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Syria: With the US and Russia Fighting Terrorists in Syria, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

by John Brian Shannon | September 12, 2015

We explore three different scenarios in the fight to defeat ISIS and other terror groups operating in Syria.

Now that Russia has entered the frame, it may change the Syrian crisis for the better, or it may trigger concern by some nations already in the fight, or by regional nations that must deal with the consequences of the Syrian civil war.

What could possibly go wrong?

ISIS forces 100,000 Syrian Refugees to Turkey in 48 hours on September 23/24, 2014.

“The war has killed 250,000 people and driven half of Syria’s 23 million people from their homes. Some have traveled to European countries, creating a refugee crisis there.” — Reuters (File photo)

1. Israel vs. Russia inside Syrian territory

Israel. That’s what could go wrong. It’s not the only thing that could go wrong in this dangerous situation but it would be irresponsible to overlook that particular potential for catastrophe.

The state of Israel could decide that its best interest would be served by inducing the Russian military to leave Syria by bombing the Russian airfield, supply depot, and barracks which are presently under construction near Latakia, Syria.

And to prevent retaliation by Russian naval forces, Israel would need to destroy any Russian Navy vessels in the Mediterranean or tied up at any of Syria’s ports. It would be unthinkable from a military standpoint to neutralize the Russian airfield/barracks and not destroy the Russian naval component.

That would lead to a wider war, one that would have Israel calling the United States instantly. Geopolitics could change in the space of 15 minutes.

If you don’t think that’s very likely, people who know their history will recall how quickly the world changed when Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Two hours of bombing that dramatically changed world history.

For its time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a massive effort and was seen in Japan as a major success against the United States. Indeed, most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was parked dockside with their sailors enjoying shore leave. Consequently, many ships were either sunk or damaged although few casualties occurred as the dockyards were largely empty at the time of the attack.

Just as few foresaw the attack on Pearl Harbor, few are of the opinion that Israel would launch a preemptive attack against Syria’s ally Russia, taking out the Russian airfield in Latakia, Syria or those Russian vessels docked in Tartus, Syria or sailing in the eastern Mediterranean.

It’s not like Israel hasn’t attacked ships or aircraft from other nations in the past.

The USS Liberty incident stands as proof of Israel’s willingness to attack foreign vessels that might be in a position to attack Israel, regardless of how unlikely an attack may be.

The USS Liberty was a U.S. Navy supply and communications ship of no significant size nor capability, a WWII relic that posed no real threat to Israel. Yet, because it appeared in the sea during a time of conflict between Israel and Egypt, it was neutralized by a combined force of Israeli fighter jets, fighter bomber jets, and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967, because in the opinion of the relevant Israeli military commanders, the Liberty represented a threat.

If you’re of the opinion that Israel won’t act against something they perceive as a threat, then history says you’re wrong.

The opinions of observers who say there’s no threat to Israel posed by the Russian airbase, or of increased Russian Navy activity in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, or of increased Russian troop numbers in Syria, are irrelevant.

The only relevant opinions are those who press bomb-release buttons in Israeli bomber-jets.

2. The U.S. vs. Russia inside Syrian territory

As recently as Friday, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Mr. Sergei Lavrov, asked the U.S. to cooperate with Russia in Syria, saying on Friday that “we are always in favour of military people talking to each other in a professional way” as one-military-to-another operating in the same country it is “important for the avoidance of undesired, unintended incidents”.

Russia called on Friday for military-to-military cooperation with the United States to avert “unintended incidents” as it stages navy exercises off the coast of Syria, where U.S. officials believe Moscow is building up forces to protect President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States is using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State, and a greater Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield.

John Kerry the U.S. Secretary of State said, “We would welcome constructive efforts by Russia against ISIS, but that cannot be a function of continued support to the Assad regime. The most productive thing that they can do is to stop aiding the Assad regime.” — Reuters

3. The U.S. and Israel vs. Syria and Russia inside Syrian territory

Only a few dedicated think-tank fellows are missing sleep over that one.

But in a war zone, events happen in seconds and then the politicians race to catch up with what has happened during the night.

It’s at least conceivable that the U.S. or Israel decide to show their colours to Syria or Russia and a number of fighter jets are shot down in less than a minute — even before a telephone call can be placed between the various politicians to resolve the issue, and by then the initial attack and the guaranteed-to-be-devastating-counter-attack is already over.

A parallel situation could occur at sea with any number of ships being attacked and counterattacking within seconds of the first shot being fired.

Many ships could be sunk in the space of 15 minutes (which is about the same amount of time it takes to properly brief a decision-maker/politician) on the many events that are occurring simultaneously.

