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The new tactical-strategic configuration of the US Forces in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The operations carried out by Inherent Resolve, the complex US-led coalition in Syria, had been announced as early as April 1, 2016 by the Head of PYD Kurdish Joint Forces, Salih Muslim. Currently Salih Muslim is the co-President of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has long been managing power in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava, in Northern Syria.

Salih Muslim is also the vice-coordinator of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a coalition of 13 center-left and left-wing parties, with some other Kurdish activists defined as “independent.”

It is a structure, however, which has always cooperated actively with Bashar al-Assad’s government, even though the “National Committee” had recognized the Free Syrian Army as early as September 2012.

The Free Syrian Army was established – also with the support of some countries among the over 60 ones which later adhered to Inherent Resolve – by eight officers of Assad’s Armed Forces, who aimed at overthrowing the Alawite regime.

Meanwhile, in Iraq – which is the gateway and the real base of ISIS – the situation is getting more complex and radicalized.

The Iraqi Security Forces – the governmental ones, albeit with the recent massive introduction of Shiite militants linked to Moqtada al-Sadr – are now closely connected with the local Sunni tribes and to a share of recently-trained fighters.

These Forces have been the first to launch a major operation to reconquer Fallujah – a military action that began on May 23, 2016.

They have quickly gained ground in the North, including the Garma district, the traditional “base” of ISIS and of the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian faction of Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, the highly unstable political situation in Iraq could even stultify some of the operations against ISIS, as the Caliphate launched suicide attacks both against Balad (on May 12) and Dujail (on May 21), not to mention the vast attack launched by ISIS against the Taji gas networks on May 15 last.

The large coalition of Inherent Resolve, the Kurds and the Shiites – certainly favoured by the agreements reached between the United States and the Russian Federation, which still effectively controls the area near the Mediterranean coast of Syria – reconquered Rutba (on May 19) and most of the highway running from Ramadi to the Jordanian border (on May 20).

Hence the encirclement of Fallujah has been completed with Forces certainly larger than the Caliphate’s, while ISIS has been wiped out of the Diyala district, which is the necessary passageway to Fallujah.

Therefore the Caliphate has lost most of its areas operating in Iraq, but it has organized other terrorist attacks from its new “Governorate”, the Wilayat Sahel, established on the northwest coast of Syria, with the capacity for launching attacks of shaheed (“martyrs”) to Tartous and Jableh (which took place on May 23).

ISIS also reconquered the gas field of Sha’er and later attacked the areas of Maher and Jazal, other fields for the extraction of natural gas.

Hence while the units of the Syrian Democratic Forces are heading for Raqqa, the capital of the Caliphate, so as to isolate it from the rest of the jihadist territory, the Kurdish Peshmerga of the PYD and the People’s Mobilization Forces, recently created with the support of the local Sunni tribes, reconquered Bashir (on April 30).

As already mentioned, the organizations present in the Iraqi Security Forces have reconquered Rutba and Garma on their own.

Hence two concentric encirclements – the one heading for Raqqa and the other, more external but essential to the conquest of the ISIS capital, for Fallujah and then the network of more distant areas, but equally useful at strategic level, such as Ramla, Garma and Rutba.

The US and Syrian-Iraqi Sunni tribes want above all: a) to stabilize the whole Iraqi region of Al Anbar; 2) to encircle Mosul by means of the Iraqi Security Forces; 3) to create a network of Sunni tribes encircling Raqqa before its final conquest; 4) to support the logistics of fighters, especially the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army.

As shown by the latest data from Inherent Resolve’s official sources, so far there have been five attacks launched by the coalition on the Syrian territory against ISIS targets.

24 attacks have been launched in Iraq, which is rightly regarded by the US CENTCOM as a single front with Syria.

However the relations between the Sunni tribes, the Caliphate and the Inherent Resolve actions are more complex than it may seem.

In 2014, for example, the Albu Ajeel tribe supported Isis, although it had invaded its land.

In the same period, however, the al-Jughaifa tribe present in Anbar had harshly blocked the Caliphate before reaching the town of Haditha.

The issue, which is both theological and political – as is always the case with Islam – regards the separation between Syria and Iraq: on the Syrian territory, ISIS considers many Sunni tribes not regular from the religious viewpoint and hence fights them as “infidels”, while this happens to a lesser extent on the Iraqi territory.

