Category Archives: Strategy

Arming Ukraine: The Debate

Russia has been fighting a war on Ukrainian soil since its “little green men” took over the Parliamentary building in Crimea in February 2014. The ongoing conflict, triggered by the flight of the Russia-backed President of Ukraine, has been very costly in human terms. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimated in a 2016 report that approximately 16,000 people have been killed or injured and around 2.8 million displaced by the fighting that continues despite two ceasefire agreements (Minsk I and Minsk II).

Even if the Minsk agreements are fulfilled, Ukraine will continually be at risk of Russian invasion. Kiev has very little control over its 1200-mile border with Russia and after years of neglect of its armed forces, Ukraine is at a great disadvantage relative to its large and well-armed neighbor. Clearly ignoring its previous commitments, Russia continues using its proxies to destabilize Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and to maintain a corridor to Crimea.

Ukraine
Wearing no insignia, a Russian soldier stands guard in front of the Parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo credit: Reuters via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/03/02/article-2571301-1BEE383000000578-462_634x419.jpg

In response, the United States and NATO have committed more than $600 million in non-lethal security assistance to Ukraine. This assistance includes training, advice for defense reform, and, according to the White House, defensive systems such as “counter-artillery radars, secure communications, training aids, logistics infrastructure, information technology, tactical UAVs, and medical equipment”. NATO provides advisory support, defense reform assistance, defense education, demining operations, and explosive ordnance disposal, and has created five trust funds to support Ukrainian defense. In addition, the US and Ukraine conduct two joint military exercises each year: SEA BREEZE and RAPID TRIDENT.

Russia’s actions and the collective response to it have led to a vigorous debate in western capitals about whether to respond by arming Ukraine. In 2015, citing an increase in ceasefire violations, a conglomerate of authors from three prominent US think tanks issued a report calling for the US to supply Ukraine with light anti-armor missiles and to give Ukraine three tranches of $1 billion in military assistance in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Obama Administration, along with leaders of France, the UK, and Germany, opposed this course of action, but the apparent failure of non-lethal western aid to end the fighting is reenergizing some in the US Government to call for lethal assistance.

The Cost of Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Arguments in favor of arming Ukraine with defensive/offensive weapons emphasize security guarantees for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Despite a Russian tendency to probe the international community for resistance before making risky decisions, the underwhelming response by the US and EU to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 set a precedent in which the West settled for a frozen conflict. Proponents of arming Ukraine contend the West needs to send Moscow a clearer message about its involvement in former Soviet republics and the near abroad, a region Putin deems is his area of influence.

Additionally, Russia has been a participant in acts of war as well superficial attempts at peacemaking in Ukraine. Over the last three years Russia brokered ceasefires in conflicts to which it is a party and then violated those agreements for political purposes. This duplicity undermines international rules and norms and amplifies the security dilemma with many post-Soviet and Eastern European countries.

To those in favor of arming Ukraine, sanctions seem an ineffective way to alter Putin’s behavior despite a Russian economy in decline from falling oil prices. Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, one of only two warm water ports to which it has access, is strategically significant due to the presence of untapped oil and gas reserves off the coast. Russia has already illegally taken control of Crimean oil rigs and Putin may believe he needs a “land bridge” to the peninsula that would traverse East Ukraine through Mariupol. Lastly, Russia relies on defense manufacturing in the region that was once part of the Soviet Union’s sprawling defense sector.

Crimea Annex
Following the February 2014 invasion, Russian troops occupy the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. Photo credit: http://www.vox.com/2014/4/8/5590378/a-russian-invasion-of-eastern-ukraine-just-got-more-likely-heres-why

To many, the arming of Ukraine is a logical next step in trying to force Putin to resolve the issue diplomatically. French and German leaders made numerous unsuccessful attempts to obtain a ceasefire and an agreement to end the conflict while the Americans brought violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to the UN Security Council as required by the Budapest Memorandum. Despite this, militants in East Ukraine have denied access to, threatened, and even fired upon OSCE observers. This blatant aggression seems to confirm the notion that Putin only understands force. Some observers cite recent research suggesting Russia uses tactics of bluster for political purposes and avoids risk in foreign policy endeavors. Western assistance through lethal defensive weapons could increase the risk level for Russia and help to call Putin’s bluff.

