Vienna may signal a breakthrough in world policy via Syria – the continuation of the existing stalemate, a renewed push from Gulf states towards Assad’s ouster, or even a comprehensive agreement between Iran, Moscow, and Washington, whatever form it might take – but until such details are known, today’s announcement will stand merely as one of many that proclaimed new action in Syria while preserving the U.S. policy of calculated inaction.


Netanyahu to Congress: What does it mean?

The world is now familiar with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to the American congress. While the propriety of Netanyahu delivering a speech questioning the policies of a sitting American President has attracted headlines, far more interesting is what the speech reveals about Israel’s and Iran’s relative power in the region. While Iran has suffered greatly under recent sanctions, its influence has grown. In contrast, Israel’s sphere of influence – similar to those of other US allies in the region – has been threatened by growing non-state actors and ascendant Shia powers. All of this means that the US is not likely to act against Iran outside of diplomatic channels and should it desire to do so, Israel will be forced to act independently or in conjunction with a patchwork of anti-Iranian powers in the region, creating a temporary tapestry of anti-Iran states.

Save his controversial visit, nothing about Netanyahu’s speech falls into the realm of game changers. As many (including Obama) have acknowledged, Bibi’s speech contained little in the way of new claims or information. Netanyahu repeated his previous warnings regarding Iran’s aggressive regional intentions and nuclear capabilities, updated for technological advancements while failing to put forth a new policy that could serve to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. While he did work in comments specific to the ongoing deal, his rejection for the current negotiations has been and remains categorical and could be best categorized as “You gotten this much. Now ask for more!” As such, there is little in the way of new demands in Netenyahu’s speech. Rather, he continues to seek to shore up opposition to a more friendly deal between Iran and the P5+1. The Israeli president did not put forth a new position; instead, his speech is best viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a floundering anti-Iran position despite years of developments in the region. Such a position is at the crux of Bibi’s failure in attempting to persuade a change in US policy towards Iran: with the stakes raised and little in the way of options, the US has no choice but to push forward with negotiations unless it wishes to push beyond what Iran is willing to give and risk severely escalating the current situation.

Why has Israel remained so categorically opposed to a nuclear Iran? Israel, despite continuing to grow economically, has seen its power relative to its neighbors decline. Abundant oil has allowed Gulf petrostates to amass incredible amounts of wealth, wealth that has been invested in a number of fields within the state, including the military. Additionally, Turkey has continued to play a dominant role in the region despite the changing geopolitical considerations that have emerged in the 20+ years after the Cold War. While Israel was and remains a small but powerful state, the region has seen other states grow in power to a greater degree in recent years, forcing Israel to reconsider its position in the region and ensure that traditional alliances – especially ones as decisive as its alliance with the US – remain in place to preserve the status quo. This is especially important given Israel’s controversial policy choices towards Palestinians at home and unfriendly states abroad, further isolating the power and indicating that – despite economic successes – Israel is a state stuck in stasis or, worse yet, decline.

While Israel has seen its stock fall relative to other regional powers in recent years, Iran’s influence has grown. Despite the weight of sanctions, Iran has grown into a major regional player. This has been highlighted by a number of regional powers in addition to Israel, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While sanctions and current low oil prices have proven damaging to the Iranian economy, Iran has benefited from the fallout from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This, along with Hezbollah’s hold on the Shia electorate in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s deft maneuvering in Syria – cleaving international support away from the opposition by allowing ISIS to grow – has ensured that, far from losing influence, Iran has gained despite suffering under the weight of sanctions. A nuclear bomb would offer an alternative to the US nuclear umbrella in the region, allowing a power with serious ideological credentials to project itself in the region independent of a major backer. Such a development would be a true game changer – the first ever alternative to US hegemony from within the region. While the US has not acquiesced to such a reality, it can exploit its position as a global power to twist such a revelation to its liking.  Israel, though powerful for its size, cannot do so; a nuclear Iran represents a threat that it cannot overcome domestically and is forced to seek support from abroad. The US has proven reticent in this regard and Israel is worried that the status quo – a peace deal with two powerful neighbors and extremely friendly relations with the US – could change in the near future, necessitating its prolonged, artificial survival or a cataclysmic shakeup that postpones such a change for years to come.

