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When Both Parties are Right: U.S. President Trump & U.S. DOD Secretary Mattis

by John Brian Shannon

Each member of the U.S. president’s cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president and the same is true in the case of the United States Secretary of Defense which position is in the top tier of the Executive Office serving the country’s leader. The other two top tier cabinet positions are, of course, the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. All of whom serve at the president’s discretion.

That said, General Jim Mattis has done an excellent job as the U.S. Defense Secretary and there are questions as to why such a capable individual should find it necessary to retire from a position to which he was obviously well-suited. Also, the question exists whether the president influenced that decision or whether General Mattis was fired and the term “retiring” was used to convey proper respect to a long-serving military member who earned every honour he ever received.

Obviously, the president and the secretary had a difference on policy, that goes without saying. But under the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. president can pursue any foreign or domestic policy he chooses and he or she doesn’t need the approval of his cabinet.

(Of course, it’s better if they do approve)

U.S. cabinet officers serve the president, not the other way around. Therefore, in case of a difference of opinion the president wins, every time, and it must always be that way.

Even such notable soldiers as General Douglas MacArthur who tried to bully U.S. president Harry S. Truman into militarily attacking China — thereby dramatically enlarging the Korean War — was finally forced to step down famously saying, Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” find themselves subject to the U.S. president’s discretion by virtue of the laws of the United States and its Constitution.

Still, it could be instructive in some way to examine the reasons behind such events to ascertain whether a systemic problem exists that must be dealt with, or to find whether these events occurred due to some other reason.

Let’s look at the Syrian situation in the context of American military involvement, because in the case of president Trump and secretary Mattis it’s almost surely the issue that divided them:

  1. Syria has been involved in a civil war since 2011 and was the last country in the region to feel the effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
  2. No country is allowed under international law to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war without being invited by the lawful government of that country. Countries can’t unilaterally insert themselves into the midst of civil wars. That’s black letter international law. It’s 100% non-negotiable.
  3. Which the Americans did. As did their allies (some European countries).
  4. Russia and Iran on the other hand were invited by the lawful government of Syria and that invitation was made publicly. It’s a matter of public record.
  5. The legal exception to involvement by non-invited parties occurs if the UN Security Council approves military actions; Where the UN Security Council votes to apply sanctions or approve military force, military intervention becomes legal under international law. However, the UN Security Council didn’t approve military force by the U.S. and its allies against Syrian government forces or non-government forces (terrorists). Yet, the U.S. and its allies militarily attacked targets in Syria without the proper and legal authorizations required by international law.
  6. Though such actions clearly broke international law, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad didn’t seem to mind. Yes, he did complain at first, but as soon as the Americans and their European allies lessened their attacks on terrorist targets in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad suddenly stopped complaining. To many people (and it might even hold up in international court if it ever comes to that) this clearly registered as tacit approval for America and her allies to conduct military operations against ISIS inside Syria for the duration of the Syrian civil war.

With me so far? Few people would dispute points 1 through 6 above.

No doubt that U.S. president Trump and U.S. secretary of defense Mattis were 100% aligned in regards to U.S. policy in Syria since the confirmation of General Jim Mattis on January 20, 2017.

Any difference of opinion between the two is therefore recent and easy to discern.


American Involvement in Syria: Part II

Since about November of 2018 it appears that the battle against ISIS is largely won in Syria.

From now on, it’s going to be a mopping-up operation with exponentially increasing chances for American and Russian forces to clash (accidentally or otherwise) in the ever-smaller areas formerly controlled by terrorist groups.

Not only American and Russian of course, many countries operate inside Syria fighting terrorists and thereby assist the Syrian government (even if assisting the Syrian regime isn’t one of their objectives) and some terrorists might decide to meddle with the foreign forces fighting them.

Any individual who feels they have something against America or Europe who happens to have access to a rifle, a rocket launcher, or other weapons system may feel entitled under Jihadi rules to shoot down an American fighter or bomber jet, helicopter, or perhaps take out a number of U.S. soldiers who may be sleeping in a tent or non-hardened building.

For a terrorist, the opportunity to create a war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Europe (however unlikely that may, or may not be) might prove too tempting and numbers of them on multiple occasions might soon decide to employ themselves on suicide missions to accomplish that objective.

‘Targets of Opportunity’ are what every American and European military person will now represent to Jihadis at this stage — whereas prior to November 2018 they were too busy trying to stay alive to get involved in planning traps so that (nominal allies, in Syria, at least) America and Russia might find themselves in a ground or air fight against the other. Such danger that represents!


American Involvement in Syria: Part III

Even after the American troops (numbering only 2000 personnel) leave Syria there are still a number of ways to influence events in that country.

a) Soft Power
b) Hard Power

Soft power is the application of diplomacy. The UN is the most likely place for this to happen and America has a strong presence at the United Nations. At this point in the Syrian civil war, America’s best option is UN-backed diplomacy and its 2nd-best option remains direct diplomacy between the nations that are in some way involved with Syria.

