The main problems of American practice of participation in local conflicts

ALAFF’s translation of a chapter from the book «Reflections on the Syrian Conflict«, released by the Institute of the Middle East in 2018. The book (in Russian) is available for free download. Link is at the bottom.


Since we touched in the previous chapter on the topic of American experience of participation in local conflicts, it means that it is worthwhile to dwell on its basic principles. The basic principle of the United States in this case is the priority of the policy of “deterrence”, not “attack”. Exactly for this reason, they took Mosul for two years, stagnated under Raqqa for a long time and absolutely don’t know what to do in Afghanistan. Frankly speaking, the Americans do not want to lose their soldiers in battle. In all these cases, the United States faced a lack or, at least, insufficiency of regional geographic study of its participation in the conflict and a deficit of intelligence. They are frankly ill with agent intelligence and cadres of trained country travel agents. And not for the first decade. For example, if we talk about the invasion of Iraq, you do not have to be a great seer to understand that by overthrowing, in fact, the Sunni regime, you simultaneously strengthen their confessional rivals in the face of the Kurds and Shiites. And in the case of the latter, no one bothered to figure out that, given the Shiite Iran in the neighborhood, this will unambiguously lead to the strengthening of Iranian influence in Iraq. [That’s] Exactly what happened.

In the case of the Kurds, we are now witnessing an interesting intrigue with the authorities in Erbil holding a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, which naturally causes panic in Iraq’s neighbors and threatens to launch a regional parade of sovereignties. This is the price of such errors in purely country-specific assessments, which must not only be ordered from the expert community on the eve of such serious actions, but also learn to study them and draw conclusions from the information provided. And to understand that the mentality of the Kurds or Shiites is no different from the mentality of the Sunnis. They will also fight for the monopoly of their dominance in power and control over economic levers and will not allow anyone to enter this field. That is, Washington’s actions in all local conflicts lacked a clear understanding of their “second step”, which relied, if to rephrase, on the omnipotent hand of “democratic institutions”, which itself would decide and correct everything.

In this regard, apparently, it makes sense to touch on the new strategy of US President D. Trump in the framework of countering Islamic terrorism on a global scale. The United States and the Arab countries of the Gulf region intend to step up efforts in the fight against terrorism and together resist the policy, in their view, of Iran’s interference in the affairs of the states of the region. This is stated in the final communiqué of the summit meeting of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia) held in Riyadh in May 2017, in which US President Donald Trump took part. According to excerpts from the document, provided by the Al-Arabia channel, the United States and the Arabian monarchies “strongly condemn the intervention of Iran in the affairs of the region”. The meeting of the leaders of the six countries of the GCC with the head of the White House was held on May 21 in a closed for the media mode. The parties called for “joint actions to reduce interfaith tensions and regional instability” and “building up joint actions to eradicate the Islamic State group”. In this context, an agreement was reached to hold meetings every six months in the format of the USA — GCC, dedicated to the joint fight against terror.

Washington reaffirmed “a commitment to protect the GCC countries from any threats”, expressed solidarity with the concerns of countries in the region in connection with “the continuation of Iran’s missile program”, stressing that it “contradicts UN resolutions”. All this, including D. Trump’s previous statements about the Iranian threat, should be regarded as fixing the new US policy in the Middle East, which at this stage consists in reanimation of the good old approach based on the usual allies in the region, which consist, in general, of completely differently represented forces in the face of KSA, Egypt and Israel. Now this scheme is actually fixed de facto. These three countries are viewed in Washington as the backbone around which, in fact, a new security architecture will be created. Time will show how efficient it will be, but we have already expressed our doubt. And it is based primarily on the deep, completely different geopolitical interests of all these three participants, of which only two (KSA and Israel) share Washington’s anti-Iranian attitude. Cairo on this issue has its own point of view and, of course, is more concerned with the activity of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. There are big doubts about the unity of the approaches of these countries to the problem of intra Syrian settlement. If for Riyadh it is a reliance on Salafi Sunni groups with the prospect of their incorporation into power on leadership roles, then for both Egypt and Israel this option is not suitable. At the same time, in principle, talking about some kind of effective alliance between KSA and Egypt with Israel is simply unrealistic due to the Palestinian problem. Any contender for leading roles in the Arab Sunni Ummah (it is this “intent” in the ambitions of KSA and ARE) by definition will not be able to conclude any contracts or participate in cooperation programs with Israel without cardinal reputational risks. At the same time, there are insurmountable political contradictions within the main regional players themselves. First of all, via Qatar-Turkey, UAE-Egypt and KSA-Qatar lines. From all this a very simple conclusion follows: D. Trump’s plans to create a new collective regional security body must be considered fantasies, and they must not receive much attention simply because of their absolute inability to practical implementation. In this regard, the Americans have no choice but to rely in each case on a specific ally without any coherent coordination between them. That is, in Yemen, to work through KSA and the UAE, in the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa — through the UAE and Egypt, while retaining Israel as their non-Arab outpost.

