Friday, August 30, 2013

Kerry's press conference

Kerry just hit it out the park. He delivered a powerful case for intervention. He did so in a manner that was confident, angry and unequivocal. Now more than ever, Assad needs to grasp American resolve. As I argued in The Guardian a couple of months back, the Secretary of State is doing a great job. However, it must be asked, where is the President? He should have made this speech. His absence reeks of weakness and offers yet another insight into the spin obsessed White House. They need to get a grip. Fast.

Also worth noting - Kerry's reference to France as ''our oldest ally''. In diplomatic speak, this comment represents an American expression of extreme dissatisfaction to the UK.

If interested, see my thoughts on Syria from last few days.

Analysis of WaPo Intelligence Community Budget Report

Buried beneath the Syria news frenzy, on Thursday, The Washington Post published their latest piece on the US Intelligence Community (IC). The reporting is very interesting.

For a start, it seems that the CIA spends a lot more than we've previously thought. A total expenditure of around $15 billion annually. We've also learned that the CIA allocates very significant resources to technical collection efforts (of the type generally associated with the NSA).

Concerning the action of intelligence operations, North Korea and Pakistan are regarded as two especially hardened intelligence targets - challenging to penetrate and gather information on. However, although the Lebanese Hezbollah are also regarded as a hardened target, the Post's report suggests that the IC has closed some of their knowledge gap in this area (crucially important following the Pizza scandal).

In an interesting statement, the Intelligence Community regards Israel as one of the top five counter-intelligence focus areas. The other states being: China, Russia, Iran and Cuba. This shouldn't be surprising, Israeli intelligence efforts against the US are well known. It also shouldn't be taken as an indictment on the US-Israeli relationship. States spy on each other. Indeed, outside of '5EYEs', America spies on everyone.

In another area, the US IC continues to inject the majority of available resources into SIGINT/GEOINT and other technical-focus capabilities. From my perspective, this is both good and bad. On the good side, technological developments have meant that US technical surveillance efforts can garner exceptionally detailed and timely data from hardened, high level targets (enabling, for example, aggressive counter-terrorism efforts). On the bad side, unlike human sources, satellites and phone intercepts etc. cannot offer proximate inferential analysis. Their weakness and flowing vulnerability is obvious- if a target doesn't engage with technology, he/she will be exceptionally challenging to track. As a response, it's crucial that the US possess a robust HUMINT portfolio. Perhaps attempting to navigate hard-target penetration, the CIA is developing capabilities “that minimize or eliminate the need for physical access and enable deep concealment operations against hard targets.”

However, what most interested me is the degree to which the CIA resources covert action efforts - $2.6 billion/annual. That's more than the agency spends on HUMINT operations ($2.3 billion/annual).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why the British Parliament vetoed Intervention in Syria

In a stunning rebuke to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the UK Parliament has voted against using force in Syria. As a consequence of this development, should the United States decide to take action against Assad, it’s highly unlikely that the UK will participate.

Just a few days ago, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was pressuring President Obama for a rapid military response. Today, Cameron has suffered a huge political defeat. So, why did this happen?

There are a number of reasons.

First - Iraq
Although the legacy of Iraq is a major influence in the US intervention debate, in Britain, this dynamic is even more pronounced. Where US domestic support for the Iraq war ebbed and flowed, in the UK, the 2003 invasion was deeply unpopular with the British public from the start. In a significant sense, the war undercut UK public perceptions of trust in Government. In an associated sense, UK public confidence in the US Government also suffered. The flowing impact is clear. Now, facing another substantial military action, the British people and their representatives were far less certain about the merits of following the American lead. Reflecting this concern, Members of Parliament have, in effective terms, tied Cameron’s hands.