A History of Tepid Solutions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the UK and France oppose the idea of arming Ukraine. They note the importance of maintaining a coordinated response to Russian aggression to give validity and legitimacy to the West’s Russia policy. However, there will be difficulty obtaining consensus among all 28 EU member countries. Sanctions are a historical point of contention for economic reasons and because some countries are more reliant on supplies of Russian gas than others. Furthermore, arming Ukraine could prompt Putin to escalate the conflict, giving him a pretext for sending Russian troops overtly into Eastern Ukraine in much the same way he invaded Georgia in 2008. These points aside, if any further escalation by Russia is not dealt with forcefully by the US and EU, it would be a blow to western credibility and invite further Russian aggression.

The state of the defense sector presents a vulnerability for Russian aggression and an important opportunity for further western defense assistance. In 2016, the Poroshenko administration created a comprehensive plan for reforms based on detailed Rand Corporation recommendations for restructuring and strengthening the security and defense sector. Also in 2016, a former director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) became a special advisor to Ukrainian defense company, Ukroboronprom, for long-term development. While the industry is beginning to modernize and restructure, it remains relatively dilapidated with a distant prospect for tangible progress. The restructure of the Defense Ministry and General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for instance, will not likely be completed prior to 2018.

Strengthening the Western Stance

The US and EU must determine realistic objectives for their actions. Bellingcat, an open source analytical organization that uses satellite imagery in investigating war zones, recently issued a report detailing what they purport to be evidence of cross-border shelling by the Russian government against Ukraine in 2014. Despite this, the West continues to accept the Russian argument that it does not need to be a signatory to ceasefire agreements or be held accountable for violating them. This charade is symbolic and useless at best; flippant and insulting to the West at worst.

Arming Ukraine with defensive weapons, a continuation of US policy under the Obama administration, seems to be the most prudent decision vis-à-vis Russia’s actions and the current state of Ukraine’s defense sector. However, for Ukraine’s long-term viability it may make more sense for the West to promote Ukrainian defense by advising and supporting the restructuring of its defense industry. Still, it is not enough. Aggressive and determined Russian actions in Ukraine require a definitive US strategy and better coordination with Europe, both of which are currently lacking. Until the West can settle the debate about how best to arm Ukraine, the fighting will continue on Russian terms.


Heather Regnault is a Ph.D. Student in International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology with experience in Kyiv, Ukraine. This article in no way represents the views of Georgia Institute of Technology, or the Faculty of the Department of International Affairs.

The Gate: Standoff Against Daesh

A quick look at the military situation in Syria reveals – even to the most casual observer – that al-Bab is an important place. The northeastern-most outpost of the crumbling Islamic State, al-Bab – Arabic for “the Gate” – is the literal and figurative gateway to the Daesh capital, Raqqa, and the lynchpin in the ongoing strategic struggle in Syria. Located just 25 km from besieged eastern Aleppo, the small town is surrounded on three sides by enemies of Daesh. The Russian-supported Syrian regime, the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), and the Turkish Army are all within artillery range of al-Bab and all have conflicting reasons to covet its control.

Though this seems a dire tactical situation for the defenders, mutual strategic hostility between Daesh’s enemies keeps them from acting decisively in al-Bab. The Assad Regime is at the limit of its capabilities, even with Russian support. Turkey, despite the massive superiority its Army enjoys in the region, is wary of pushing too far into Syria lest it trigger a defensive response from Assad. Lastly, the SDF, which has advanced west in a thin strip along the Turkish border from Hassakeh to beyond Manbij, believes al-Bab is perhaps a bridge too far. Seizing it could trigger a Turkish assault, possibly bringing its military into direct conflict with Russian forces for a second time since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter in November 2015. No one, not even the Kurds, thinks this tiny town of 2.5 square kilometers is worth a world war.

the-gate
The strategic centrality of al-Bab: “The Gate”.   Source: www.syriancivilwar.com

America in the Middle

The United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In northern Syria, this means Washington has to negotiate its way through the opposing objectives of its Turkish and Kurdish allies. The ultimate Kurdish aim is to unite its northern cantons into a contiguous state they call “Rojava.” An SDF seizure of al-Bab is a big step in that direction and could favorably influence the decision in Aleppo in a way that makes Rojava more likely. For this reason, some believe Ankara is withholding support for breaking the siege of Aleppo until the SDF withdraws east of the Euphrates River.