This system does not conceal anything new in itself; it, in general, repeats the entire system of the American presence in the region after the anti-Shah revolution in Iran. Perhaps, only B.Obama tried to transform this system of checks and balances on the wave of the “Arab spring”, and it differed from the previous actions of all American presidents of the second half of the 20th century with two main points: the rejection of clearly emphasized allies of a strategic scale in the form of old and compromised regional supporters in the face of dictators with building a vector in favor of the almost all-come-to-power Muslim Brotherhood; rejection of the unconditional blockade of Iran. If we take the essence of this policy, then it was pursuing the main goal of recreating the balance of powers and counterweights in the region along the Sunni-Shiites line, which was thoughtlessly destroyed by G. Bush Jr. Now this whole concept is in the past, and D. Trump is trying to move to old patterns of the Middle East policy with clear traditional guidelines. But there is one nuance. The time is now somewhat different from the second half of the 20th century. The events of “September 11” and the further participation of the American military in local conflicts became a kind of watershed, after which a very large part of the American political elite and the power bloc no longer believe in the good feelings of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The entire previous history of US participation in local conflicts of low and medium intensity demonstrated the extreme unreliability of these old allies and, moreover, revealed the extremely unattractive fact of their use of the “jihadist factor” as the main tool of influence.

And after D. Trump’s visit to Riyadh nothing has changed in this regard, Riyadh simply cannot act differently. Then it will be simply not KSA, but something else. And the new American administration will have to face firsthand with this moment  in the very near future. It is difficult to predict how the impulsive D. Trump will react to this, but this little things are still of little concern for him. His main task today remains to preserve his personal power in the United States, where hysterical sentiments about impeachment are growing, and in such a situation it is not possible to talk about developing some really intelligible strategy in the Middle East direction. And in this case, we again see firsthand that professional regional geography analysis of the situation is replaced by purely commercial interests. According to the principle: Iran will not and cannot buy American weapons, while KSA can and will [do it].

If we proceed from such attitudes, then no effective regional policy will be possible. And if we don’t have it, then it will obviously be the most negative way to influence the participation of the American military in this or that local conflict. At the same time, the emphasis is primarily on increasing the number of own military in a given conflict zone in order to create a “security umbrella” for loyal regimes as part of the preparation of national armed forces and their adequate response to emerging risks.

This topic is more relevant for Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon confirmed in April 2017 that US President Donald Trump gave the ministry the authority to change the limits on the size of the contingent of the Armed Forces of a state deployed in Syria and Iraq. This was reported to the TASS correspondent on April 26 by the defense ministry spokesman Christopher Sherwood. “At the request of Secretary of Defense (James) Mattis, the president delegated to him the authority to control the Armed Forces in Iraq and Syria”, he said. According to C. Sherwood, “such delegation of authority” has not yet led to a change in the restrictions on the number of troops in these countries. Such a move by D. Trump “does not foreshadow changes in our operation in Iraq and Syria to defeat the ISIS”, the representative of the Pentagon explained. “Our strategy continues to be based on working with local forces and carrying out all operations in Iraq with the approval of the Iraqi government”, said Sherwood. He noted that the president’s actions would make local commanders “more mobile, adaptive and effective in supporting American partners, and also allow decisions to be made to benefit” the servicemen.