Second - International Law
In Britain, as indeed in much of Europe, there’s a much greater sympathetic for the notion of supreme international law. As this relates to today’s events, in simple terms, many members of the UK government believed that action against Syria would be illegal without UN authorization or a longer UN deliberation. This concern also explains why the British Government was so desperate to affirm that any intervention outside UN authority will, amongst other caveats, be ‘’directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.’’ In a broader sense, Parliament was anxious about the diplomatic consequence of being perceived as attached to a flexibly subjective understanding of international law. Now, by waiting for the UN inspection process to develop, anti-intervention Parliamentarians believe they have achieved two key objectives. First, satisfying the UK’s obligations under international law. Second, re-establishing British credibility under that same orbit.

Third - Domestic Politics
The UK’s opposition party, Labour, are seeking to use the Syrian crisis to re-build their perceived national security legitimacy post-Iraq (Tony Blair was a Labour Prime Minister). Even as the Iraq war was unpopular with the British people, it was also profoundly unpopular with Labour’s left wing base. Indeed, on the eve of war, Robin Cook, one of Labour’s highest ranking officials resigned in protest. Miliband appears to have hoped that by his present strategy, in the run up to the 2015 UK general election, Labour will finally be able to escape the political demons of the Iraq war. However, it’s certain that’s he’s fostered a lasting bad blood with Cameron.

Fourth - US military leadership
President Obama might talk about an international effort against Assad, but the British Government (in holding a vote) and Parliament (in their rejection of intervention) knew that the US would take the lead in any military action. As Andrew Exum has noted, EU military weaknesses mean that European military power is inherently limited – British MPs know this. Whether regarding logistics or actual attacks, the US Military will be the instrumental foundation of any action. Recognizing the increasingly aggressive tone from Washington, British MPs likely felt that they had the flexibility to take a step back. Even if, as now appears likely, the UK takes no action against Assad, by American intervention, the UK Government will consider their underpinning strategic intent (upholding the red lines) as having been fulfilled.

Regardless of the above, today’s events are likely to cause serious repercussions for the UK-US ‘special relationship’. Now, facing British rejection, Obama may be forced to return to that oldest and most unpredictable of American allies. Vive le France.

Syria and US Foreign Policy

After years of (still ongoing) war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s obvious that few Americans have the appetite for another foreign entanglement. The polls speak to this truth – the vast majority are opposed to US military intervention in Syria.

I get why.

Nonetheless, I also remain convinced that the US must take action against Assad.


Because in America’s absence, other actors will shape the conduct and outcome of this conflict. And they’ll almost certainly do so in ways that are catastrophic for the moral and strategic standing of the United States. That's an intolerable price for an illusion of peace.

As I see it, there are two overarching foreign policy considerations at stake here.

First, there’s the principle of American values.

If the US fails to intervene against Assad, America's moral authority will endure a terrible blow. Just as the US suffered from accusations that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was 'all about oil' (it wasn't), a failure to intervene in Syria would play to another false truth. The notion of an 'America that only intervenes when her direct national interests are at risk'. In short, the sustaining ideal of American exceptionalism - standing for global peace and security would be seriously jeopardized. Further, if the US fails to intervene, the prospective power of international law would also be rendered absurd – if laws are not enforced, they have no value. This is about far more than basic morality. Values drive perceptions and motivate relationships – they shape positive realities. To have meaning, they must be upheld in realms beyond words.

Second - outcomes

The foundation of any successful foreign policy is the pursuit of positive outcomes. 

Let’s be clear, if the US stays out of Syria, then the Syrian civil war will remain dominated by interests fundamentally hostile to the United States. In essence, if we accept the basic (almost incontestable) proposition that a US failure to intervene makes Assad's survival more likely, then we must also accept what his survival would mean. A dictator who owes his existence to the Iranian theocrats and Capo Putin. Alongside Iranian demands for payback, reflecting upon a failure of American willpower, Assad's preserved regime would be far more willing to aggressively intrude in the politics of other regional states like Iraq, Lebanon and of course, Israel. The dictator would also pay little heed to the Syrian people.

