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Archive for September, 2013

Syria, Nairobi and More of Your Comments

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Nairobi: Two weeks ago I did not understand why the Al Shabaabs stayed in the mall after their initial attack.  A friend reminded me of the suicide nature of the Mumbai attack.  And, if the stories about renting a store and accumulating a stock of ammunition, bombs, etc. is true, it would look like a well-planned incident designed to get worldwide attention.

What is so effective about Al Shabaab’s recruiting…..Americans, Brits may have been involved in Nairobi……and why are the good guys not putting out equally effective messaging to dissuade potential recruits?

Syria: The two comments below were received over the past two weeks.  See if you can guess when they were written……becomes an interesting commentary on rapidly-changing, dynamic situations.

“If we don’t put Assad at risk, then don’t gamble on the effects of a minor attack—bring charges against him for crimes against humanity/war crimes in the International Criminal Court. This is perhaps an optimal U.S. action as it avoids the uncertainty and negative consequences of an unsanctioned, unilateral act of war, while affirming Assad as the evil pariah that he is.  With this action we could: garner much more international support than a kinetic action; focus on his crime vice our action; avoid entanglement that comes with force application; avoid taking sides in a very complex civil war; set an example that WMD use has consequences that won’t be ignored; and take the moral high ground that US leadership is seeking.”

Dave Deptula Sr, Lt Gen USAF (Ret)

I’ve seen this and lived through this before…Kosovo, 1998-1999.  We launched what everyone thought would be a “short Air Campaign” on 24 March with TLAM and NATO air strikes.  After ten days, nothing had really changed and the pressure was on from DC and SACEUR (Gen Wes Clark) for more strikes that would end the conflict and with much flurry for “more targets” the strikes started to go “downtown” Belgrade.  The war finally ended 10 June, 78 days after it started and, at the time, our longest combat operation since Vietnam.    It was loudly proclaimed as a Victory through Air Power, but if you read the record closely, from Pres Clinton saying at the start “no ground troops” to seeing the progression of strikes on Army HQ and, in mid-May, NATO approve and begin positioning nearly 50,000 troops on the border for an invasion you can understand the comment made to me in August of that year by the Slovenian J2, a general who had spent most of his career in the Yugoslav army.  I asked him why Milosevich had finally given in,  the General replied “you had finally started to have an effect on his ground forces.”    You see, dictators really don’t care about air defense forces……”

Tony Cothron, Rear Admiral US Navy (Ret)


Some theories on the Syrian situation and the likelihood of getting the chemical weapons out of their hands in a timely manner.  And you can guess when I wrote this note based on some of the thinking, and the events that have transpired since.

Suppose Assad realizes that the wolf is already in his house.  It’s not the US that is his #1 threat, but al Qaeda.  They are already in the country in numbers, and represent a much more capable military force.  They may be getting reinforcements and weaponry from supporters in the region.  As time goes by, al Qaeda will gain strength and see increased possibilities of taking control of at least part of the country……another safe haven in the region.  And if they come and stay, Assad and the Alawites will never be safe.

So, Assad has decided he has to keep the chemical weapons to protect himself against al Qaeda, as well as other threats.  If the region and other countries get to a point where they believe Syria’s chemical weapons may fall into al Qaeda hands, some intervention will have to happen, and it won’t be the destruction of delivery capabilities, as the US planned.  There will have to be assets on the ground in Syria to physically secure and take control of the chemical weapons.

Suppose that Assad has explained this to the Russians, and mentioned that his downfall would also mean the loss of the last Russian base on the Mediterranean, as well as the likelihood the chemical weapons would fall into al Qaeda hands.  Russia and others may already be sending assets to Assad in hopes of tipping the conflict more in his military’s favor.  Maybe they even see that as a lesser-evil strategy.  As much as any other country, Russia does not want chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Russians and US agree to go in together or agree to get the UN Security Council to authorize (and pass) a UN force going in to seize control of the chemicals to prevent al Qaeda from getting them.

Then, there is Lebanon and Hezbollah, where many of the Syrian chemical assets may already be and are certainly heading.

And, then there is Israel, which has to be making its own calculations about when it senses that al Qaeda and/or Hezbollah , or someone of equal concern, is about to get its hands on some of the chemicals, will have to do something have to do something to pre-empt that possibility.

Should we conclude that Russia is the key controller of Syria’s future?  Does Russia really want responsibility for the chemicals, which would be the case if it moves alone, at Assad’s request or on its own decision, to take physical control?  Might the Russians instead ask for a UN force to go into Syria to take physical control?  Is Assad more likely to accept a peacekeeping and chemical weapons control regime if the Russians are a part as well as recommending it to the UN and to Assad?  How would the Israelis feel about this?  Since it’s doubtful Assad has moved chemicals into areas outside his control….and under al Qaeda control?…..will much of the chemicals end up in Hezbollah’s hands?  A bit farther from Israel, but even more of a threat?