If we do not reason in terms of tribes we do not even understand the jihad: it is by no mere coincidence that, at the beginning of his terrorist adventure, Bin Laden was supported by his “comrades” of the Asir Yemeni tribe.

Furthermore, the Yemeni Sunnis have always opposed the Wahhabi “normalization” of the Al-Saud family who, as usual, regards them as “infidels”.

ISIS has “won the support” of the Sunni tribes with terror and threats, with its particular Koranic welfare and with the protection of communication lines – just as criminal organizations do in Southern Italy or in Latin American countries with the drug production areas.

When there was only a single government welfare, and the Cold War ensured extra-profits for the peripheries of both Empires, Hafez el Assad “won the support” of the Sunni tribes with prominent public posts for their leaders, with subsidies, as well as with selective and favourable commercial and tax regulations.

Hence ISIS has replaced State cronysm with its territorial jihad.

Will Inherent Resolve alone be enough to solve this equation that is military, but also political and social?

It is also worth recalling that Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate punishes traitors brutally and ferociously: in 2014, when the Al-Shaitat tribe rose up against ISIS, over 1,000 tribal militants were killed during a “death march” heading for Deir Ez-Zor.

The Shiites in power in Iraq (but the Kurds are mostly Sunni, while being of Iranian ethnicity, hence Indo-Europeans) have mistreated and impoverished the Sunni tribal areas all too much, by excluding them from power.

In this case the war will be won after the cessation of hostilities, and we must be vigilant so that the agreements which will back the non-Shiite tribal areas are implemented on a permanent basis.

Hence the project of a tripartite Syria according to the ethnic-religious lines comes back: Alawistan, a de facto protectorate of the Russian Federation; the Sunni area, the real primary objective of the Turkish regime and finally a great Syrian-Iraqi Kurdistan, which would step up the separatist tensions of the Kurdish areas already present in Anatolia.

Not to mention the Turkish Alevi, a sect speaking Kurdish in religious ceremonies, that since 1970 (with a fatwa of Imam Khomeini) has been part of the Twelver Shia Islam, in power in Iran after 1979. Said sect is linked to the Bekhtashi Sufi brotherhood, largely present among the old Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire.

After the disbandment of the Janissary corps, in 1826, the Bekhtashi reestablished in Tirana, Albania.

The Sufi network in the Ottoman world was the basis for the specific “modernization” of Kemal Ataturk, a Sufi Western Mason and first protector of the Alevi and the Shia.

Currently, however, Inherent Resolve, the Kurdish forces, the Sunni tribal networks are all converging towards the communication networks leading to Raqqa.

Will it be enough to eliminate Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate? The answer to this question is both yes and no.

It will certainly reduce it to nothing or a little more than nothing at territorial level, but nothing prevents it from reestablishing as a purely non-territorial terrorist cell – a cell, somewhere not completely de-jihadized, of Iraq or, less likely, of Syria.

Hence from ISIS we will go back to the old Al Qaeda model.

And the possibility for the Caliphate to be reconverted into an informal network of jihadists operating in Europe, in the Balkans or Central Asia can hardly be considered negligible.

What about Turkey? How does it see this new US strategy in Inherent Resolve uniting Kurds, Sunni tribes, the Free Syrian Army, as well as other forces far from being Bashar al-Assad’s enemies?

Obviously it sees it negatively, but the problem is much more complex.

Both the US and Syrian (as well as Russian) aircraft have long been on alert, with the order of shooting down any Turkish and/or Saudi aircraft flying over Syrian skies.

The very recent choices made to further increase the daily oil production in Saudi Arabia suggest that the Kingdom wants to “make money” quickly to support military expenditure, which is deemed urgent.

Nor is it unlikely that, with Saudi Arabia’s implicit or explicit support, Turkey decides to invade the Syrian territory directly from the ground, with its large Second Army, so as to defend its national interests, certainly including oil ones, but above all to avoid manu militari that the Kurds – including those operating only in Syria – succeed in uniting.

For the jihadist groups supported so far by Turkey, the issue would lie in creating a sort of safe zone along the Turkish Southern border with Syria.