So, this leads us to the challenging proposition – how do we shape a more positive outcome?

I’ve previously spoken and written about what I think the US should do. But I also think that our debate has to break free of some seriously problematic misconceptions.

For a start, we need to trash the argument that just because the Syrian resistance is made up by some jihadists, the US cannot support any rebel elements (IE nationalist minded formations). We also need to realize that just because we engage in Syria, it doesn't mean that we’re committing ourselves to the social and political reconstruction of that country. We can have limited engagement and also achieve strategic effect.

In the end, I believe that our failure to intervene would guarantee the very outcome that the non-interventionists wish to avoid - a catastrophic loss of America international standing and an outcome where, in one form or another, extremists prevail. It's true, these things may happen even if we do take action. Nevertheless, doing nothing is the surest path to the realization of our worst fears.

If interested, check out my other writings on the Middle East.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Syria update...

The President is deliberating over his options. Below are my thoughts on some of the latest news.

  • Foreign Policy reports that US Intelligence acquired a signal intercept-high confidence assessment that Assad's regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. Last Friday, I outlined my suspicions that classified intelligence was focusing US govt. officials towards their increasingly strong declarations. If this reporting is true, it would represent a major success on the part of US intelligence (most likely the NSA - who desperately need some good news). However, in a somewhat ironic sense, this leak further illustrates the increasingly porous nature of the US national security apparatus - a realm where secrets find little comfort.

  • I disagree with Aaron Miller's argument that no particular actor is likely to be victorious in the conflict. If Assad continues to consolidate power, he'll be able to dominate the battlespace and dissipate the fractured resistance movements. In contrast, if Salafi jihadists are able to overwhelm his regime, the flowing outcome will be a regional political condition of unrestrained chaos- in essence, the situation that these terrorists desire as an interim end in itself (chaos= their victory).

  • Foreign Policy has also referenced this neat little map. It offers a basic operational frame for potential US retaliatory strikes inside Syria. I'm sure that the Pentagon's targeting officers will be grateful for this very public reporting! Just as an observation (not an endorsement), in the UK, this map would probably be pressure-restricted by a DA notice.

  • The ongoing legal debate over potential retaliation is absurd. President Obama is the Commander in Chief of US Military forces. Assad's use of chemical weapons (in breach of clearly articulated red lines) poses an obvious and present challenge to the national security interests of the United States (both in terms of deterrent posture and humanitarian values). Further, Obama does not require the approval of Congress (unless operations last more than sixty days). Those who say otherwise do not understand US/international law.

  • EU military forces are well trained but lack effective ISTAR/logistical power. Don't believe those who claim that any response will be 'international'. At face value it might well be, but just as with Libya, the US will have to carry the operational weight of any action.

  • I'm sorry, but at this point, the UN is little more than a farce. Sure, it has a role to play in facilitating international discussions. However, the organization's response to Assad has been the epitome of weakness.... 'register a complaint'? Give me a break. This is the 2013 actuality of the 2004 Team America parody. It's insane.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why the US should intervene against Assad (radio interview)

Yesterday evening, in an interview with London based radio station, Monocle Radio 24, I argued that the US should intervene in Syria. I also expressed my concern about what's likely to happen if we fail to take action. The link can be found here. I hope you'll have a listen!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ty Carter

America's military is made up of exceptional men and women. But sometimes, even in the darkest horror of war, the actions of one individual can inspire an entire nation. Ty Carter did just that. Fighting at the Battle of Kamdesh, Carter braved overwhelming fire to support his friends and save the wounded. Like Sal Giunta, he was ready to die to prevent the enemy from capturing his comrade. Truly, his was an extraordinary act. Yet, Ty Carter has also served his country in another way. By speaking out about the challenge of PTSD, Carter has helped publicize this great national crisis. It necessitates our serious attention. As I argued for The Week, supporting the troops doesn't begin and end with the hanging of a yellow ribbon. Our fellow citizens deserve our unyielding support.