If there aren’t clear communication links between the various forces fighting ISIS in Syria, and if each group follows different rules of engagement, it’s a recipe for disaster

If the ultimate goal is ‘a world war over Syria’ we’re running headlong towards it.

It’s an insult to the intelligence of people everywhere that any nation would refuse to participate in and abide by the standard communications and rules of conduct in conflict zones, especially when so much is at stake.

Secretary of State for the United States, John Kerry, and his State Department spokesman John Kirby, risk far too much for too little. Risking a wider conflict in an attempt to belittle the Russians is feckless at best and criminally irresponsible at worst.

Without a proper communications plan, there’s no doubt that an incident between the various military units operating in Syria will occur at some point.

Lives will be lost. Of that, there’s no doubt. Citizens of one or more countries will become enraged and demand a response, and consequently the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about (a.k.a. the so-called war economy) will be back to full production again!

An astonishing lack of diplomacy enabled the Syrian crisis to occur and now we’re willfully blocking standard communication plans. What next?

Let us hope that superior minds overturn this seemingly deliberate march towards conflict between superpower U.S.A. (perhaps with Israeli involvement) on the one hand, vs. Syria and Russia (a former superpower but still extremely powerful) with Iran and China assisting.

It’s the worst B-movie script that I’ve seen. And we’re on course towards catastrophe if the present script is allowed to continue…

Related Articles:

Syria: Can the ‘New Coalition’ Win Against ISIS without Syria and Iran?

Syria: Can the ‘New Coalition’ Win Against ISIS without Syria and Iran? | 15/09/14
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

‘Elusive at best’ might be the proper terminology to describe the chances of winning against ISIS without the cooperation of Syria and Iran.

Think about it for a minute. If WE don’t make friendly with the Syrian leadership and the Iranian leadership, then perhaps ISIS will.

If you look at a map of the region you will see that both Syria and Iran border Iraq, both have large populations, both are almost 100% Muslim nations and both have trust issues with the West that go back decades.

Not only that, but both Syria and Iran do billions of dollars of business with Russia every year. And, therein lies the story.

Caspian Sea region. Image by Harvard University

Caspian Sea region. Image by Harvard University


The Syrian port of Tartus hosts a Russian Navy facility (Tartus port). During the Cold War it was a massive base which you can still see today as you fly into Tartus. Many former Russian citizens live in Tartus and many Russian sailors lived with their families their entire navy careers. Except when they were at sea, or called to Russia for training, some Russian sailors had never been anywhere else in their young lives (back in the 1980’s when that base was going full tilt). Russia’s Mediterranean fleet operated out of that base and it was also the refueling base for the Black Sea fleet. Inside the sprawling Syrian federal government buildings in Tartus all the signs were written in Arabic and Russian, for obvious reasons.

When I was there a couple of decades ago, a Russian officer told me that 100,000 Russians lived in Tartus and that they easily outnumbered the Syrians, although most of them give up their Russian citizenship to become Syrians at the end of their Russian Navy career. Some of them take on Arabic-sounding names to better blend in. I verified that with at least one taxi driver and with the concierge at my hotel. It certainly seemed like it could have been true at the time. Retired Russian Navy personnel often worked as Tartus traffic cops — apparently, that’s the job to have. Nice weather, and at the end of your working life, two pensions — one from the Russian Navy and one from the Tartus police. Not a bad post-Russian Navy gig for those Russians who don’t want to move back to 8 months of bitter cold every year.

Tartus port, Syria

These days, “Officially” the Russian Navy base at Tartus, Syria is closed — or only has an official staff of 20-50 people. It depends upon whom you ask. As recently as 2012 however, Russia spent millions to dredge the Tartus harbour to allow its largest military ships to enter the port and Russian aircraft carriers and other capital ships have docked there since the dredging operations completed. Image courtesy of Google.


Iran shares a peaceful maritime border with Russia which goes back centuries. The newest Iranian nuclear power plants are of Russian design, the Russians built them with Iranian labourers for the non-technical parts and all the spent nuclear fuel is required to be returned to Russia for disposal. In fact, the Iranian’s don’t get their new nuclear fuel rods until all of the returned spent fuel is carefully weighed and examined, so that the Russians can account for every gram of nuclear material that goes into or out of Iran. (Russia has this arrangement with other countries too)

Iran Update:

As of September 15, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Iran to discuss the building of 8 new Russian nuclear power plants with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss oil-for-nuclear-power-plants in this AP photo from September 12, 2014.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss Oil-for-Power policy during the SCO conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. RIA Novosti/AP photo dated September 12, 2014

Sometimes it isn’t all about you — or who you want on your team — it’s about preventing the other team from signing them

Unless you want them playing against you. Does everyone get that? You may not like a certain all-star NFL player and you may not want him on your team, but do you really want to get flattened by that guy every couple of weeks? Say a guy who would be the size of the great ‘Refrigerator Perry’ of Chicago Bears fame.