Obviously the NATO rules make this project very difficult, but nothing prevents Turkey from organizing a provocation, a ferocious attack typical of the false flag operations, so as to create the undisputable casus belli.

The Turkish Second Army has long been positioned along the Southern border with Syria, with its headquarters in Malatya, and counts 100,000 well-trained soldiers. It would create the safe zone for the Syrian jihad by clearly separating the Syrian-Iraqi Kurdistan north of Idlib from the one operating in Jarablus.

A Turkish limited invasion which could clash with the US network which is expanding towards Raqqa and Fallujah, but nothing still prevents Turkey from creating an additional buffer with some Sunni tribes that could prevent the operating contact between Inherent Resolve and the Turkish Second Army.

Surely, however, President Erdogan’s government will not simply stand idle watching the events.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The Game-changing Fallibility of BMD Systems: Lessons from the Middle East and South Asia

M Waqas Jan

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As the Middle East’s major powers recalculate their defence and foreign policies following last month’s missile strikes on Saudi oilfields, there have emerged some telling lessons with regard to the changing nature of modern warfare. While these lessons are perhaps painfully obvious to the likes of Saudi Arabia who have directly been on the receiving end of these attacks, they are also evident in the near deafening introspection being undertaken by the region’s other power brokers, the United States and Israel as well. This has been made clear by the fact that even after a month since the attacks took place, there remains a definite and near ironic aspect of shock and awe to what was otherwise a quick, covert and precision strike on a highly valuable target.

What’s more, the fact that the strike took place despite the presence of one of the world’s most sophisticated missile defense systems, presents a telling example of how the technological balance in cruise missile development has shifted more in favor of offensive strikes at the expense of a once reliable defensive capability. As such, the ease and precision with which one of the world’s most closely guarded facilities were struck, shows that based on the widespread availability of current technologies, it is perhaps more reliable to count on a missile system’s offensive strike capabilities. Consequently, the opportunity cost of investing in and developing expensive missile defense shields based on this scenario becomes tremendously higher.

These lessons provide valuable strategic import to another nearby region which is also brimming with tensions amongst two extremely well equipped and militarily capable states. This refers to the South Asian region, where both India and Pakistan also seem headed towards a dangerous escalation of hostilities. As a result, both countries would do well to consider the lessons emanating from the above-mentioned Saudi experience. For instance, like Saudi Arabia, India has also been on a military spending spree over the last decade, importing some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems from across the world. Its massive economic growth has given it license to pursue a robust military modernization program that is keenly focused on enhancing its power projection capabilities. However, again like Saudi Arabia, India’s military also remains untested and risks being termed another ‘glitter force’ that is more concerned with procuring arms as a matter of prestige as opposed to operational efficacy. This for instance was clear during India’s aerial engagement with Pakistani Air Force jets in March, during which a sophisticated Israeli origin missile fired by India’s air defenses downed one of India’s own Russian made Mi-17 helicopters. Such lack of operational readiness and blind faith in untested systems is evident in both the Saudi and Indian experience highlighted above.

Specifically, regarding the US made Patriot batteries used by the Saudis and the Israeli made Spyder missiles used by India, the above incidents have shown that the efficacy and reliability of these systems in the real-time conflicts of today is quite patchy at best. If anything, any form of over-reliance on these systems runs the risk of a grave miscalculation which in effect is multiplied by the regional complexities of both their respective security environments. These miscalculations are already on display in the increasingly volatile Middle East, as the Western backed and Saudi led military alliance is just realizing. With the vulnerability of such missile defense systems now increasingly evident, there has also arguably been an element of deterrence that has been further reinforced. Consequently, the path to de-escalation appears a lot more rational than one which may escalate towards all-out war. The case of South Asia too was similar where the aerial engagement between nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan, also ultimately reinforced the latter’s conventional deterrent while exposing gaps in the former’s much touted aerial defenses.

Yet, considering that the case of South Asia remains infinitely more precarious due to the presence of two adversarial nuclear weapons states, the above described developments pose additional yet considerably more important implications when applied to the region’s nuclear deterrence framework. In effect, they erode the belief that ballistic missile defense systems can serve as the backbone to what many a state would consider a winnable nuclear war. These primarily comprise of Nuclear Weapons States such as the US and India which in the recent past have increasingly relied on concepts such as counterforce, pre-emption and precision as key themes within their official military thinking. All under the premise that Missile defense shields offer a reliable and credible defense against an adversary’s pre-emptive or secondary nuclear strikes as part of their strategic calculus. India’s much vaunted purchase of the Russian made S-400 system presents a clear example of such a strategy.