Syria - what next?

Update- The sniper attack against the UN will only increase the likelihood of an American strike.

It's very likely that the US will take some form of military action against Assad. 

Although Congress is divided over the prospective character of any 'response', as the NYTimes notes, the White House has shifted its tone to a more aggressive stance. I expect that this represents deliberate political messaging designed to prepare the waters for action. President Obama has spent the weekend speaking with his national security team and top allies. The US Navy is staging assets in the Mediterranean Sea. At present, the US has four/five missile destroyers and probably one SSGN positioned in the Sixth Fleet AO. Within one week, the US could also have the USS George HW Bush, USS Harry S Truman and USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups in position to launch direct air sorties (without overflying other states) against Syrian government targets. These capabilities represent a formidable array of firepower.

On the diplomatic front, the UK and France are especially anxious that some kind of response be mounted. Prime Minister Cameron has been putting increasing pressure on Obama to take action. Regardless, due to the fact that the Europeans like to play it cheap on defense, they're highly unlikely to use force without US participation. So... over the next couple of days we should expect increasingly frenetic action at the UN. The Iranians are also likely to increase their threats of counter-retaliation should the west take action. The Russians... they'll probably just continue to blame the rebels.

As I argued on Friday, the President should take robust action against Assad's regime and his enabling allies.

Friday, August 23, 2013

5 proposals for American intervention in Syria

Last year, I took a less aggressive approach on the merits of US intervention in Syria. However, with the conflict assuming an increasingly unrestrained character (both in terms of chemical weapons and conventional brutality), I've since changed my opinion. I'd support the following:
  • Arming select rebels (Recognizing the risks of terrorists gaining access to weapons, I nonetheless believe this action is necessary).
  • Engaging air/stand off missile platforms in low intensity, high impact operations - pursuing a condition of psychological instability in Assad affiliated military formations.
  • Utilizing CIA SAD teams to support select rebels and to conduct direct action/US air sorties against key regime targets/regime enablers inside Syria.
  • Unifying regional and international opinion against Assad and his sponsors. In essence, attempting to shame the Russians into reducing their support for his regime. Admittedly, with Capo Putin at the helm, Russia is unlikely to budge.
It's worth noting that the US Military leadership are skeptical about the merits of increased US intervention in Syria. C-JCS Dempsey especially. But while I have a great deal of respect for Dempsey, I also believe that the US must not allow others to determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war in pursuit of malevolent interests. I also respectfully disagree with analysts like Max Fisher, who suggest that the US has better non-military options to apply in Syria. Fisher is right about humanitarian aid, but I cannot see how actions like intelligence sharing would succeed without an embedded US ground-liaison component.

In short, I think it's time for the US government to take risks and show initiative.

Other MENA writings.

Actors in the Syrian Civil War - Flow chart

My basic (for simplicity sake- only includes commonly known key actors) flow chart on the interrelationships between the primary actors in the Syrian Civil War. In producing this chart, my intention is twofold. First, to provide a basic reference guide. Second, to illustrate the degree to which Syria represents a proxy war between various actors with broader political interests - please see explanations below chart.

Please note - This chart shows actionable relationships (actively hostile/supporting, rather than simply ideologically adversarial) specific to the Syrian civil war. Non-state actors are shaded green and state actors are shaded grey. Red/purple lines indicate a hostile relationship and blue lines constitute an support relationship. As indicated below, a number of relationships are defined by both allied and hostile interactions. Also illustrated, when it comes to this civil war - the enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a friend.

Ahrar ash-Sham - Anti-Assad Salafist Jihadis. Emerged under the leadership of a core of former prisoners of the Assad regime. Has since grown into a highly capable force. Presents itself as a hybrid Syrian nationalist-Salafist movement.

Al-Nusra Front - Anti-Assad Salafist Jihadis. In contrast to the larger regional focus of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Al-Nusra is more focused against Assad. Having said this, the group is accused of participating in the killing of Kurdish civilians in northern Syria (a troubling and under-reported element to the conflict).