“Uh, welcome to the team, Mr. Perry. Take my seat!” — See what I mean? SO MUCH BETTER than getting flattened, and the food is better at home anyway. Even though some people claim that they like hospital food. Whatever.

If we don’t work it out with the Syrians and the Iranians, then the Russians will. Do we really want to drive the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians together to the point where they feel compelled to team-up to offer mutual aid to each other? Is that in our best interest?

That’s simply not in the West’s best interests and we have to find a way past it. That’s what diplomacy is all about and Western diplomats are supposed to be the best. Well, let’s see it then!

If the United States feels that it must not back down from its stance on the Iranian nuclear power file, that’s almost understandable. The Iranian nuclear ‘problem’ represents a low or non-existent risk to the Western world for the next 10 years — while clearly, ISIS represents a clear and present danger to the West over the next 10 years (if they’re not dealt with now) which means it’s time for the West to re-prioritize.

If America doesn’t feel comfortable with it, then surely some of the well-known European diplomats could assiduously work to craft an agreement between Iran and the Europeans, that would eventually become detrimental to ISIS. Even securing landing and refueling rights within Iran for Western aircraft delivering aid to Kurdistan (for example) would be a start. Similar could be done by the Europeans with regards to Syria — maybe landing rights aren’t the issue, but the ability to overfly parts of Syria is the issue. Or something like that. We have to start somewhere as the present situation will increasingly work in favour of ISIS, Syria, Iran, and Russia — and not the coalition.

For now, we’re off to a great start to tackle ISIS, but two of the major countries in the region aren’t coalition members. And that does not portend a successful outcome.

But Russia thanks us for our efforts to drive Syria and Iran even further into the Russian orbit.

ISIS: The difference between War and Counter-terrorism

ISIS: The difference between war and counter-terrorism | 14/09/14
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Scene at the Signing of the United States constitution.

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy – The Indian Reporter. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When is a War a War?

Due the the language of the United States constitution, the term ‘war’ as it pertains to the U.S. launching a war, is a legal one where the President has the ability to declare war on another country and his only obligation going forward is that he must formally notify Congress within 30 days of declaring war. Officially it is Congress that declares war, just for the record. The President is the one who makes the decision to go to war and who initiates the U.S. military action.

Oh, and Congress must approve – or it’s instantly over

Congress then has the power to order the troops home and becomes responsible for all that happens in that afterwards.

Commonly, a President has many meetings with different members of Congress leading up to a declaration of war and it’s no surprise to that august body when they receive the official notification that the United States is already at war.

The legal definition of war, is simply; one country, militarily fighting another country or countries

It could also be an expanded declaration of war against more than one country.

During the Cold War for example, had it suddenly turned into a ‘Hot War’ the United States would have been at war with all the members of the Warsaw Pact nations (and possibly other nations too) not just Russia.

Had we gone to war against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, our #1 Soviet enemy would of course have been Russia, but what it little-known is that Ukraine would have been our #2 Soviet enemy. Funny how things work out. Now Ukraine is our ally and wants to join the EU. Ain’t peace great?

Anyway, the President is the only one who can declare war. Congress must approve it within 30 days

The language is very clear. It must be a country that the United States is declaring war against, the President must inform Congress within 30 days — and then a majority of Congressmen/women must approve the war.

Nowhere in the constitution does it say that the U.S. President can declare war on an organization such as ISIS, Al Qaida, or a corporation with evil intent (think James Bond’s Zorin Industries in ‘A View to a Kill’) the President has only the authority to declare war on a country or a group of countries.

Until the constitution is changed

But nobody is talking about that.

Some people have said that President Obama ‘must declare war’ against ISIS and Al Qaida. That cannot be done under the U.S. constitution.

Counter-terrorism operations vs. War

In this, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is quite correct when he calls the action against ISIS a ‘counter-terrorism’ action. It’s not a war. ISIS is not a country. As a former US Navy Lieutenant, John Kerry could probably still recite from memory the part of the constitution pursuant to US military involvement as directed by the U.S. Commander in Chief. When he says that this is not a war, you can trust him, it’s not a war. That covers the United States military aspect.

Which leaves the President the option of using the CIA to carry out the wishes of the President. Unlike the U.S. Defense Department, the CIA works directly for the President of the United States. However, there are some legal requirements here too. The President must write out a ‘security certificate’ which is a numbered document (commonly called a Presidential finding) authorizing a certain action or outcome, or potential actions/outcomes.