The way through all of this?  For me, it helps to try to split out the key components of the situation.  They include

·         The humanitarian disaster taking place in Syria, chemical weapons aside

·         Terrorists and other kinds of threat networks

·         Regional instability that represents dangers to the region and its members, individually or collectively

·         Chemical weapons

·         Unsolvable situations.

Chemical weapons pop to the top of this list, because they represent a global threat.  Then comes regional instability.    I think you have to think through this in ways that can keep the chemicals and the regional instability separated.  Then comes terrorists/threat networks, which can be a contributor to/generator of regional instability, and must also be kept separated from the chemicals.  Terrorists in combination with chemical weapons would pop up to second place; the chemicals remain number one because all sorts of bad things can happen as long as the chemicals exist.  Sadly, the humanitarian disaster in the region comes fourth.  And last, at least among the five components I listed above, is the unsolvable Syria situation….because it’s unsolvable.

In numerous situations, it might be possible to have the regional states recognize their shared risk and interest, and band together to tackle the chemical weapons threat, in combination with addressing the regional instability to which the chemical weapons contribute.  That keeps the weapons and the terrorists separated, an important goal.  I see a regional collaboration as highly unlikely.

So, to address the chemical weapons threat, the regional instability threat contributed to by the presence of chemical weapons, the potential role of threat networks and terrorists relative to both the chemicals and the instability, you have to go up a level and find an international body that will address the situation.  That’s the UN, and I wonder if the Russians will recognize that their self-interest may be best served via a UN peacekeeping force that enables an international body to take control of the weapons, keep the terrorists at bay, put a temporary lid on the regional and global issues that would only be exacerbated if any one country (Russia, US, etc.) took control of the chemicals.

And, if the UN goes in to Syria, can they also address the humanitarian disaster?

And does UN presence in Syria have a dampening affect on the sectarian war?

Will Syria really turn over its entire stock of chemical weapons?  What assurance about his safety will Assad want before doing so?  Assad out of Syria doesn’t really solve all of the problems…..the Alawite population could be very vulnerable with Assad and his military out of the picture.

I continue to be the least smart person in these conversations, but putting thinking out there for all of you to examine, critique and make better.  Send me a note at with your views and ideas, and we’ll share them with our readers.




What Do You Think About the Nairobi Mall Attack and Standoff?

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

A disaster.

Not unexpected, given the threats made recently by al-Shabaab.

Not an unusual kind of attack.

I just heard the Nigerian president say his country would hunt down the perpetrators no matter where they run. But they could have run, and they didn’t.

That’s the part that confuses me. The terrorists haven’t run, as I would have expected. They’ve stayed in the mall, and it sounds like they are not now able to flee.

Why would they stay in the mall? A mistake in their planning and tactics? Something went amiss during the initial attack? Intentional? Do you suppose there’s a second phase to this that is the reason they have stayed? A bigger second phase that is waiting for more military and law enforcement forces to come into the mall?

What’s your analysis of the situation and what is likely to happen next?

Send me a note with your views, at, will you.


The Washington Navy Yard Shooter: How We Got to Last Monday

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Brushes with the law.

Issues in the service.

Mental issues.

You kind of knew what was coming next………

The same firm did the background check for his security clearance as did Ed Snowden’s.

There were apparently workplace issues. He went first to the office where he worked.

You really gotta think very hard about how to make it possible to comb through all sorts of data….including a ton of seemingly innocuous historical activities and behavior that has value only when evaluated in conjunction with other seemingly innocuous historical or recent activities and behavior…… about 300 million Americans and look in more detail at those who….maybe over time…. accumulate enough indicators points to rise to the level that might anticipate trouble,

or say that our freedom is encroached on by doing so and that this is part of our way of life.

One more piece of the puzzle. If we find out his employer knew about the above, and did nothing and/or did not inform the Navy client, how does that change your thinking?

Let me know what you think. Send me a note at, and I’ll share your views.


Sadness: Washington Navy Yard and Syria

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Yesterday’s murderous rampage cannot go by without a comment. I was riveted by the comments of the Chief Medical Officer who spoke at the Washington Hospital Center briefings, Dr. Janis Orlowski. Her impassioned plea for an end to gun violence got it right: What is wrong with our society that we enable violence of this type and scale and frequency? We are better than this, but not compared to too many other nations that have found better ways. I cannot imagine the sadness and confusion the families and co-workers must be feeling.
On the topic of sadness, we need to keep noodling on Syria, because the sadness will definitely continue.

Spent the past week in France, way out in the country. Got the farmers’-eye-view of the world. A couple of data points from multiple conversations are worth reporting to you.

They see President Obama’s administration as beset by more crises than can be imagined. Syria is just one more.

They are sure the Assad government is not playing straight with anyone……UN, US, Russians. They will hide chemical weapons…..maybe in Lebanon with Hezbollah……even if they agree to place these weapons under international control.