Free Syrian Army (FSA) - Formation of anti-Assad rebels. In basic terms, they're the less 'jihadist'/more nationalist counterpart to Al-Nusra. Primary recipient of western military aid.

Lebanese Hizballah - Assad providing the key conduit for Iranian support to Hizballah, the group are resolute in their desire to maintain this critical relationship (even at serious cost).

Iran - Iran is desperate to preserve their key ally. They're providing major investment towards Assad's survival.

Iraq - Facilitates the Iranian logistics train to Assad.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - Salafist Jihadis with a regional focus (hence alliance between branches). Possess a pathalogical hatred for Shia Muslims, the West and any/all who oppose their extremism. They oppose Assad, but do so in their larger pursuit of a regional caliphate. 
          For all their particular disagreements with each other; Assad, the US and Iran are all desperate to constrain this group's growing power. It's notable that while states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are willing to provide support to Al-Nusra, their support for ISIS is far less significant (even they regard ISIS as too extreme).

Jordan - The Jordanians are providing key facilitation for western efforts to train anti-Assad rebels.

Lebanon - Lebanese society is sharply divided on the Syrian civil war. Angered by Assad's onslaught against a majority Sunni population, many Lebanese are vehemently hostile to his regime - a reality from which Hizballah's political opponents are trying to take advantage. In contrast, supporters of Hizballah (and others like Amal and General Aoun) stand in overt support of Assad. As a result of this dichotomy, tensions in Lebanon are increasing.

Peshmerga (Kurdish militia forces) - Responding to reports of sectarian warfare by the Islamic State of Iraq/Al-Nusra against Kurds in northern Syria, the Peshmerga have taken a more active role in the civil war.

Qatar - Plays major role in supplying Syrian rebels. This effort represents a broader intent to shape regional events in ways favorable to the monarchy.

Russia - Supports Assad with weapons, funding and international legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia - Supports both nationalist/salafist orientated anti-Assad forces with advanced weaponry. Regards the battleground in Syria as part of a larger proxy fight with Iran.

Turkey - Enraged by what they regard as Syrian govt. propagated terrorism against Turkish citizens, Turkey has become a key opponent of Assad's regime. At present, Syria supports both the FSA and the Al-Nusra Front (though their support for the later may soon dissipate).

US - Seeks Assad's fall, marginalization of Iranian influence and the post-Assad emergence of a nationalist minded, pro-US democratic authority.

*- ISIS still receives substantial funds from ideologically sympathetic individuals in the Gulf monarchies.

If interested, links to my other MENA writings can be found here.

The suffering of Syria, the shame of America

The evidence suggests that Assad's regime did indeed employ chemical weapons against innocent civilians. This wasn't the first time and it probably won't be the last. 

Before Christmas, President Obama stated that Assad's use of CBRN weapons would constitute a 'red line' for America. His message was clear - America would react vigorously to a breach of this cardinal warning. But now that the line has been crossed, the very opposite has occurred. In a stunning, almost incomprehensible failure of American leadership, the Obama Administration has again relinquished the 'red line' responsibility to the UN. The President's intention is clear - 'we want nothing to do with this'. This policy requires no complex explanation from the masters of international relations theory. It's weakness. It's the descent of American resolve into a gutter overflowing with blood.

Today, for friend and foe alike, American 'red lines' are a joke.

Aside from the morality deficit inherent to his choice, the President's weakness bodes very badly for the political future of the Middle East. For a start, Iran's new President is likely (along with Israel) to pay little heed to US warnings over the Iranian nuclear program. Conflict has become more likely. In addition, as I recently noted with regards to Egypt, American power will be regarded with an even greater level of mistrust. In another sense, the collapse of American leadership will mean that regional sectarian hatreds are propelled with an increasingly unchecked vigor.