In conclusion, C. Sherwood stressed that D. Trump only returned to the head of the Pentagon his previous powers. “This is nothing new”, he concluded. At the moment, according to official data, there are 5,262 US troops in Iraq, and 503 in Syria. D. Trump’s decision was another step in the empowerment of American military leaders in the field. Supporters of strengthening the US Armed Forces, including in Congress, believe that such a move by the president will allow more flexibility to respond to unforeseen events on the battlefield. The Iraqi government also insists on the need for a US military presence in the region.

To begin with, it should be noted that so far Baghdad has not clearly articulated such a desire, and the desire to stay in Iraq after the end of the operation in Mosul was expressed precisely at the Pentagon. And this was the nature of sensing the positions of Iraqi leaders. Given the pro-Iranian attitude of Baghdad and the anti-Iranian rhetoric of Washington, this issue can be difficult. Especially if the consolidation process begins with the Sunni tribes and the elite of the Shiite leadership of Iraq. If not in terms of the very presence of US troops, then at least in terms of their numbers. Secondly, in Syria now there are not 503 American military, but about 2000, and in Afghanistan more than 13,000. And these are not exact figures, there may be a slight increase tolerance. Thirdly, the logic of the American military, which interpret the recent orders of the American president exclusively from the point of view of increasing the initiative of local commanders to transfer military from some regions of Syria to others, where the Americans are already, is completely incomprehensible. If D.Trump would have even sanctioned the transfer of battalions and companies in the volume of one Syrian province or even of Iraq as a whole, then the USA would not have won a single war, and the president might have already ruined himself.

In this case, everything is clear: the Pentagon “pressed” the new owner of the White House on the subject of a numerical increase in US military contingents in Iraq and Syria “depending on the prevailing situation” while, naturally, limiting the upper limit. Some experts claim that the number of US troops in the same Syria can be doubled. Later, a new strategy on Afghanistan was published, in which there was nothing fundamentally new either. The same principle of “one more battalion” with complete oblivion of regional geographic nuances. US President D. Trump enters the dangerous path of his predecessors, who, according to Parkinson’s law, steadily got involved in latent conflicts, succumbing to the assurances of their generals, such as “let’s introduce another battalion, and the victory will not take long”. So it was in Vietnam, so it was in Iraq, so now it is in Afghanistan. The same thing we see now in Syria.

In fact, the previous administration, including its power unit, very clearly assessed all the risks of such a scheme, and that is why B. Obama so reluctantly agreed to even a minimal increase in contingents in hot spots, and for this reason the former leadership of the Pentagon (especially R. Gates) insisted on tight deadlines for the end of an operation and a clear calculation of the forces and assets involved. And in this case, the United States “like a pony” is running in a circle, repeating, in one way or another, old and unproven algorithms of actions. All this is superimposed on the fear of casualties, the lack of local initiative by the US military and the complete ignorance of local realities. Tell me, why the introduction of three thousand additional American military men in the very same Afghanistan should radically move the process of training national personnel from the dead center? These personnel have been trained for ten years, and at the same time, according to the estimates of the Americans themselves, there are less than 30% of combat-ready units there. At the same time, at the beginning of the conflicts both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, there were more than one hundred thousand American military and their NATO allies there. It means that the matter is not in the number of instructors, but in something else.