In contrast however, the fallibility and faltering reliability of such air defence systems shows the immense dangers of adopting such an approach within scenarios that have the potential of irreversibly altering life on earth as we know it. Considering how peace and stability in the South Asian region is precariously balanced between Pakistan and India’s nuclear deterrence framework, the unreliability and increasing fallibility of missile defense systems thus warrant a serious re-evaluation of the strategic calculus of both nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan.  

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Protracted Asymmetric Geopolitical Conflict

Dayan Jayatilleka

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Each of us has his own definition of “geo-history”, and mine is the interface of the “geopolitical” and the “world-historical.”

We are marked by two anniversaries, that of the start of WW II in 1939 and its end in 1945. Fascism was a unique regime of terror, with a strategy of unbridled ‘exterminism’ and therefore constituted a unique political evil in world history. However, outside of its type of regime, strategy and tactics, was its ‘grand strategic’ goal also unique or was it not? Is there a resemblance or homology between, on the one hand, the doctrine of Ein Reich, the telos of world domination, a Thousand Year Reich, and the military moves of Germany and its Axis partners in the run-up to WWII, and on the other, that of a unipolar world order and global military expansionism; of open-ended unipolar global leadership? Is there a continuity or homology between on the one hand, the wartime US Grand Area planning for the postwar world (the documents of which were unearthed by Noam Chomsky), and the present Indo-Pacific strategy and on the other hand, the notorious earlier search for Lebensraum? Is the Indo-Pacific strategy an insistence on “maritime Lebensraum”?

If the answer is yes, and the two paradigms can be superimposed upon each other, then history provides only one answer: the united front and its extension, a global grand alliance. But a united front and grand alliance with whom, to what end?

Politics is combat. International politics is international combat. By the “suicide” of the Soviet Union (that post-mortem verdict was Fidel Castro’s), the Empire was unbound and it is now threatening world peace and the future of humanity itself. Every single arms control agreement (bar one) has been unilaterally renounced, but before that came the rollback of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements with the destruction of former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO. Now the empire seeks to dominate the entire global theatre in all possible spheres. This should not come as a shock or surprise. It is almost a law of physics (perhaps it should be called ‘geophysics’) that once unwisely unbound, the Empire would uncoil, spread, expand, and seek to dominate—in short, that the Empire would seek to behave as an empire.

The geohistorical question facing humanity today is how to constrain the Empire, but not return to the old delusions of how to do so. The Empire must be initially counterbalanced and then constrained– bound– permanently, until, as in the case of the Roman Empire, there is a benign change of beliefs (in this case, political) from within its own society, its own citizenry and not as before, a change in its external posture which proves in the long geo-historical term, to have been merely ephemeral, conjunctural, even tactical.

The Empire’s strategy as concerns Russia is quite simple to understand. It is a re-run of the strategy that enabled them to prevail in the Cold War. It is to provoke Russia into an arms race and exceed prudent spending limits, cause economic hardship and generate enough discontent that the citizenry, especially the young, will agitate, thereby causing psychological exhaustion and catalyzing peaceful democratic “regime change”, bringing into office a capitulationist/collaborationist administration sooner or later, in the wake of the end of President Putin’s term. Meanwhile, what is being played out in Hong Kong foreshadows the geohistorical endgame envisaged by the Empire for China and Eurasia as a whole.

By its global offensive, imperialism has potentially overstretched itself morally, ethically and politically. Not since Vietnam has imperialism had a potential target profile which is so large and so exposed. The targeting of Iran when that country has not violated the JCPOA can be turned into a massive indictment on the twin grounds of reason and logic as well as of natural justice. Similarly, the targeting of Venezuela can be exposed for the absurdity that someone who did not even run for Presidential office should be recognized as the legitimate President of a country. So also, the unilateral withdrawal from arms control agreements can be exposed for the danger this poses to humanity.

