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Assad’s Deadman Switch

Russia has saved the world from loose WMD before; in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia arranged the Lisbon Protocols with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to systematically destroy or return massive nuclear stockpiles. If only Syria had the stability of post-Soviet chaos. If the Syrian “Lisbon Protocol” fails and the regime collapses, the presence of WMD is a guarantor of intervention, most likely by the US.

Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let's say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.
Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let’s say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.

The Russian arrangement is not yet official and may be Assad’s play for time. The chemical weapons are potentially more powerful against the US than rebels. Likely, a reality causing Secretaries Kerry and Hagel to eschew the term “regime change” is that the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) to the US increases as Assad teeters. Though rightfully loathed, Assad and his men secure their CW and have so far resisted handing party favors to associates.

As the regime crumbles, CW facilities may find themselves overwhelmed or guards shifted to critical fronts, doors open to terrorists or unscrupulous brokers.  Though some argue we do not have a dog in Syria’s fight, a whole henhouse is under threat if those dogs break loose. There are only three likely solutions if a Russian deal fails:

  1. "Kill yourself" is my final offer.
    This can work for both of us. “Kill yourself,” is my final offer.
    Can you work with, "Go to hell"?
    We understand your position. Meet us halfway at, “die and go to hell.”

    Political Agreement: If only all parties could agree to a two-part plan to stop murdering one another and share power. Guards stay on post, conflict ends, and world moves on after the noble work of aiding refugees. The rump of Assad’s regime keeps its pulse and constant pressure to the switch. Unfortunately, with parties whose non-negotiable point is that the opponent “die”, and multiple Al-Qaeda (AQ) militias, this seems nigh impossible.

  2. Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have machiavelli and a hand cannon?
    Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have Machiavelli and a hand cannon?

    Russian Military Operations: Russia is a big fan of Syria. Russia has a naval presence in the country and a large portion legitimacy and energy policy invested in the management of the regime. Russia would like to keep Syria’s CW from groups connected to their own domestic extremistss. Most cynically, with very public domestic problems, military operations to save the world from CW seem a likely move for President Putin. In the words of Orwell, “War is Peace.”

    Russia has particular advantages in their contact with Assad’s regime. They likely could access exact locations for the regime’s CW in a pinch. The world has no high standard for Russian intervention, so a sting operation to grab or destroy the vast stores of CW without any follow-on reconstruction would not be shocking to the global community. This also serves as a guise for direct military support for regime survival.

    That said, Russia has managed the Syria narrative well and knows the US could not abide Assad’s weapons falling to extremists. Russia has enjoyed the umbrella of security provided by primarily US operations against extremists in the Middle East and likely has no desire to get bogged down or gain unwanted attentions. Russia is still just “a” rather than “the” “Great Satan.” It would likely leave the mess to the final and least pleasant option:

  1. It's getting very... VERY old.
    It’s getting very… VERY old.

    American Intervention: In a conflict with too many “thems” and not enough “us’s”, the fog of Syria’s war is thick. Unfortunately, nothing is unclear about the peril of loose CW or the peril of a necessary US military response.

    Boots: The number and location of all weapon sites remains a mystery, requiring resources spent in the search phase of “seek and destroy” operations. The time or scale necessary also removes the critical element of surprise. A lengthy chain of smaller operations warns enemies to secure weapons at un-sanitized sites while they still can. A massive simultaneous operation would strain an already creaking military budget and drop the US fully into the war, leaving the US in control of large swaths of territory and people it  could not just leave to extremists.

    Strikes: Dead suffocated civilians, lack of verification, and PR for terrorists lies at the end of an aerial campaign. Though the US has invested in weapons that can neutralize chemical weapon stockpiles, most leave a large margin of error or have almost as toxic byproducts. The explicit refusal to consider striking Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles should be evidence enough of the unsavoriness of such an operation.

    Unfortunately, loose CW is not an option in a war-torn hellscape crawling with groups who have plotted against US interests and citizens for over two decades.

Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.
Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.

Though an embarrassing stolen march, the Russian deal is the US’s best chance is to avoid Syria. Nonetheless, US policymakers must plan for the worst while stumbling upon the best. The US must accept the real-world possibility of Assad’s collapse and subsequent unlocking of Pandora’s Chemical Box; many rightly desire to have nothing to do with the conflict, but while we may not be interested in Syria, Syria is very interested in us.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Syria: Lord of the Flies

“The rules!” shouted Ralph. “You’re breaking the rules!”

   “Who cares?”

   Ralph summoned his wits.

   “Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!”

   But Jack was shouting against him.

   “Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong-we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! Well close in and beat and beat and beat-!”

   He gave a wild whoop and leapt down to the pale sand. At once the platform was full of noise and excitement, scramblings, screams and laughter. The assembly shredded away and became a discursive and random scatter from the palms to the water and away along the beach, beyond night-sight. Ralph found his cheek touching the conch and took it from Piggy.

