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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.


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

Syria: A Meeting of the Minds – or Five More Years of War?

by John Brian Shannon | September 27, 2015

A unique opportunity presents itself tomorrow when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia addresses the UN General Assembly and later meets with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

The question on everyone’s mind is;
Will that *opportunity* turn into an *action plan* that lowers the death toll, casualties, and displacement of Syrian citizens?

Certainly it would look like a Win-Win for both President Putin and President Obama if they put their political differences aside and announce a plan forward — one that involves working together to ‘beat back’ the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to the point that it no longer threatens the sovereignty of Syria, its long-suffering citizens and neighbouring countries.

Presidents need successful outcomes in order to accrue political capital to boost their political momentum — which they can then use to further their foreign or domestic policy goals.

But for President Putin it is especially important to make the most of this opportunity as the Russian economy is in crisis mode due to the dramatic fall in oil prices over the past months, while President Obama must always work to counter the GOP narrative.

It’s theirs to lose

One way that both leaders could leave the UN in Win-Win fashion is to ink an agreement (a map) showing exactly where in the skies and on the ground that Russia and the U.S./EU nations will and won’t operate in Syria.

Combat Area Operations Agreement

This is a simple way to guarantee that Russian and Western fighter jets don’t accidentally or otherwise, engage each other within Syrian territory. (“You take the North and we’ll take the South. Now, where do we draw the combat operations line?”)

The same applies to ground-based units.

Mutual Agreement to Support Moderate Forces in Syria

One way to drown out the terrorists is to continually work to strengthen moderate forces in the country. Whether combat groups or civilians who want a return to stability and are proactively working toward that end, such people can have a dramatic effect as their numbers are infinitely larger than the ISIS hooligans trying to take control of Syrian towns and cities.

Whether U.S.A.-supported moderates or Russian-sponsored moderates — each of those are enemies to ISIS.

Of course, a constantly updated Who-Is-Who list needs to be kept, so that everyone works off the same page.

Agreement to Prevent Israeli Involvement in the Syrian Conflict

As this would trigger even more trauma for the region resulting in thousands more casualties and millions more refugees, it is important to have a unified policy.

Not only that, but a significant military force must be dedicated to preventing terrorists from crossing into Israel from Syria.

No good will come of trouble along Israel’s northern border and either Russia, the U.S., or a major (and majorly funded) UN peacekeeping/active patrol force must control a 20-mile wide strip of land across the southern Syrian frontier.

It is unthinkable to not do this, as the consequences of multiple attacks across the border would surely complicate and enlarge the war. (What happens if Israeli fighter jets cross into Syrian airspace in full rage mode to hit back at a terrorist Katushya rocket base, and suddenly encounter Russian Air Force or Syrian Air Force fighter jets?)

Internally Displaced and Refugee persons Handling Agreement

A unified approach to handling internally displaced persons in Syria and how to handle those persons wanting to leave the country to become refugees in neighbouring nations, is of paramount importance.

It’s one thing for thousands of people to leave a country by road, it’s quite another when military units are emplaced there expecting a major tank or infantry battle to break out at any minute, along the very path that Syrian citizens are fleeing!

And in the case of large swathes of land full of unmarked landmines left over from previous decades (millions of mines) it is important to prevent civilians from crossing those sections of land.

Both Russia and the Western powers must notify each other of mined areas in well in advance of approaching civilian convoys (whether they are travelling on foot or by vehicle) and obviously, that information must be kept secure from ISIS.

Mutual Support along Common Corridors or near Demarcation Lines

If U.S. forces (for example) get the best of ISIS and they retreat, the very obvious place for them to run is across the line of control into the Russian or Syrian controlled zone. And the reverse is true for ISIS fighters are fleeing Russian or Syrian military units/combat aircraft.

But when preexisting agreements are set up, ISIS fighters will (quite unknowingly) run into a trap — just when they think they’ve escaped their pursuers.