One of the most important principles of asymmetric political resistance is the identification of the most important strategic real estate as the moral high ground. The moral or moral-ethical high ground is the seizure and occupation of that terrain of argument which is recognized and recognizable as more rational, reasonable and of broader benefit to humanity, assuring “the greatest good of the greatest number” according to universal values and norms and not merely national or regional values and norms.

The main axial routes and themes of the political struggle should be Peace and Sovereignty. Firstly, these are themes that have a universal or near-universal resonance. Secondly, they allow the critic to fight for and occupy the moral high ground because the West has only a toehold on the moral high ground in all these cases. Thirdly, they are also the main achievements of humanity that are threatened by the Western offensive. Fourthly, they are themes that are likely to have resonance among peoples the world over, albeit with greater or lesser emphasis in different areas of the globe.

This great struggle cannot be waged with the guiding ideology solely of or governed solely by “State Interest” or “National Interest.” It can only be waged by the recovery of the spirit of “internationalism” that was present in the entire Soviet period. It is little appreciated that Stalin, the father of ‘Socialism in One Country,’ and political leader of the Great Patriotic War waged an international campaign against fascism. Even in periods of isolation and siege, Stalin’s perspectival approach was never one of a cultural or civilizational preoccupation. The struggle for Peace and Sovereignty, Against Interventionism and Global War, requires the building of global opinion and a global movement.

A contemporary Realist would immediately grasp the opportunity which has opened up in post-Cold War history, namely of compensating at least partially for the loss of those territories and Russia’s Western buffer, the rollback of Yalta and Potsdam and the USSR’s wartime gains and the advance of the NATO borders up to Russia, by the geostrategic gains on the Eastern front through the renewal of partnership with China. Obviously, this has been recognized and acted upon but it has yet to be optimized by the kind of diverse yet solid strategic relationships that the USA has through NATO in the West, and Japan and many other states in other parts of the world. A Realist would recommend a re-visiting, retrieval and revision of Article 1 of the 30 Treaty signed by Stalin and Mao, which recognizes that the security of Russia and China are indivisible and that any aggression against one will be regarded as aggression against the other and responded to accordingly.

There is a contradiction between the Western project of the encirclement of Russia and the intellectual response to that encirclement. One of the reasons for that contradiction is the fact that academies and think tanks have been shaped and formed by and sometimes in the decades of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and later ‘détente’ with the West and are almost structurally unprepared for the change in the global geopolitical-geostrategic ‘ecology’ as it were. These institutions were formed or reshaped by party edict as adjuncts of the tasks of negotiation with the West and the competition (which became enmity for a period) with China. They are structurally oriented towards the West; their institutional faces are turned westwards. Their entire spirit and ethos are those of partnership with the West and suspicion of China stemming from the 1960s and 1970s.

Institutions need to reflect the tasks of the new times, those of facing the West as an adversary in a protracted Cold War encompassing a global hybrid war; facing encirclement by the West and the global offensive of the West. Perhaps new joint analytical and academic institutions should evolve as intellectual-scientific superstructures of the SCO, BRICS, the Astana process and most importantly the partnership with China. A Russo-Sino joint think-tank or ensemble of think-tanks of Advanced Studies, as an intellectual microcosm or advanced prototype of a strategic alliance (not merely a strategic partnership) seems an imperative need.

The threat to Russia is nothing less than deeply, profoundly existential. If Iran is disaggregated by military action two things will result simultaneously. In a small scale equivalent of the collapse of the USSR and the dawning of the unipolar moment after the Cold War ended, there will be a dramatic shift of the balance of forces within the global Islamic community or ummah, to the Wahhabi/Salafists, just as in return to pre-1979, Western power is projected right back into an arena dangerously proximate to Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ as the western analysts have always seen it. The intermediate ‘buffer state’ may not always remain so. Any deep damaging of Iran will also have global grand strategic implications of tightening the encirclement of Eurasia and weakening China.