The children of Syria are paying an awful price for American impotence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why the British Government stopped Greenwald's partner and destroyed The Guardian's hard drives

I'll be writing on the latest developments in Syria over the next few days. In the interim, I want to jump back to the Greenwald detention story.

In short, I want to offer my thoughts on how the detention of David Miranda (Glenn Greenwald's partner) speaks to the methodology of the UK security establishment. I covered elements of this debate during my Huff Post Live discussion on Monday.

For a start, the detention represents an under-reported example of how successive British governments have sought to deal with perceived security threats. Essentially, by applying quiet but substantial pressure (in ways designed to preclude reporting in the headlines). Where US law enforcement's ability to pressure media outlets is inherently limited by the first amendment - and rightly raises a firestorm when pursued, the British Government holds far greater power over media action. Take, for example, the pressuring of national security reporters (see here and here) to withdraw their evidently public interest focused publications. More generally, the British Government is unashamed in its pursuit of prior restraint.

Again, though this reality may seem surprising to Americans, the UK approach to intelligence gathering is different to that of the US. For one example, the UK's domestic intelligence service, MI5, holds files on many thousands of British citizens (search 'MI5' on page). In addition, the UK's pervasive counter-terrorism operations  involve the monitoring of around 2000 suspected terrorists at any particular time. The key is this- while much of the UK's intelligence operations take place covertly, they inform the strategy that we've just witnessed against Miranda - a kind of 'we're on to you' mentality; a willingness to take audacious action under the surface of public awareness.

Unfortunately for the UK government, with increasing scrutiny and the inability to restrict foreign reporting, pressuring journalists will cost politically serious blowback - attracting negative attention rather than discouraging undesired activities. It's worth considering how the UK's increasingly restrictive approach on freedom of speech combines with this consideration. Ultimately, it's my opinion that pressure operations are increasingly redundant in the 21st century.

For my thoughts on the US-UK intelligence relationship, click here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Manning Sentenced

I'll only have intermittent internet contact today. So, regarding Manning's sentencing, here are my relevant clips. As you can read, although I vigorously support a free press (see third link), I'm not tolerant of leaks that represent a betrayal of solemn (see video) oaths.

Regardless of your feelings about Bradley Manning, US soldiers are good - The Guardian

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ted Cruz and the Birthers

Senator Ted Cruz, a prospective hopeful for the 2016 GOP primaries, has stated his intention to relinquish the Canadian citizenship that was bestowed upon him de-facto at birth. Now, the birther brigade (a calcified mix of racists, xenophobes and puerile morons) is challenging his eligibility for the Presidency. They claim that because he was born abroad, Cruz is disqualified under the natural born citizenship clause of the constitution. 

Their assessment is defective. 

As I explained in The Guardian with regards to President Obama, natural born citizenship does NOT require birth on American soil. Ted Cruz is well within his rights to run for President. The relevant point here is that if Cruz does indeed run, he'll be up against a diverse field of competitive candidates.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Huff Post Live Discussion

Earlier today, I participated in a Huff Post Live discussion on the detention of Glenn Greenwald's (Snowden reporter) partner at Heathrow airport. 

I speak at- 

2 minute 41 seconds
9 minute 40 seconds
19 minute 55 seconds (in this last segment, I comment on the continuing threat posed by Al Qa'ida affiliated/inspired terrorism)

Friday, August 16, 2013

NSA isn't perfect

The Washington Post have released their latest expose' on the NSA's signal intercept programs. It reveals that the agency has breached their own data acquisition rules hundreds of times a year. It also reveals (the somewhat absurd) 2008 incident in which large numbers of Washington DC communications were intercepted because a software system mixed up the DC dialing code with that of Egypt... Anyway, as I argued back in June, we need to make sure that our assessments/scrutiny of intelligence operations are vested in facts rather than political gamesmanship.

Some of my other related thoughts can be found under the 'Other' section of this link page.