The Syrian experience of the participation of the Russian army in a local conflict gives a partial answer to this question: success in this case lies in the plane of motivation of the national armed forces. If this principle is applied to Eastern realities, which the Americans are trying to ignore, then it is the question of the biological survival of a particular denomination or national group that becomes decisive in terms of the motivation to fight. The fighting capacity of the current Syrian army consists precisely in the fact that now it has accumulated representatives of those denominations and national groups for whom the victory of the Sunni radicals is like death. For them and their families. And this is the best motivation, even better than money. And in this case it’s not the number of soldiers that is important, but their attitude and quality. In addition, we repeat the main rule for the successful resolution of local conflicts. It was formulated by Napoleon: “With bayonets you can do anything. But you can not sit on them”. Within the framework of local conflicts, foreign armies solve only one important task: they stabilize the situation by smashing the main centers of resistance and thereby convince the sponsors of this or that rebel movement (they exist in almost every local conflict) of the futility of further attempts to overthrow the regime by purely military means. That is, they create conditions for negotiations and compromise. With the launch of the mechanisms of tribal and social diplomacy, traditional for a particular region. But it is frankly a problem with this issue, and therefore, [with] the ultimate goal of the presence of Americans in a particular conflict zone.

Once again, this was demonstrated by the already retired CIA Director J. Brennan. Russia uses scorched earth tactics in Syria. This statement was made by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, John Brennan. He accused the leadership of Russia that it “plays according to its own rules” on the world stage, “does not subscribe to the same rules” as the United States, including with regard to “armed conflicts”. “The US would never have done in any of these military conflicts what the Russians did in Syria regarding partly the scorched-earth policy they used, which led to the destruction and death of thousands and thousands of civilians”, argued J. Brennan in January 2017, an interview with a PBS television company. According to him, even before the arrival of the Russian military contingent in Syria, it was clear to American intelligence that Moscow “would not abandon its longtime ally”, that it was going to put more effort into “protecting this ally”. The United States negotiated with Russia, trying to convince her that Syrian President “Bashar Assad is part of the problem”, not “part of (its) solution”, Brennan said. However, he believes, “unfortunately, the Russians presented the entire opposition as terrorists”. “And so they took these extremely courageous and, in my opinion, in many respects rash military actions that led to the death of so many Syrians”, J. Brennan said. This statement of his should be regarded as a “farewell bow”. At the same time, we venture to state that the United States CIA, under the leadership of the staff “orientalist” J. Brennan, demonstrated an almost complete inability to adequately respond to the challenges and threats coming from the Middle East region. American intelligence could not help its government to develop a clear and adequate algorithm of actions for the main challenge in the form of the “Arab spring” and almost completely failed the format of the struggle against Islamist expansion in Iraq and Syria.

For the sake of justice, it must be said that intelligence in any state is a subordinate body and does not develop an independent policy. The main blame for the “ostrich policy” of the United States, whose leadership chose to observe and wait, not act, lies with President Barack Obama. But the head of intelligence always and in all countries is obliged to provide the most unpleasant information in its unedited form, while J. Brennan sinned by “adapting” under the official course. At the same time, the director of the CIA was unable to make the most important thing for which he was appointed to this post — to seriously increase the personnel potential of the special service in order to increase the effectiveness of intelligence, while this is the “Achilles heel” of the Western intelligence community in general, and first of all american [one]. And J. Brennan could not reverse this trend.

Now about the essence of his accusations. Apparently, the director of the CIA is not quite aware of the concept of the term “scorched earth”. And the allegations about the “thousands of dead Syrians” as a result of the actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces, we also leave on his conscience. All the current actions of Washington, and J. Brennan in particular, obviously illustrate to us one quality of the past administration (and the current one) — it cannot take a punch and lose. The statements of the director of the CIA are just one of those touchy reflections. Everything that he accuses of Moscow, in principle, was precisely avoided thanks to a clearly structured scheme of action. Russia in Syria has managed to circumvent all the “rakes” that the Americans have assiduously stepped on as part of their participation in all local conflicts in the Middle East and the Maghreb over the past 30 years. Moscow managed to choose the most optimal format of its participation in military operations, which, firstly, was able to radically change the situation on the battlefield, and, secondly, to almost completely avoid the repetition of the “Afghan version”. The United States failed to demonstrate anything of the kind, and in this case questions arise specifically for intelligence, which was unable to clearly calculate the necessary minimum of force participation by the Americans in a given conflict with the definition of the necessary amount of forces and assets involved. If to put it even simpler — American intelligence was not able to clearly assess the base of the population loyal to its actions in this or that country, which, in fact, makes up the criterion for evaluating the intended format of participation.