Agreement to Support the Democratically Elected Leader of Syria

Whether some in the West like it or not, Bashir Al-Assad is the democratically elected leader of Syria and significantly, he is the only game in town. There isn’t anyone remotely qualified nor imbued with a power base sufficient to replace him. Like it or not, Assad is going to be the President of Syria for many years to come.

Even ISIS, as successful as it has been on the field of battle couldn’t pull off running a government. Winning a series of paramilitary battles is one thing — governing a country is a different thing altogether.

Regime change isn’t an option in Syria’s case regardless of how appealing that may sound to those in GroupThink office cubicles around the world. What looks good on paper from 5000 miles away can seem truly hallucinogenic to those on the ground in Syria and to those with any experience in the region.

We are stuck with Assad for some time. There is no other option unless the EU agrees to accept 10 million Syrian refugees. Therefore, we better learn how to work with him.

President Obama should be encouraged to instantly fire any federal government employee (including military members) who indulge in the utter fantasy of regime change in Syria. It is so unrealistic a goal, that to waste any time speculating on it should immediately brand the person making the suggestion as sophomoric and functionally illiterate on the topic of Syria.

Where do we want Syria to be in Five Years?

We’ve seen what the past five years have brought.

“If we keep on doing what we have been doing, we’re going to keep on getting what we’ve been getting.” — Jackie B. Cooper

No sane person, no culture, no nation, wants to see another five years of murder, rape, mayhem and destruction for the people of Syria.

Practically any other option is better than that, and we must all reconcile ourselves to the fact that change must come to the Syrian situation. No amount of wishing away the past is going to make the presently-failing plan suddenly begin to work and achieve our goals.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” — Albert Einstein

Therefore, it is time to take-Russia-on as a full and valued partner to a sustainable solution in Syria, knowing that we will be dealing with Bashar Al-Assad for the next decade, and with a view to lowering the total amount of trauma, death, and destruction in that country every day.

If we can’t work together, ISIS wins

If the U.S.A., Russia, and some of Europe’s leading nations can’t agree on mutually-agreed solutions to solve the Syrian crisis, then I respectfully suggest that the present world order has far bigger problems than ISIS.

If the ISIS leadership is allowed to infer that they can defeat great powers by playing them off one-against-the-other it will embolden ISIS far beyond the limited goals they’ve set for themselves in Iraq and Syria.

Differences in approach must be set aside to allow the U.S.A., Russia, the EU, and Syria to work together to marginalize the deviant ISIS group, or we and future generations may experience a never-ending stream of such conflicts.

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Syria: The Definition of Insanity

by John Brian Shannon | September 26, 2015

The world witnesses the underwhelming response to the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.

The United Nations calls the Syrian crisis the worst humanitarian crisis in a quarter of a century, with half of Syria’s population displaced within Syria or fled to other countries. Some 310,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the crossfire of civil war.

CNN image. The Syrian population and where they are presently located.

CNN image. The Syrian population in 2015.

“The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And we think people should know more about it.

Of the 4 million refugees, the vast majority are women and children. And nearly 3 million of those children are out of school with no hope of returning to any formal education.” See: The worst humanitarian crisis since World War II — PBS NewsHour

Since 1999 the socio-political structure in Syria has been deteriorating due to many factors and it has been too convenient for some commentators to blame Bashir Al-Assad the country’s democratically-elected leader for all of Syria’s troubles.

But things are rarely as they seem. This is true for the Middle East and North Africa nations (MENA) but is especially true in the case of Syria

For just one example, more than half of the people who live in the port city of Tartus, Syria are retired Soviet or Russian military people who chose to receive their pensions and live out their lives in warmer climes, as compared to say, Moscow or Siberia. I can’t blame them as it is a beautiful part of the world, full of important historical sites.

Farmlands east of Tartus, Syria.

Farmlands east of Tartus, Syria. Visit this link to see some excellent images of the region.

