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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: 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:

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.