Iran’s capacity for deterrence and if deterrence fails, its capacity for prolonged resistance and the same of Venezuela, will decide the level of resistance far away from Russia’s frontlines. If Afghanistan ended the USSR by bleeding it white, then the most effective Western policy in that theatre was to equip the so-called mujahidin with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to neutralize Soviet air power. If the USSR had not been so enmeshed in détente as to hold back the SAM-6s from and provide only a minimum supply of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese, then the damage inflicted on the US may have been such that it could not have gone on the offensive in Afghanistan a mere three years after the withdrawal from Saigon. While the US had no compunction in providing shoulder-fired to the Afghan mujahidin, with whom they had nothing in common ideologically, knowing full well that they would cause Soviet casualties especially among pilots, the USSR did have compunctions in providing SAM-6 batteries and a far more generous quantity of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese who were ideological comrades. The Vietnamese used to wryly remark to those of us in the Vietnam solidarity movement in Asia, that had the USSR provided them with the quantity and quality of air defense missiles that it gave the Arab states in the same period, the early 1970s, the Vietnamese would certainly have used them more effectively and with less losses than did the Arab armies.

That is perhaps the best single piece of explanatory evidence as to why the US recovered so fast from the Vietnam defeat while the USSR unilaterally withdrew from the Cold War and collapsed. It was a matter of will, and the consistent clarity of the US that the USSR was the enemy, and the determination to prevail over it. Later, the successor state of the USSR, the Russian state, with the Russian armed forces as its core, was seen as the enemy—even when the Russian administration and leadership may have been seen as a useful quasi-ally, partner and even ‘friend.’ Thus, on the questions of Iran and Venezuela, a contemporary Russian ‘dialectical and historical Realist’ analysis would consider a ‘reverse Brzezinski.’

China appears caught in a contradiction within an irony. The contradiction is that having entered the world capitalist order dominated by the West and become a major player within it, it now finds itself vulnerable to both economic and military threats simply because it proved to be strong enough to be an economic competitor but not strong enough to prevent, deter or prevail over a military build-up triggered by the inherently hierarchical and hegemonistic character of the system it had bought into. The irony is that China had found itself caught in a contradiction because it had forgotten Mao’s theory of contradictions which draws a fundamental distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. China regarded the competition between itself and the West as a purely economic and therefore non-antagonistic contradiction, but the world system being not only an economic system but one of power, China’s peaceful rise was perceived by the West not as a ‘friendly’ or non-antagonistic contradiction but precisely as an antagonistic one, to be responded to not merely by economic means but also by military means, namely the biggest build-up of an armada in recent history through the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The irony is a dual one, because it was China that first cautioned the USSR about the idealistic and utopian nature of the project of “peaceful economic competition” with the West, but later pursued it with greater zeal and success than the USSR ever did or could. In the 1960s and 1970s, China had established a methodology of identifying the contradictions in the world at any given period and went on to hierarchize those contradictions. The listing would naturally shift over time and became irrationally anti-Soviet at one point; an irrationality that lasted a long period. However, the methodology of discerning, identifying and ranking contradictions was a realistic one, because it alerted China or anyone who used the dialectical framework, to the reality of antagonism, of hostility, in the world arena.

If the world’s foremost military power which disposes of the greatest destructive force known by history, regards one or more countries as adversaries, indeed as The Other(s), and backs up this policy perspective with the actual offensive disposition and concentration of men and material over time, then basic survival instinct should dictate that the states designated and treated as adversaries should seek to combine their military and non-military strengths to countervail and deter such a power which regards them with hostility and as threats. There are several such countries but only two such great powers, and these are Russia and China, in whichever order. Those who opine that Russia can slip out of this siege by living down a perception of a special relationship with China and associating as closely or even more closely with other great or big powers, seem to forget that Western moves against Russia’s interests preceded its renewed hostility to China.

The bottom line is that in any objective, dialectical and historical Realist analysis of Russia’s core interests, no relationship with Europe can be a substitute or even on par with a partnership with China. Not all vectors are equal, and some are certainly more equal than others.

Since neither Russia nor China can countervail the US-led Western alliance on its own, a closer equation is needed between the two than between either Russia or China and any other big power or powers. No other big power, however friendly, is the target of unremitting and adversarial Western action, and therefore will not take the same risks for either Russia or China as each of them should logically do for each other, since they both stand threatened and targeted. A Concert of Big Powers cannot be a substitute for a defensive United Front or coalition of states, of which the Russia-China relationship will be the main alliance, consisting of those sovereign states actively threatened in a military-economic sense by the West.

These are the strictly personal views of the author.