During the Cold War, thousands of Soviet Navy personnel had occasion to debark their ships while they took on supplies at the Russian Navy facility located just south of Tartus.

Not only that, but Soviet merchant ships unloaded everything from Lada cars to borscht, returning to Russia loaded with produce of every kind, especially figs, dates, olives and wine. The punishment for not returning to their ship on time was to be shot by the Soviets, so every sailor (whether Soviet Navy sailor or Soviet merchant mariner) took pains to return to their ship prior to sailing. Yes, really.

Soviet Naval Facility near Tartus Syria taken from a Turkish F-4 Phantom II in September of 1990.

Image now owned by Google. Soviet Naval Facility near Tartus Syria taken from a Turkish F-4 Phantom II in September of 1990.

Over several decades this fraternization between Soviet/Russian citizens and Syrians turned Tartus into the wedding capital of the eastern Mediterranean with many thousands of marriages between Soviet sailors of every rank and background marrying the beautiful young women of Tartus.

Hamrat Street in Tartus, Syria

Hamrat Street, Tartus, Syria. “Hamrat” by Ahmadac at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by nopira. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

When I visited Tartus in 1989 and again in 1990 as the Cold War was ending, I was struck by the fact that all of the road signs were written in the Syrian, Arabic and Russian languages only.

And similar was true in Syrian government offices where I also noted that everyone chatted easily in the Syrian and Russian languages — as I waited over an hour for an English-speaking government employee to arrive from a nearby town so that I could have my passport returned to me. Holding passports until the last day of a person’s visit was standard practice during the Cold War, as was the requirement for government officials to phone the local police to verify that no crimes had been committed before handing the passport back. Sorry about that speeding ticket.

Syria has sourced uncountable billions of dollars of Soviet and Russian military aircraft and other military vehicles through Moscow since WWII. Indeed, Syria was one of the first nations outside of the Soviet Union to receive the export version of the MiG-25 fighter/interceptor aircraft, a very advanced jet fighter for the time.

Petroleum trade between the two countries has likewise been brisk.

Suffice to say that the deep links between Syrian citizens and Russians span several decades and I’ve hardly touched on them.

Therefore, it is quite a natural thing that Russia should lend economic, military, and political support to its ally and we should not interfere in that profound and long-term relationship.

What has been tried for the past five years has not worked and will continue to not work

And the proof of that is that fully half of Syria’s population are internally displaced or have fled the country, living as refugees in neighbouring countries like Turkey which is on track to accept over 2 million Syrians in 2015.

In addition to that, some 3 million (non-Syrian) refugees have arrived in Turkey from Iraq and the Arab Spring nations in recent years.

Must see: Al-Jazeera video showing some of the devastation in Homs, Syria

CNN image of Syrian refugees accepted in the region

CNN image. Note: Jordan says it has 1.4 million Syrian refugees within it’s borders, but the UNHCR has documentation on only 630,000 of them.

Jordan says that more than one million Syrian refugees have arrived in 2015, while tiny Lebanon reports that 1-in-4 people within its borders are Syrian refugees.

JORDAN says it has taken in 1.4 million Syrians, although the UNHCR counts 629,266 registered refugees. Jordan prides itself on its hospitality toward these and other refugees, but the high numbers — about 20% of the population, based on government figures — have taxed the small kingdom, already struggling with strained resources such as energy and water.LA Times

Europe opened its doors to 310,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 with Germany taking a huge share of that number, while Sweden offers almost automatic residency and a full social safety net to 80,000+ Syrians per year.

CNN image Syrian refugee destinations

CNN image. “Conflict, persecution and poverty are creating more refugees than the world has seen in decades.” — CNN

I’ll give the last word to the citizens of Iceland (total population 329,100) who went over the heads of their elected leaders with more than 11,000 private citizens offering their homes to Syrian families after Iceland said it would accept only 50 Syrian refugees

Kudos to the citizens of Iceland. Let’s hope this catches on.

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