   “What’s grownups going to say?” cried Piggy again. “Look at ‘em!”

   The sound of mock hunting, hysterical laughter and real terror came from the beach.

   “Blow the conch, Ralph.”

   Piggy was so close that Ralph could see the glint of his one glass.

   “There’s the fire. Can’t they see?”

   “You got to be tough now. Make ‘em do what you want.”

   Ralph answered in the cautious voice of one who rehearses a theorem.

   “If I blow the conch and they don’t come back; then we’ve had it. We shan’t keep the fire going. We’ll be like animals. We’ll never be rescued.”

From the Suez Crisis to Libya, the United States has held the Conch. Whether America has been early or late, right or wrong, both enemy and ally have heeded America’s call to tend to the fires of security, stability, and justice. Syria has indeed broken the rules and run off in a fit of mayhem. However, we should be wary of blowing the Conch in Syria if we are unwilling to exceed half-steps; we risk undermining our own military/political credibility and revealing the thinning nature of our global leadership.

Fire for Effect

lordoftheflies61If the Conch is to have any authority, it must have a very clear effect. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph knows well that if the Conch is blown and no one comes, it loses its authority.

When asked by Senator Robert Corker (R-Tenn) what our military operations were seeking, the answer from General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) was also that of the at-large observers of U.S. policy: “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.” To be fair to the CJCS, at multiple points he, DoD Secretary Chuck Hagel, and DoS Secretary John Kerry state that the U.S.’s goal is to degrade and deter the Assad regime’s ability to deploy chemical weapons. That said, there was a continuing disconnect between the stated goal of overall U.S. strategy and the stated goal of the strikes and a disconcerting attempt to disconnect the two. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) brought up, and was affirmed by Secretary Kerry, that the administration’s overall goal is aiding the opposition. However, it was clearly noted that the strikes were to be separated from that goal; “The action, if it is authorized… that the consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity” (Secretary Kerry) but not in such a way as to significantly shift the balance of the conflict. That conflict being Assad’s main concern, if we don’t mount a larger threat than the opposition, the conch becomes mere background noise.

It is a confusing and round-about series of objectives we are laying out for ourselves, talking about “tailored” strikes in a very un-tailored conflict towards goals disassociated with the main thrust of U.S. policy towards targets not directly associated with the WMD operations we’re concerned about. Overall, the entire enterprise seems to be a muddle. The U.S. will likely avoid striking the actual chemical weapons because of concerns that we’ll inadvertently release those weapons into populated areas where depots are located. The way the plan is beginning to shape up to the public, the best way to describe it is a story about Milton Friedman…

“At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

-Stephen Moore’s Missing Milton: Who Will Speak for Free Markets?

A middle policy consisting of operations meant to “shake things up” or in the words of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), “not win” is a waste. It shows that those who use WMD need only survive a tepid response. We have no room for an action program, only results.The US has two real options:

1. Blow Conch, Beat Jack to a Pulp: Commit to a robust response to severely degrade the Assad’s regime’s ability to conduct the war against the opposition, in such a way that the US’s increased involvement is clearly the result of Assad’s WMD use. This is a clear sign to the regime, and to the world, that use of WMD will have severe consequences with severe impacts. It does embroil us further into the conflict and may aid parties we do not wish, but at the very least it has the stated effect of setting a global precedent that use of WMD will not be accepted and will have consequences of consequence.

2. No Strikes, Just Save the Survivors: It’s guilt-inducing and feels unsatisfactory but the conflict is too big and too messy for half measures that might feel judicious. If Assad walks away from a military strike by the world’s last remaining superpower with the continued ability to survive the onslaught of a legion of rebels, how much weaker does the US appear? The world recognizes that both sides are corrupted in the extreme in Syria, and a failure to act against internal use of chemical weapons in a conflict already defined by endless atrocity and will likely not encourage nations to develop WMD as some administration strategists suggest. The Assad regime already found itself looking down a smoking barrel of sanctions and isolation. With pre-existance serving as the only precedent that saves Assad from a strike for merely having weapons, his battle with the US’s enemies serves as his only defense now. No nation would want to pay that protection fee for chemical weapon employment, namely turning their borders into the walls of a blood-soaked charnal house. In that particular case, there is a sad, but real difference set by the precedent by internal atrocities in a no-good-side civil war and the use of chemical weapons on foreign states. The best help the US can provide is to serve in every way it can to aid who have left Syria and those trying to leave.

Saving Grace?

Lord of the Flies ended in death and disaster, as a conflict spiraled wildly out of control. I’ve before voiced my grave concern at the idea of getting involved in Syria, based on the fact there is virtually nothing left of the original moderate “just looking to go to work without getting shot or sent to a secret prison” crowd of normal righteously angry people. During the hearing, Secretary Kerry said:

The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.