Believing Raqqa to be the Daesh center-of-gravity, the United States pushes its Kurdish allies to seize that city instead of al-Bab. Though the SDF is the only force capable of doing so, it is not clear how they would benefit from control of the Daesh capital. The city is overwhelmingly Sunni and would not welcome Kurdish rule. More importantly, Raqqa is out of the way and an assault on it would require SDF formations to turn their backs on their archenemy, Turkey. Though cultivating American support is normally a powerful multiplier, the Kurds have overestimated Washington’s loyalty before and it is increasingly clear the United States lacks influence in northern Syria. The Pentagon has no military options that do not involve the SDF and diplomacy with both Russia and Turkey is ineffective at the moment for reasons that have nothing to do with Syria. Some suggest the Kurds want to use Raqqa as a bargaining chip for other concessions, though none of the other stakeholders are currently in a position to maintain control of the city even if they were to acquire it this way.

Wrath of the Euphrates
SDF Spokeswoman, Jihan Sheik Ahmed, announces commencement of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, the Kurdish-led operation to isolate Raqqa. It is not clear what benefit the SDF will derive from seizing Raqqa.

For its part, Turkey is vehemently opposed to the Rojava that would put Kurdish factions in control of Turkey’s entire southern border from Iran to Idlib. The only way for Turkey to stop further Kurdish advances however is with direct military intervention into neighboring states. Turkey did exactly this on August 24th 2016, when its Army seized Jarabulus on the pretext of ousting Daesh from its border. With this accomplished, the veil is now wearing thin. Turkish units and their proxies are in increasingly frequent and intensifying conflict with the SDF, placing Turkey in the uncomfortable position of fighting an American ally that happens to be the only force actually conducting offensive operations against Daesh in the upper Euphrates valley.

Worse for Turkey, there is mounting evidence its Army is seriously underperforming in the field. The highly centralized decision-making and leadership culture of the Turkish military, a serious weakness under normal circumstances, has been compounded by the ongoing purge of its officer corps. Following the abortive 15 July coup attempt, 38% of Turkey’s generals and admirals, and 8% of other ranks have been jailed or relieved. Those remaining are averse to making any recommendation that may be perceived as disloyal, even at the expense of sound military advice. Though it is unknown how much of their hesitation is self-censorship, officers down to the rank of Major continue to have their careers and livelihoods terminated without warning, even while serving in front line combat roles. This erosion of leadership results in poorly coordinated operations, slow and predictable movements, and an inability to respond effectively to frequent instances of troops in contact. The otherwise well-trained and equipped Turkish Army is losing its tactical engagements and suffering unexpectedly high casualties.

Russia and the Regime

By contrast, the Assad Regime has shown remarkable resilience throughout the terrible Syrian civil war. Though some of its longevity is due to Iranian, and later Russian support, its diplomatic efforts have yielded fruit. Despite systematic violations of human rights and the law of armed conflict, the Regime remains the internationally-recognized government of Syria. Its complex relations with a number of western powers divide the US-led Coalition on the questions of military purpose and Syria’s political future.

Russia’s intervention has also improved Assad’s military situation, though not decisively. The Syrian Army’s stranglehold on Aleppo is tenuous at best and its supply lines from Damascus to Alawite strongholds in the north remain threatened by a kaleidoscopic patchwork of hostile territory around Homs and Hama. The siege of Aleppo is completely dependent upon brutal Russian air power and Turkish restraint of its proxies in the surrounding Governorates, particularly Idlib. Meanwhile in the south and in rural Damascus, the best the Regime can hope to achieve is an economy-of-force operation that might allow it to co-opt one rebellious village at a time.