From our partner RIAC

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Time for a New Approach to Conventional Arms Control?

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The return to an outright deterrence relationship between NATO and Russia involves the danger of an arms race and a number of military risks, particularly in the NATO-Russia contact zones. These risks can be contained by means of sub-regional arms control. Approaches of this kind should comprise sub-regional force limitations, limitations of military exercises, transparency and inspection rules for rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities outside the zone of limitations, as well as a strict verification regime. Measures should be based on existing agreements rather than negotiating a new treaty.

Currently, there is a little scholarly discussion on new initiatives or innovative approaches to conventional arms control (CAC) in Europe. A diligent study by Peter van Ham from the Dutch Clingendael Institute — “Modernizing conventional arms control in the Euro-Atlantic region” — discusses the merits of different approaches. A very critical report by the Swedish FOI Institute — “Conventional Arms Control. A Way Forward or Wishful Thinking?” — , edited by Johan Engvall and Gudrun Persson, focuses more on the question as to why German Social Democrats, in the wake of the 2016 Steinmeier initiative, are focusing so much on CAC than on the issue itself. And finally, in the framework of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, a group of authors from Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the US presented a concrete proposal for sub-regional arms control in the Baltic region — “Reducing the Risks of Conventional Deterrence. Arms Control in the NATO-Russia Contact Zones”.

There are many, to some extent, reasonable arguments questioning new efforts for CAC. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is politically dead, the modernization of the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures 2011 (VD11) is blocked. Why should any new initiative for CAC fly? In a broader sense, it is argued that, with the failure of the INF Treaty, the termination of the Iran nuclear agreement by the US and the uncertain future of the New START Treaty arms control, in general, has become almost unachievable. There is deep mistrust on all sides. Western governments argue that there cannot be business as usual (including arms control) with Russia as long as the Russian government is backing secessionist forces in Eastern Ukraine, while the Russian side is arguing that arms control is blocked by NATO’s ambitions for military superiority.

The Return of Deterrence

What unites most governments in Europe is the conviction that strengthening one’s own military capabilities is more important than cooperative security approaches. We are seeing the return of a mutual deterrence scenario coupled with the progressive erosion of cooperative security policies that were pursued until the early 2000s. To be sure: We never had a pure cooperative security scenario, but rather a hybrid mix of cooperative and deterrence elements. But even this led to an unprecedented reduction of conventional and nuclear weapons in Europe.

Currently, we are experiencing a quick reversal of this positive trend at all levels: We are witnessing the re-emergence of strong threat perceptions that are directly contrary to one another and mutually exclusive. Military exercises on both sides are approaching the levels reached in the Cold War. And we see hardening military postures, states investing more, modernizing and in some cases enlarging their armed forces. Although we have not yet reached a full arms race, we are on the brink of one. In terms of military options, the issue at stake is no longer “large-scale offensive options” of a continental-size in the sense of the preamble of the CFE Treaty, but the perception of emerging options for a surprise attack in the contact regions between NATO and Russia, particularly in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions.

The Risks of Deterrence

Any military deterrence relationship necessarily involves risks and inherently drives escalation. The three most important drivers of escalation are uncertainty, sub-regional conflicts, and the nuclear dimension. Uncertainty and the lack of military transparency are driving the two sides into a security dilemma with inherent worst-case thinking. Sub-regional conflicts — just imagine a re-escalation of hostilities in Ukraine — can be a powerful factor in raising the level of tensions in Europe. And finally, the failure of the INF Treaty will most probably have a destabilizing impact on the deterrence relationship in Europe.

These military risks in a narrower sense are aggravated by two broader global trends: With the rise of China and other emerging powers, we are passing through a period of hegemonic change that is characterized by a maximum of uncertainty and volatility. And we are passing through the two or three and not many more decades that are critical for stopping a global climate disaster. Both lines of risk, the more narrow military one as well as the broader global dimension, make it imperative to avoid a new arms race in Europe (and elsewhere) that would spoil scarce resources and attract the political attention that we urgently need to address global problems.