And General Dempsey followed with:

Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular. It’s — it’s our judgment that — and the judgment of our good friends who actually know a lot of this in many ways better than we do because it’s their region, their neighborhood — I’m talking about the Saudis, the Emirates, the Qataris, the Turks, the Jordanians — they all believe that if you could have a fairly rapid transition, the secular component of Syria will re-emerge

It’s doubtful the political landscape has changed significantly since AQ funding and foreign fighters began overwhelming reasonable agendas and arsenals, but what a blessing it would be if it has. In the words of General Patton, “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” Syria still feels like the latter.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Welcome to International Maritime Shipping Week

ContainersYou’re reading this on a screen made in Malaysia, connected to a hard-drive made in Taiwan, supported by a bevy of parts made in China. Sitting here in Bahrain, I’m eating Pistachios grown in California on a ship with British diesels with other like ships brought here on even bigger ships. We take for granted the virtue of global shipping and the ease with which international trade is now executed over the high seas.

Yet as the more nuanced critics of globalization have long pointed out, a network is not inherently good or evil, rather it merely more rapidly facilitates the intent of those that use it. The roads of the Incan Empire not only served to streamline the administration of their realm, but also hasten their destruction. While international shipping has far more check-valves than an open road, and we need not worry about Pizarro’s men pouring out in Seattle’s ports to storm the town hall, we should consider how this intricate seaborne network might cause us harm: from the vulnerabilities of relying on seaborne trade to the instability caused by illicit weapons proliferation to the use of commercial vessels as Trojan horses.

This week, we take a moment away from our Amazon, Best Buy, and Home Depot bounties to consider the defenses necessary to prevent this seaborne boon from becoming a curse. Click here to see the International Maritime Shipping Week contributor line-up.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Hagel’s Sequestration Speech: A Warning, Not a Plan

There is no other hand...
There is no other hand…

Before his appointment as U.S. Secretary of Defense, concerns existed that Chuck Hagel was a proponent of the massive cuts envisioned for the DoD as part of Sequestration. With his Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) (31/07/13), the Secretary has made it very clear that he is no bedfellow of austerity.

Followers of security policy have already drawn out two possible paths from the Secretary’s words. However, the real thrust of the speech was that these were not options, as he sums up in his closing:

The inescapable conclusion is that letting sequester-level cuts persist would be a huge strategic miscalculation that would not be in our country’s best interests…


It is the responsibility of our nation’s leaders to work together to replace the mindless and irresponsible policy of sequestration.  It is unworthy of the service and sacrifice of our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  And even as we confront tough fiscal realities, our decisions must always be worthy of the sacrifices we ask America’s sons and daughters to make for our country.”

At multiple points within his piece, the Secretary reiterates that Sequestration cuts are not only damaging, but roughly impossible:

The review showed that the “in-between” budget scenario we evaluated would “bend” our defense strategy in important ways, and sequester-level cuts would “break” some parts of the strategy, no matter how the cuts were made.  Under sequester-level cuts, our military options and flexibility will be severely constrained…


Unlike the private sector, the federal government, and the Defense Department in particular – simply does not have the option of quickly shutting down excess facilities, eliminating entire organizations and operations, or shutting massive numbers of employees – at least not in a responsible, moral, and legal way…


In closing, one of the most striking conclusions of the Strategic Choices and Management Review is that if DoD combines all the reductions I’ve described, including significant cuts to the military’s size and capability – the savings fall well short of meeting sequester-level cuts, particularly during the first five years of these steep, decade-long reductions.”

That is to say, even if we break the back of our armed forces, we still fall short of the required austerity. The original intent of Sequestration, as an “impossible scenario,” is unfortunately coming to pass – not in possibility but in functionality.

The reality is that the real portion from which the cuts must come is the compensation that consumes “roughly half of the DoD budget,” but even then…

The efficiencies in compensation reforms identified in the review – even the most aggressive changes – still leave DoD some $350 billion to $400 billion short of the $500 billion in cuts required by sequestration over the next ten years.  The review had to take a hard look at changes to our force structure and modernization plans.”

The most worrisome reality check laid down by the Secretary is that if Sequestration is not rescinded for DoD, the reforms suggested will require the agreement of a recalcitrant Congress that was more than willing to execute Sequestration, but unwilling to bear the political consequences of the actions they’ve forced. Most likely, that scenario will only lead us deeper down the strategically damaging rabbit-hole:

These shortfalls will be even larger if Congress is unwilling to enact changes to compensation or adopt other management reforms and infrastructure cuts we’ve proposed in our Fiscal Year 2014 budget.  Opposition to these proposals must be engaged and overcome, or we will be forced to take even more draconian steps in the future.”

The Secretary has not, through the SCMR’s response to Sequestration, put down a viable plan for the future. He has set down a warning of what is to come. Let us hope that warning is heeded.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.