Although the order may be given to CIA over the phone for instance, a quick follow-up with the written finding must soon appear and it has been informally termed the CYA document (Cover Your A$$ document) in past years. But it also works to cover the President too in the case of field operatives who potentially at least, could get carried away (‘running away with the op’) and cause the President some amount of embarrassment.

Depending on the scope of the operation, the CIA senior staff may then requisition equipment, pilots, fighter jets, ships, etc. from the U.S. military as required and in order to carry out the President’s instructions.

All of this can happen in seconds with modern communications. A U.S. military pilot could be flying a sortie or returning to base from a training exercise one minute, and then be redirected instantly and under the authority of the President (via CIA forward air controllers) anywhere in the world.

Even though the pilot, in both cases is working for the Commander in Chief, in one case he is flying for the U.S. military and is bound by one set of rules and protocols, and seconds later is flying for the CIA with a different set of rules and protocols. (This means that the rules of engagement may be different)

In an undeclared war situation, if you’re dropping bombs on people, you better hope that somebody, somewhere, in CIA, has a signed Presidential finding covering your, ahem, sortie, or (under Geneva Conventions rules that military members of all nations must adhere to) you could find yourself in very deep trouble. That’s International Criminal Court (ICC) kind of trouble.

In a declared war situation, there are no legal problems for a U.S. military pilot. The President has declared war, and the Congress will or already has, approved it. Even if Congress later denies the application, the pilot is still covered as it is in the President’s mandate to declare war, even if that declaration is later rescinded.

To go on the offensive against ISIS which is clearly an organization and not a country, at this point (although it does have a future goal of becoming one, hence the recent name-change to ‘Islamic State’) cannot legally be done using the U.S. military. This has been and will continue to be, a CIA counter-terror operation (or more properly, a series of counter-terror operations) under the direction of the President of the United States.

And just to keep things in their proper perspective; “There is no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the United States and there is no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States – full stop.”Matthew Olson, outgoing head of the National Counterterrorism Center

People who call talk shows asking the President to ‘just declare war on ISIS’ haven’t read the constitution. ISIS is not a country, it’s an organization, and as such, the President cannot declare war on it.

But he can mount as many counter-terrorism operations against it as he likes — until it begins to look like a war.

Then, conceivably, the Congress could call the President to testify under oath, how it is that he is not conducting a war.

Of such stuff were the Iran-Contra hearings made. (And other quasi-military actions/Congressional hearings in decades long since past)

Almost everyone agrees that the West needs to deal with ISIS the organization, now. But in these cases a President has a lot on the line and it’s completely understandable that he has exercised caution.

It would be so much easier to let things roll forward until ISIS really is it’s own country (the ‘Islamic state’ as an actual nation-state) and then deal with them in the conventional war sense if they step out of line and commit acts of terror. But a lot could happen in the meantime. Leaving the situation to drift is too risky.

Other nations don’t have the U.S. constitution to follow and can invade Iraq to hunt and kill ISIS fighters all day long with no thought of impeachment, nor of having to answer to Congress ‘for waging a war that you say is not a war but looks an awful lot like a war.’

President Obama has proceeded very prudently along this timeline, neither; 1) committing the U.S. military under false pretenses, nor; 2) under the aegis of CIA, ordering too many attacks or highly intensive activities (which would make it look like a war) against the ISIS organization.

The right course and the legal course is the one that President Obama is on. Signing a weekly Presidential finding to hit certain and known blocks of terrorists, and sending military or paramilitary advisors (under the control of CIA) to Iraq to advise the government of Iraq and the Kurdish provincial leaders on how to best fight ISIS and related groups, sends the right message to ISIS and our allies, and significantly, is the most legal course of action available at this time.

As more allies join this movement to disrupt and contain ISIS, particularly Middle Eastern members of the now-forming coalition, more advisors can be sent to the region and few, but effective, U.S. counter-terror operations can be mounted against the ISIS organization.

Many U.S Presidents have said this in different ways; “The United States is a country of laws.”

President Obama is setting a fine example, and so far has resisted the urgent calls to ‘declare war’ on ISIS — something the U.S. constitution does not give him nor the Congress the power to do anyway — at least until the day ISIS becomes a legally recognized country.

Mounting few, but effective, counter-terror operations against the ISIS entity is fine. Coordinating with allies in a coalition against terror is fine. Assisting coalition members in the counter-terrorism role by supplying any reasonable number of (CIA) paramilitary advisors is fine.

Which is exactly what President Obama has been doing all along.