Hard power is the application of military force. The U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth but that doesn’t mean the United States should be bombing just for the sake of bombing.

If there are better options than that, those should take precedence over military actions that could result in the unwanted and unnecessary problems of military conflict happening by accident between the U.S. and Russia, or between the U.S. and Iran (or between the U.S. and any other countries operating in Syria) or between the Americans and the Syrians.

None of that is going to help bring peace in Syria.

A final thought about U.S. Hard Power being applied in Syria following the pullout of America’s 2000-strong ground and air force is that the US Navy can deliver as many missiles as the president chooses to targets in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea, anytime the president wants. This has been done in the past with regards to purported chemical attacks that occurred in Syria and is something the Navy trains for every day of the year. Likewise with the U.S. Air Force, which can deliver as many bombs or missiles to terrorist targets inside Syria as the president chooses.

And none of them are going to accidentally bomb Russian or Syrian government positions due to the prior notification protocols common among the world’s major military forces that operate in conflict zones.

Conducting military operations inside Syria is still against international law (therefore I’m not advocating for such operations!) unless Bashir Al-Assad approves of it in advance (and it’s possible he might need help if he gets surrounded by terrorists again) and it’s still in America’s interests to have the democratically elected Bashir Al-Assad government in charge of Syria vs. any number of shady terrorist groups — but at least the lives of 2000 American troops won’t be unnecessarily at risk.

They don’t mind necessary risk, but they hate unnecessary risk. Wouldn’t you?


“Two Men Look Out Through the Same Bars – One Sees Mud, the Other, Stars”

In the final stage of the Syrian Civil War, U.S. president Trump likely sees a case of diminishing returns in Syria, with a growing threat of accidental conflict with America’s nominal allies (Russia, Syria and even Iran — as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned) He sees the potential for a sudden Jihadi attack comparable to the Marine barracks attack in Beirut (1983) that killed 241 U.S. Marines that could undo the good work done by U.S forces in the country especially if a large number of U.S. troops were to be killed in such an attack whether by design or accident; He sees that Syria’s allies are poised and able to complete the task at their cost in both lives and treasure, and he sees that America isn’t going to gain anything further by staying.

ISIS will be defeated in Syria due in large part due to American involvement and no matter how long America stays it isn’t likely to get more recognition for its work fighting terrorism there than it’s already gotten.

In short, for all the right reasons, president Trump decided that U.S. forces should leave Syria — and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers or U.S. Air Force bombers could still deliver a message to terrorist groups operating inside Syria at a moment’s notice.

And from the perspective of Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, he has resigned for all the right reasons. If you can’t agree on policy (and it is the job of the president to decide policy, not the SecDef) then it’s right to leave. No doubt that General Mattis felt there was more good that American forces could still do inside Syria (even though they weren’t invited and aren’t there legally) and that having U.S. forces on the ground was a stabilizing force in the country. It was that for certain.

But now that Bashar Al-Assad’s tacit approval of unasked-for American ‘assistance’ is almost certainly about to come to an end president Trump has made the right policy move on Syria.

And the president still retains the option of US Navy or Air Force attacks on terrorist targets inside Syria — while removing only the increasingly imperilled ground force option.

‘Timing is everything’ they say.


Related Articles:

  • A look back at the deadly 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut (abc.com)

Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.

Syria: The Roots of Civil War

by John Brian Shannon | October 1, 2015

All war is brutal. Whether civil war, insurgency, guerrilla war, conventional or nuclear, all are brutal. And in war, no one weapon is worse than another. If you die or are injured by being blown to fragments by artillery, mines, barrel bombs or conventional bombs dropped by aircraft — you’re just as dead or injured as by machine-gun fire.

Too many commentators are trying to make negative political points about the Assad regime by citing Syria’s use of ‘barrel bombs’ — to convince us that those are the ultimate in inhuman and horrific weapons. As if getting killed by a ‘barrel bomb’ is somehow much worse than getting killed by a mine or by machine-gun fire.

Characterizing some bombs as ‘worse’ than other bombs, etc. takes our focus away from the underlying reasons for the conflict and how we might solve it.

Demonstrators chant slogans to support ISIS. Image by NBC News (AP File photo from June 16, 2014)

In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant slogans to support the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The al-Qaida breakaway group has seized much of northern Syria and huge tracts of neighboring Iraq formally declaring the creation of an Islamic state on Sunday, June 29, 2014 in the territory under its control. (AP Photo, File)

What we should be concentrating on is how many innocent people are getting killed or maimed, how many refugees are being created, and how many months will it take to solve the Syrian conflict

And as is always the case, military people are well supported by their organizations and get paid to engage in warfighting, while civilians are (obviously) vastly unprepared to deal with war.