Did Netanyahu’s speech push Israel and the US farther apart? This is a distinct possibility but requires careful consideration that looks beyond the headlines. While Obama and Netanyahu have personal differences, the two countries remain closer than an outside analyst might otherwise predict. As the Israeli president indicated, the US continues to extend aid to the Jewish state in a number of non-controversial realms that other states – similarly sized but deficient in historical camaraderie and geopolitical importance – do not receive. Such offers indicate that Israel continues to play a special role in the minds of US policymakers

Despite the continuity of the singular relationship between the US and Israel, cracks do appear. Obama and Netayahu have been at odds numerous times in recent years over a number of issues. Most of these issues have been international in nature or had international implications – the Iran negotiations, developments in Egypt, and the eternal Palestinian question. Although Obama has maintained the same policy as his predecessors on paper regarding settlements, few can deny that the relationship between the two state has become strained in recent years – indeed, such strain precipitated Bibi’s appearance.

In such a situation, it is important to recall the effect that Hugo Chavez’s speech to the UN in 2006 had domestically. In a time of political polarization against the Iraq War, Chavez attacked a numer of unpopular policies of then sitting president George W. Bush. Far from galvanizing support against a relatively unpopular president, the speech served to rally politicians domestically, even those who disliked the Iraq War. In doing so, Chavez (and potentially Bibi) forgot an important lesson from the playground: no one can beat up my brother but me. Two parties fighting domestically will often band together when faced with an outside power that challenges the legitimacy of both of those fighting. Bibi certainly identified cleavages between Democrats and Republicans, but the blowback has been strong enough to question the wisdom of delivering the speech in the first place. While Netanyahu received a standing ovation from those in attendance, his popularity fell among the American people as a whole. Such a fall is counterproductive given the important role Israel places on its relationship with the US – the Jewish state cannot alienate the American left in order to court the right.

This would all be a moot point if Netanyahu succeeded in cementing a stronger deal that favors Israeli interests better than the expected deal does. Did he succeed? No. The current negotiations are the project of the past two sitting presidents. While Republicans have favored a deal that more strongly curbs Iran’s nuclear program, they do not have the power to undo Obama’s diplomatic efforts and face questions of alternatives if they should choose to do so. Additionally, the current controversy surrounding a letter to Iran – whose commentary was delivered by isolationist Rand Paul, no less – highlights the domestic concerns underlying  the choice of Republicans to reject anything Obama gains. Under our current partisan divide, anything that makes Obama look weak seems to make Republicans look strong by comparison. This is only more true amid an election cycle that is bereft of Republican candidates who can burnish serious foreign policy credentials. While Netenyahu did draw a crowd, he did not succeed in changing the minds of those he most needed to reach – the non-converted. Israel undoubtedly has a special place in the hearts of most Americans – conservative or liberal – but republican attendance was driven not by Zionist zeal but partisan objectives.

In the end, Benjamin Netenyahu did not get what he wanted and likely will not in the near future: a stronger US stand against Iran and assurances of mutual military action against the Middle East’s most surging power should other checks prove inadequate. The US will not risk confrontation with a rising power in order to appease a dependable but controversial ally. While this does bode poorly for Israel, it does give the Jewish state allies in the form of other non-Iranian allied state in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia. Israel might feel forced to act, but it will not have to do so alone and will have at its side some of the most technologically-advanced armies and air forces in the Middle East. Still, these powers are constrained by their relationship with the US. They may be able to act independently in this regard, but will not be able to remain independent vis-a-vis trade deals and other important elements that make up the life blood of many states. A strike by Israel – possibly in concert with other, off the books, Arab allies – would force them to seek support from an ally other than the US, undermining the precarious position that pushed them to take action in the first place. Israel is thus stuck in a classic Catch 22 – it cannot depend on international support to fight off unfriendly regimes but cannot act as doing so would alienate the very allies upon which it depends.

In the end, a negotiated deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program benefits all, but benefits Iran more than Israel, leaving Israel to make up for these uneven gains. Iran would shirk the chains of international sanctions while being able to  export more of its oil, guaranteeing both energy independence and economic power. Iran’s trading partners in East Asia would be happy to accept increased oil flows at lower than current prices. The US would be able to deal with a new state in the region, confident – to a degree – that the existing agreement pushes off a fundamental change in the balance of power within the region for years to come. Such an agreement would also allow the US to concentrate its efforts elsewhere, allowing the much vaunted but often elusive ‘pivot to Asia’. Finally, an agreement would allow Israel and Saudi Arabia some degree of safety as they pursue their own strategic goals within the region, safe in the knowledge that while Iran is ascending, it will not do so immediately. Still, a negotiated final deal between Iran and the P5+1 would signal an ascendant Iran with the region suggesting that while Israel may rest easy in the near future, it must fundamentally reevaluate its geostrategic calculations in the future should it desire to remain a viable power for years to come.