They don’t think such a concept…………international control of Syrian chemical weapons……….will really come to pass, or work.

They do think the international control concept, originated by the Russians, could have “President Putin saving President Obama from himself.” It puts off the limited bombings by the US, and, well, putting that off is a good thing in their minds.

I thought the French might be more concerned that the US population about what is happening/may happen in the Middle East, given that they are closer to Syria and the larger Middle East and North African upheavals. They seem as eager to have it just go away as we are.

I read an article in London-based The Economist that proposed a possibility I have not seen before: that the Assad regime might threaten to give chemical weapons to threat networks including al Qaeda if there is any retaliation for their use of these weapons. Would you target Syria’s weapon delivery capabilities if the response was Syria’s giving chemicals to terrorists who could use them anywhere in the world? If you are President Obama, do you draw back because you cannot be responsible for causing a chemical weapons attack in some major city?

The Economist also points out that a year ago regime change may have been an option, but today circumstances have changed to the point that it is not viable. It would be too destabilizing to the entire region. And, often there may be regional solutions for a situation like Syria, but not in this case……don’t put those cats in a bag!

The Economist, in likely understatement, says “military actions, including the one currently being considered, could easily make things worse.” It could make them hellish even beyond the region.

And the only thing that stays the same from day to day? The killing. The only winner? Sadness.

Months ago, we reported to you Michael O’Hanlon’s idea about breaking Syria into multiple independents or a federation. At the time, it seemed interesting but not doable. The idea seems to be gaining more air time. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an opinion piece that stated “If there is a bloody stalemate, and Syria slowly bleeds Tehran and Hezbollah, then there is a chance for a negotiation. One result might be a Syrian partition into a rump Alawite nation run by Assad and a separate Sunni-dominated state.”

And then there is this article for the Small Wars Journal.

Fracture Lines: Evaluating the Possibility of a Sectarian Future for Syria
By Ryan Scadlock
Jun 21 2013
“The ongoing uprising in Syria, which began in March 2011 has weakened the central authority of the Assad regime and disrupted its control over large sections of the country. This destabilization gives rise to the possibility of self-government for these three minority communities, while also raising specters of sectarian violence based on identity – whether religious or ethnic – or even genocide.

The longer the conflict persists the greater the chances of a complete breakdown of Syrian civil society, however, it is also possible that the regime will maintain its rule and governance on a section of Syria while the rebels govern another section. Similarly, although the presence of Islamist and jihadi groups in the uprising impacts the decision making of the minorities about their vulnerability, the report does not judge whether or not jihadi groups are likely to govern Syria.

An Alawi state is not feasible economically.”

There is a “strong anti-Alawi and anti-Shia trend in Syria and the rise of al-Qai’da linked rebel units. If this trend continues or intensifies the Alawi community may attempt to establish an Alawi ‘safe zone’ out of desperation and fear. This safe zone has the best chance of viability if it is setup with the backing of the regime and Iran, rather than following the regime’s fall. Russia might obstruct international efforts prevent the establishment of Alawi canton in order to preserve its naval base at Latakia, its last base on the Mediterranean. So, while an Alawi state is unlikely, the attempt to create one cannot be ruled out.

Outside actors, both foreign states and Syrian diaspora groups, will continue to influence the situation in Syria. Yet, the actions of local actors will be the ones that determine the decision making of minority communities as they choice to pursue autonomy or continue as part of the Syrian state.”

Ryan Scadlock holds a Master’s in International Security from the University of Bristol and is a graduate student in New York University’s International Relations program studying sectarian conflict and proxy militias. He has lived and worked in the Middle East, including Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The entire article can be found at
Let us know what you think and I’ll share your perspectives and ideas with our readers. Send me a note at

Two Guys Having A Very Bad Week

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

How quickly things can change, since I wrote this note on Tuesday morning.

President Obama and President Assad.

Both men have started balls rolling down paths, they cannot know where they lead, and once started rolling, there is no way to take them back.

What happens after the US fires a shot across Assad’s bow to ensure he and the world know the use of CBRN weapons is not acceptable? Well, we can’t know that. The President says he wants Congress’ agreement, and that he will proceed with or without their support. Why is there difficulty getting others to support the idea?

What happens after Assad uses chemical weapons? I am convinced he did that as a desperate bid to protect his Syrian interests. He can’t know what will happen next.

There are no good options for either man. There are no good options for the country.

These are zero-sum games. There are so many foreign influences in the Syrian situation that there will continue to be terrible civil war battles for survival and control.

You might hope for a regional collaboration to address the Syrian situation for the best interests of all the nations in the region.

I can’t figure out how you put all these cats in a bag without making it worse.

And, what draws us to want to “do something”…..the terrible pain and suffering of the Syrian people……it’s likely to go on for a while, don’t you think. Sadness will be the only winner here.

One man could well “lose” his country. The other could well “lose” his presidency.

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