Options for Conventional Arms Control in Europe

Against this background, there are basically three options of addressing risks ensuing from a deterrence scenario dominated by conventional armed forces. The first is traditional measures of risk reduction, bilateral or multilateral agreements on the avoidance of incidents and accidents, possibly augmented by transparency measures. A good example is the Baltic Sea Project Team. Measures of this kind are considered by most governments, at least in principle. They are urgently needed, but clearly insufficient in view of the present and future risks.

A second option would be a comprehensive, pan-European post-CFE agreement that also involves new military options and types of equipment. The 2016 Steinmeier initiative for reviving arms control in Europe comes closest to this option. Despite discussions in a German-led Like-Minded Group this option seems to be far too ambitious under the current conditions. It would rather fit a cooperative security policy scenario that is beyond reach at the moment.

The third option consists of using arms control instruments for stabilizing the given deterrence relationship focusing on those areas where the danger of destabilization is most imminent, that is the contact zones between NATO and Russia. This option remains within the scope of mainstream deterrence thinking. It requires an approach of sub-regional arms control.

Problems of Sub-regional Arms Control

Sub-regional arms control is disputed by many for three main reasons. Some are afraid of the political singularization of those who would fall under a sub-regional arms control regime contrary to others who would not. Second, some governments are afraid that sub-regional or any kind of arms control would divert attention from necessary defense measures. And finally there is concern that sub-regional arms control might not be feasible in operational terms in the sense that there is always an impact from outside into the zone covered by a sub-regional arms control regime.

However, sub-regional approaches have been considered time and again. The negotiations on Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR, 1973-1989), the predecessor negotiations of the CFE talks, dealt solely with sub-regional approaches. And Chapter X of the VD11 explicitly addresses “Regional Measures.” If the three arguments quoted above are taken seriously, it is possible to establish valid sub-regional arms control regimes. The three key factors are an arms control zone large enough to dispel singularization fears and to limit properly the sides’ forces in an equal manner; sufficient regulations for armed forces outside the zone; and a thorough transparency and verification regime.

A Model for Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe

The authors of the Risk Study elaborated a model for sub-regional arms control taking the Baltic Contact Zone as an example. This zone would comprise Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Eastern part of Germany covered by the 2 plus 4 Treaty, Belarus, and parts of the Western Military District of Russia. The zone is large enough to dispel fears of singularization as it covers parts of Germany and Russia. And it is also large enough to cover a substantial part of the sides’ forces. The Baltic arms control regime would be equipped with the following main features:

No permanent deployment of additional substantial combat forces would be allowed in the Baltic Contact Zone. This builds on the obligation of NATO in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act to avoid “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the newly admitted NATO states and the corresponding obligation of Russia in the 1999 CFE Final Act not “to station substantial additional combat forces” in the Kaliningrad and Pskov oblasts. Although there is no shared definition of the term “substantial combat forces,” there is wide-shared agreement that these two obligations are still valid and have not been broken. To make them operational for a sub-regional arms control regime, it would only be necessary to agree on a definition of “substantial combat forces” and to recommit to these obligations. The commitment not to increase combat forces in the contact zone would represent the key element of the sub-regional arms control regime.

In addition, military exercises in the contact zone would be limited in size, frequency, duration and geographical proximity to borders. Such an agreement could be regarded as a measure under Chapter X of the VD11.

As a complementary measure, rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities deployed beyond the contact zone should be subject to a notification and observation regime.

All measures agreed would be subject to sufficiently strict transparency and verification regime that could also be established in the frame of the VD11. Certainly, additional quota for inspections and evaluation visits would become necessary.

Is Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe Possible?

Such a regime would have two important advantages: It would address the real risks, namely sub-regional offensive options, and it would build on the adaptation of existing agreements, the VD11, the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the CFE Final Act, rather than negotiating a completely new treaty. A sub-regional arms control regime of this kind is modest in the sense that it remains within the framework of a mutual deterrence relationship. However, it is bold in that it would introduce effective steps for stabilizing this relationship.

Is such an approach to conventional arms control in Europe feasible under the current conditions? Certainly not, if we continue to exchange almost ritualized mutual accusations. And it will become possible only when we recognize that extraordinary circumstances require special measures.

It will certainly not be possible if talks on conventional arms control are conducted predominantly at expert levels. These issues must be dealt with at the higher political levels, including heads of state and government, and ideally embedded in a broader approach of pragmatic cooperation.

From our partner RIAC

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