Consequently, many of them do the intelligent thing and leave the conflict region when they are able. This puts huge strain on neighbouring nations as they struggle to accept millions of refugees. Turkey is on track to surpass 2 million by January, 2016 and other nations in the region have accepted hundreds of thousands.

Syria: The Path to Civil War

By using deductive reasoning, we can safely assume the civil war now raging inside Syria is due to the many anti-coalition fighters who fled the 2003-2011 Iraq War, once they realized they couldn’t beat the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Such fighters were then able to live and operate virtually ignored in Syria (and Lebanon) as anti-coalition sentiment was running high in the region in the aftermath of the Shock and Awe invasion due to the Syrian people seeing only the results of, and hearing the accounts of, the Iraq War from fleeing Iraqi civilians.

A similar situation on a smaller scale occurred during the Arab Spring months.

Ergo, both the Iraq War and Arab Spring added to anti-Western sentiments in the region

This created a robust ISIS force practically out of thin air — with tacit support from Syrian citizens and the citizens of other nearby nations.

Reality Check:

  • Was there an ISIS before the Iraq War? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Iraq War from 2003-2011? No.
  • Was there an ISIS before the Arab Spring of 2010? No.
  • Was there an ISIS during the Arab Spring? No.

Therefore, the ISIS entity was born in ‘the Arab Street’ which is the name for the collage of meeting places where Arab peoples meet, sometime after the Iraq War of 2003-2011 and after the 2010 Arab Spring.

Religion has nothing to do with it

Just as religion had nothing to do with WWI, WWII, or any recent war, this isn’t a religious war although various sides will always try to employ religion (the Crusaders, Osama Bin Laden) or the occult (Hitler) to serve their own interests.

We should ignore the cant and focus on clear examples of criminal and terrorist behavior. Murkiness isn’t our ally in the fight against terrorism

Trying to charge a person in court for being too ‘religious’ is impossible — as there is no such criminal charge.

However, if a person kills 25 people in a criminal act (whatever their political or religious views) we can deal with it in the courts in a very clear manner, and it becomes a clearer ‘sell’ to citizens in the court of public opinion — who after all are the ones footing the bill for our military operations in Syria.

Focusing so much attention on such things as the types of bombs employed by any side and by overly focusing on the religious aspect, we remove our focus from the criminality of what ISIS or other fighters are actually doing in Syria, Iraq, and in the Kurdish territories.

(Although it must be said that the Kurds have their own terrorists and they too must be careful when pointing fingers at ISIS, as some Kurds have been at the terrorism game for decades)

I’ll grant you that the Syrian response to ISIS and other groups has been heavy-handed

But no more than Shock and Awe was to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

We the West, created the conditions necessary for the creation of ISIS and other similar groups that left Iraq and the Arab Spring nations for Syria and Lebanon upon realizing they couldn’t match coalition firepower.

Now we are picking away at them piecemeal from the air, while the Russians have partnered with President Bashar Al-Assad to preserve the Syrian government with both the Russians and Syrians taking the fight to any group threatening the peace inside Syria until a sustainable cease-fire can be agreed.

If we attempt to exterminate all the ISIS fighters in Syria (with the Russians helping in regions of the country that we can’t access) we will simply drive ISIS fighters to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Egypt and into other Arab nations

Which will allow the West to claim that we’ve ‘won’ in Syria — in the same way we claim to have ‘won’ in Iraq.

Does anyone really think, for an instant, that Iraq is better off now than under Saddam Hussein?

It certainly isn’t. If you believe otherwise, I dare you to travel to any Iraqi city and proclaim it loudly in any public square. (And, by the way, it was nice knowing you)

If a massive (Iraq War style invasion) occurred in Syria today, many ISIS fighters would leave Syria, taking their tales to the people of each country in the region thereby gathering evermore pro-ISIS support and congealing centres of power across the MENA region.

Using military power to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria means that we will set up a paradigm of continual ISIS movement and evermore ISIS recruiting in more countries

Therefore, although we can paint an “X” on certain ISIS members or groups, once we begin to ‘win’ against ISIS in Syria, they will just melt away to other nations gathering evermore support in every city they visit. Just as they did during the Iraq War.

That is not the path to victory against ISIS

In the case of highly mobile fighters and an ideology that we ‘enabled’ by attempting to exterminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we will simply help to grow the anti-Western sentiment throughout the Middle East.

The only path to solve the ISIS question is to use diplomacy to convince ISIS of the need for an ISIS homeland (a piece of very northwestern Iraq and very northeastern Syria) and that we are willing to help make that happen in exchange for laying down their arms.

ISIS presents a case where the more we fight (an ideology) the more members it will attract. And that is something the world doesn’t need.