Still, Damascus – and probably Moscow – will respond vigorously to any Turkish or Kurdish moves on al-Bab. Failing to do so would dangerously weaken the already fragile encirclement of Aleppo and threaten the supply lines of Syrian forces there – the besiegers could become the besieged. Even if the Syrian Army – and the presence of Russian “advisors” – fails to deter a Turkish seizure of al-Bab, Assad still has one more card to play: he is the only one that can deliver success to the Kurds. A Syrian deal with General Masloum’s SDF, granting a contiguous and autonomous Rojava in exchange for flank security for the siege of Aleppo, is a significant deterrent threat to Turkey.

Daesh Standoff

So the game continues to swirl around al-Bab as Daesh waits patiently in the relative comfort of stalemate. With each side holding a trump card over the other, there is no sign the situation will be decided soon, though recent Kurdish moves suggest dialogue is ongoing. On 6 November, SDF spokesmen announced the commencement of the isolation of Raqqa, an operation they call “Wrath of the Euphrates”. Ten days later, in what is widely seen as a US-brokered deal to enable an SDF seizure of Raqqa without Turkish interference, the SDF announced it would withdraw east of the Euphrates, vacating the hard won districts of Qebasin (eastern al-Bab) and Manbij. There is some risk the Kurdish departure will leave a power vacuum to be filled by either the Turkish Army or by a number of competing “military councils” with varying degrees of legitimacy. However, as recently as 22 November, perhaps in recognition of these risks, the SDF was still in control of Manbij and continued to exchange fire with Turkish forces to its west.

The coming months will reveal how all these maneuvers play out. The SDF and its Coalition Special Operations advisors are not yet ready for the final assault on Raqqa. To be successful, Operation Wrath of the Euphrates will require large numbers of Arab fighters currently wary of following a Kurdish general. In this respect, recruiting for the SDF’s Arab component is dependent upon events in Mosul 530 km to the east. A quick decision there will encourage Arabs to turn on Daesh and join General Masloum. By extension, this will affect al-Bab and the siege of Aleppo. For the time being however, the question of al-Bab will remain unanswered as the Kurds march on Raqqa, leaving the Turks to either make good on promises to fight Daesh in earnest or just stay out of the way. In any case, until at least one of the players acts decisively, there will continue to be a strategic standoff at “The Gate”.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He just completed an advisory tour with Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. 

Making Mosul Great Again

The writing is on the wall. In a matter of days, the rejuvenated Iraqi Army will begin its long-awaited assault on Mosul and the political struggle for the soul of northern Iraq will commence. What’s not apparent to many observers is that the military seizure of this ancient city of 1 million people is assured; Mosul will fall. If the capture of Mosul goes “well”, the Government of Iraq will be in a strong position to broker a stable political balance in the north. But if the assault bogs down, all interested parties will begin hedging their bets about the future. Either way, Mosul will fall, and when it does, the divergent interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia will come into play making this historic city the lynchpin in a global struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Strategic Mosul

The 2014 fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forced both Washington and Tehran to make strategic decisions. The Iraqi Army’s defeat in the north left only a thin line of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters between ISIL and the Kurdish capital in Irbil. If ISIL had managed to take Irbil they would have shattered the Kurdish diaspora into four distinct parts, forced its people into exile in Iran and Turkey, and obliterated the federated nature of the modern state of Iraq. With no consensus and no army, Iraq would have been helpless to prevent victorious ISIL formations from moving swiftly down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in a final, decisive assault on Baghdad. There is little doubt that Iran would have intervened to prevent this, a circumstance that would quickly provoke a massive Saudi response leading to state-on-state Shia vs. Sunni warfare.

Strategic Mosul
This map shows what the situation could have been after ISIL seized Mosul in 2014. If ISIL had taken Irbil, the Kurds would have been exiled and Baghdad threatened.

Faced with this abysmal possibility, both the United States and Iran acted quickly. America rushed to rebuild the Iraqi Army and initiated an air war against ISIL that continues to this day. Iran moved to bolster President Assad’s forces in Syria and to mobilize the Shia population in Iraq. Disagreeing with Tehran on the acceptability of the Assad regime but seeking ways to cooperate against ISIL, the Obama Administration made a series of compromises on Iran’s nuclear program. Sensing an opportunity, Russia started its own war in Syria and made good on long delayed deliveries of advanced anti-aircraft systems to Tehran. Freed from American sanctions and safe under the umbrella of Russian top cover, the Iranian mullahs had a green light to continue their nuclear program and intervene openly in both Iraq and Syria.