In no case did Moscow in Syria use the “scorched earth” tactics, preferring to use pressure on the points of the Sunni front. This was the optimal course of action, taking into account the basic principles of the “Islamic State” in relation to the Sunni population and the acquisition of sympathy and support for the latter. We repeat again that the policy of the ISIS and “Jabhat al-Nusra” is based on the principle of economic and social autonomy of the local Sunni tribes with the guarantee of its protection from these organizations. Accordingly, the blows were made on the most important source of income for the tribes — oil exports. At the same time, pressure was put on the main logistics hubs of anti-Assad forces in the form of strong points, arsenals and communications. Thus, not only was the power base of militants leveled, but a more important and fundamental task was achieved — the base of support for jihadists by local tribes, which were deprived of the economic mechanisms of their existence, and guarantees of their security, was undermined. This moment allowed [Russia] to start the peace process at a separate level, that is, with each specific tribe or resistance group. And this practice in Syria has fully justified itself. American intelligence could not offer anything like this and intelligible to its leadership in any of the local conflicts to which the United States entered. In Syria, Moscow acted within the framework of the change of mood in the heads of the local Sunni elite, but not the total destruction of the enemy. For the latter, a single bomb would be enough, albeit a nuclear one. And this change in the brains was achieved by building a picture that left no illusions about maintaining a calm and satisfying life under the care of jihadists.

The allegations that the CIA knew about Russia’s plans even before the entry of the Russian Aerospace Forces group into Syria did not correspond to reality. The American intelligence missed this moment, as well as failed to calculate the possible actions of the Russian Federation in the Syrian sector. Moreover, the United States could not create in Syria a loyal force for itself “on the ground”, although there were such opportunities at the very beginning of the [Syrian] crisis. As a result, the Islamists, with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, quickly became the only monopolist in the sphere of resistance to B. Assad’s regime. This sharp increase on the jihadist segment in the opposition was another miscalculation by the CIA. As a result of these mistakes, the Americans were forced to “catch up” with Moscow in order not to give it the opportunity to become the “main peacemaker” in Syria. As a result, we see poorly prepared and failed operations on the attack on Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. That, in fact, was the result of the work of J. Brennan. Let us also recall the complaints of B. Obama “on erroneous intelligence data on the Libyan direction, which led to a complete destabilization of the situation in this country”, and the picture, in general, will be almost complete.

And at the end about some of the “achievements” of American intelligence in the Syrian direction, by which a global conclusion can be drawn about its tactics in areas of local conflicts and the degree of work efficiency. According to a number of data that was published in early 2017, the Pentagon purchased outdated weapons (AKs, grenade launchers, mortars) for $ 71 million in 2016 in Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine). The American side stated that the weapon is being acquired for the needs of the United States, [but] in fact, it was shipped to Syria to arm the opposition troops and “block the militants”. It was believed that this should prevent the militants from returning to the countries from which they came to Syria to “perform jihad”. The first US military operation in Syria happened in the summer of 2014 and ended in an epic failure. In the desert near the city of Raqqa, there was a base not even of the ISIS, but of some other aggressive bearded men, somehow known as the “camp of Osama bin Laden”. It held many hostages, among whom were not only Syrian soldiers, but also American and British citizens, who for various reasons were brought to Syria by fate.

After a long analysis of the situation, the CIA recommended an assault operation to release them. In early July, around two dozen American special forces landed in the vicinity of the camp with the support of aviation. After a three-hour battle (which in itself is a failure; assault operations to free hostages, by definition, last a few minutes), special forces killed five terrorists and seized an absolutely empty building, separate in the desert. There were no hostages, high-ranking enemies, or just useful materials in the “bin Laden camp”. Later it turned out that the hostages were taken out of prison one day before the start of the operation, which gave rise to many questions to the CIA and its agents about possible information leaks. A few days later, Jihadi John (Muhammad Emvazi and his “group of three” — British Arabs who called themselves “The Beatles” and took the pseudonyms “John”, “Paul” and “Ringo”) on camera decapitated photographer James Foley, journalist Stephen Sotloff, humanitarian worker David Haynes, British taxi driver Alan Henning (he worked as a driver in the same humanitarian mission) and Peter (Abdurahman) Kassig — a former American soldier who also worked in a certain humanitarian mission with bases in Beirut and Turkey, but regularly penetrated into Syria — illegally and with unclear objectives.

It must be said that it was Kassig’s execution that caused a sharp reaction from President Barack Obama, who spoke directly from board No. 1, stating that “he (Kassig) was pulled out of our ranks”, which gave reason to consider the late CIA or military intelligence agent. At the same time, he was the only one who converted to Islam and took a Muslim name in captivity. Later came other strange circumstances. In particular, it became known that Jihadi John negotiated both with the US government and with the family of James Foley, demanding either 100 or, for some reason, 132 million dollars of the ransom. The last time the militants got in touch a week before the assault operation, but the United States refused to pay. Pentagon spokesman Rear-Admiral John Kirby eventually covertly laid a failure on the CIA, although he could have shot himself with the leadership of the Middle East division of American intelligence. After that, it went on increasing. “Observation flights” began, first of the UAVs, and then of ordinary aircraft. Already in autumn, President Obama announced his intention to bomb ISIS in Syria and — at the same time — the start of the famous anti-Assad rebels training program. But the operation “train & equip” also ended in an epic failure. The armed groups selected on a tip from the CIA received American weapons uncontrollably, and then, already equipped and trained, they ran in an organized manner to the ISIS and “Jabhat al-Nusra” camp. They were called “moderate armed opposition” for a long time afterwards. While the CIA officers lingered in Jordan and the border areas of Turkey, supervising the so-called distribution centers — the supply system of the myth, which for several years was called the Free Syrian Army and [which] successfully collapsed in front of everyone.

After the failure with the FSA, the CIA decided to bet on the Kurds — and this turned out to be almost its only reasonable offer. The beginning was not much different from previous catastrophes. Operation Timber Sycamore was top-secret and personally authorized by Barack Obama, and most of the basic papers were signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In general terms, the operation repeats the scheme included in the textbooks called “Iran-Contra”, or “Oliver North’s scam”. With Saudi intelligence money in the Balkans (primarily in Bulgaria and Bosnia), tons of old Soviet weapons were bought, which were then shipped through Turkey and Jordan to anti-Assad forces in Syria indiscriminately about their beliefs and nationality. It was assumed that the weapons should come mainly to the Kurds, who were then defending the city of Kobani from the ISIS.

But everything quickly got out of control. The extent of theft is striking. Only in Jordan millions of dollars of weapons were stolen during the operation, and the black market in the Middle East and the Gulf countries was quickly filled with even heavy equipment. Intelligence officers bought [themselves] Ferrari, and began to take bribes with gold bars — they were no longer interested in paper money. Private small dealers also enriched themselves and began to destroy each other in the struggle for a place in the market. In a shootout at one of the military bases in Jordan, two local officers, two American contractors and one South African citizen (how could it be without them in the arms trade) were killed. The Jordanians involved in the [Operation] “Sycamore” were scolded and fired, but their property was not confiscated. Such an understanding of human weakness was explained by the fact that in Riyadh, they expected the fall of the B. Assad regime from day to day, and then “nevermind what happens”. Now all those involved in one voice accuse Russia, which intervened [in the conflict] and did not allow to complete the plan.

Many clearly harboring evil, including personally Hillary Clinton. She suffered a lot after someone smart posted a tender on the US Government Procurement Website to supply tons of weapons from Bulgaria to the ports of Taşucu (Turkey) and Aqaba (Jordan), and Wikileaks began to delve into this story. It is believed that the Obama administration spent about half a billion dollars on supporting the “moderate opposition” and Operation Sycamore. Here is an excellent example of the actions of the American special services and the military in areas of local conflicts. And we dare to assure that the same practice continues today. And in this case it is not clear what is more there — business or the fight against terrorism.

Source (*.pdf file).


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