Ottoman Style

Outmaneuvered and seeking to relieve pressure on Iraq, the United States pushed Kurdish allies in Syria to attack west from their stronghold near the Iraqi border. When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — which Turkey considers the military wing of its mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — crossed the Euphrates river and seized Manbij in August 2016, Turkey responded by invading the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, destroying its ISIL garrison, and threatening the SDF flank. Though militarily insignificant, the seizure of Jarabulus sent a defiant message to the United States that Turkey would not accept a unified Kurdish homeland on its border. The lack of a US policy on the future of the Kurds has continued to paralyze American decision making for months and shapes the scheme of maneuver for the upcoming assault on Mosul.

Having embarked on a policy of direct intervention, Turkey is now exerting itself militarily across the region. President Erdogan, seemingly without consulting his advisors, announced in September that the Turkish Army would take part in any effort to seize ISIL’s capital Raqqah, particularly if that effort involves the SDF. Turkish military involvement would complicate coordination of the operation and vastly increase the risk of fighting between Kurds and Turks during and after the battle. Implementing this would be so difficult that the move seems designed to prevent the battle from ever taking place. Erdogan is now doing much the same with regard to Mosul, threatening to invade Iraq if Shia militias are employed to isolate the city or if the Peshmerga enters its outskirts. Ominously, he makes sectarian arguments to justify his threats.

Power Play

The Russians continue to take advantage of the situation, playing to Erdogan’s narrative of fear and working to patch up a relationship strained by the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. American paralysis and Turkish concerns about the SDF gave Russia and Syria space to abrogate a shaky cessation of hostilities in September, achieving tactical surprise in eastern Aleppo and making a Kurdish move against Raqqah even less likely. At this point, a Kurdish deal with ISIL to protect the SDF southern flank is not hard to imagine; a development that would enrage Turkey and stiffen ISIL’s defense of Mosul. If the Iraqi assault on Mosul bogs down and Russia and Syria manage to achieve a breakthrough in Aleppo at the same time, we could see a general Turkish offensive all along its border from Mosul to Manbij supported in the west by a Syrian seizure of Raqqah. This could isolate the SDF and leave Russia, Turkey, and Iran masters of most of Kurdistan.

The United States is left with few good options. Its hopes for Mosul rely upon the effectiveness of a reconstituted Iraqi Army which is performing miraculously well but will have to operate without help from the Peshmerga that must remain outside the city. The Iraqi Army however, a largely Shia force, is not an ideal tool to control what has long been a Sunni outpost. This lends a great deal of urgency to creation of a more suitable constabulary that can stabilize the great city; what US planners call the “Wide Area Security Force”. Given that some front line Iraqi units are operating below 50% strength due to combat losses, recruitment will be only the first challenge.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is now in tatters. The failed coup in Turkey allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power and resulted in the ongoing purge of the Turkish military. That purge, and the Obama Administration’s refusal to extradite the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, has hamstrung the relationship between the US and Turkish militaries at a time when cooperation against ISIL is at a premium. The crowded airspace over northern Syria and Iraq illustrates how dangerous this disconnect can be: the Turkish Air Force remains off the Coalition’s order of battle and is therefore dangerously uncoordinated. American diplomats, eager to keep Turkey out of the Mosul fight, are limited to leveraging NATO to shape Turkish actions in Iraq; an unlikely and inefficient political approach that in better times would have been easily managed at the military to miliary level.

In the coming days, there will be a convergence of interests in Mosul, the scope of which has not been seen since 750 AD when the Abbasids defeated Marwan II near there, effectively ending the Umayyad dynasty and casting the Muslim world into a cycle of vengeance. To an extent, the fortunes of an army of Iraqi replacements will determine the future stability of Iraq, Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States, and the scope of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Though none could have foreseen the dramatic political events that have brought us to this point, we can all agree that they have made Mosul great again.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC