Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Why Russia Cannot Win

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response. 

Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions. 

Indirect Support

Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest. 

To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered. 

However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.

Playing the Long Game

The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.

Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.


Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.

Engulfing Natuna: Indonesia and the 9-Dashed Line

Last month, a small fleet of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard began fishing the waters of the Indonesian island of Natuna, making it the latest center of tension in the South China Sea. Natuna and the exclusive economic zone around it sit very close to the infamous 9-dashed line China claims as its maritime boundary in the region, raising the risk of confrontation over where Beijing decides it can send its trawlers. Though Indonesia denies it is a South China Sea claimant, Jakarta is discovering the South China Sea controversy may claim Natuna anyway.

Origins of the Dispute

Though territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new, the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1986 codified an array of customary international laws regarding maritime boundaries. While this solved a great many problems, it created others. One of those was the need for China (and others) to establish their baselines in the South China Sea. China did this by reviving an old map featuring nine dashes in a line extending far to the south of Hainan Island, the now infamous 9-dashed line.

The South China Sea is now one of the world’s most heavily disputed areas. No fewer than six states have overlapping claims on all the resources within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from their UNCLOS-defined baselines. Not only does the 9-dashed line put China at odds with all of these claimant states, the ambiguity of using a dashed line as an international boundary enables Beijing to flexibly interpret its claim, including the EEZ around Natuna.

Claims in the South China Sea that affect NatunaShortly after the Chinese flotilla arrived in mid-December, Indonesia registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador. The response from Beijing provided no legal argument, saying that their fisherman “have long been active in the area.” This, however, is not the first time Jakarta faced problems with Chinese encroachment. Since October 2014, the administration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has sunk well over 500 foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Most of those were destroyed in spectacular controlled explosions broadcast on the internet to maximize their deterrent effect.

Though, the vast majority were not seized near Natuna, nor were most of them Chinese. Still, Beijing has been careful to avoid triggering Indonesia’s inherent right to self-defense through the use of tools like the Chinese Maritime Militia, a fleet of civilian craft that operate in a coordinated manner to disrupt and intimidate non-Chinese shipping. The ambiguous status of the Maritime Militia protects it from military responses and instead pits it against coastal law enforcement agencies that are less well-equipped to deal with them. The deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard – rather than the Maritime Militia – from the outset of the Natuna drama suggests Beijing does not believe ambiguity will protect it from Indonesian reprisals.

Jakarta’s Natuna Response

The Indonesian response was substantial despite being slow to gather. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply from Beijing on January 1st the Jokowi administration increased naval patrols in Natuna on January 3rd. Then it dispatched two additional warships followed by four F-16 fighter aircraft to Indonesia’s brand-new military base on the island. By the time of Jokowi’s visit on the 8th, where he delivered a defiant speech in defense of Indonesian sovereignty, Natuna was host to the F-16s and seven warships, more than double its usual complement.

Though China withdrew its flotilla to the boundary of Natuna’s EEZ on January 9th, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister, Mahfud MD, announced the Navy would sustain increased patrolling for a time. Additionally, in a move that echoes the ambiguity of China’s Maritime Militia, the Indonesian Fisherman Association sent some 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to deter further incursions. Though it is not clear exactly how this will work or how effective this type of response will continue to be in the future, for now, Jakarta has made the point that it does not take incursions into its waters lightly. That it did so without regional partners suggests this will not be the last time China attempts to push the limits.

ASEAN Leadership

Many observers believe a strong Indonesian response will stiffen the resolve of other claimant states to stand up to China. Still, that kind of unity on South China Sea issues has been elusive at best. China adopted a divide and conquer strategy early on, insisting on negotiating disputes bilaterally. Beijing wields its economic power as a foreign policy tool, granting or withholding commercial assistance in accordance with its priorities. As this element of Chinese influence grows, so, too, does its impact and effectiveness on its rivals. The strategy has been successful thus far. ASEAN has been unable to agree on a declaration regarding the South China Sea and still hotly debates a less muscular “code of conduct.”

Indonesia is the largest ASEAN member state in almost every measurable way. While its leadership in the region is real and significant, Natuna is not even a unifying issue within Jokowi’s government. While he and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi focus on the sovereignty of Indonesia’s EEZ, the powerful Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, downplays the issue and frames it as an economic one. Prabowo’s rhetoric when he ran for President against Jokowi positioned him as a virulently anti-Chinese candidate. His transformation illustrates the sensitivity of this issue to domestic politics.

Indonesia, like every other South China Sea claimant state, must determine how to defend its sovereignty against an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Bandwagoning with other ASEAN member states is clearly not an option. Balancing behavior and alliances with regional and global powers can help prevent the situation from escalating to armed conflict. Still, both are problematic for the island nation with a defiantly independent tradition. In Natuna, Jakarta elected to employ a show of military force as a deterrent, and it worked…this time. However, Beijing has proven adept at applying all its elements of national power to achieve its goals. As the 9-dashed line creeps forward and the South China Sea dispute threatens to engulf Natuna, Jakarta will find its military power stretched in ways it is not designed to operate.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

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

The U.S. Assassination of a Key Iranian General Throws Fuel on the Fire

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

In response to the latest round of escalation between Washington and Iran, in which protesters in Iraq breached the compound perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week — likely at the behest of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassem Soleimani — the United States has taken the opportunity to eliminate the Iranian military leader and other key architects of Tehran’s strategy in Iraq. But the question is, at what cost? Iran will retaliate in a significant fashion, increasing the risk of further escalation that could lead to a direct military confrontation between the two countries.

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


It’s the spark to ignite a major conflagration: Late on Jan. 2, the Pentagon said it launched an overnight strike in Baghdad killing several officials linked with Iran, including Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. In addition to Soleimani, the head of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the deputy head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Naim Qassem were reportedly killed — although the latter’s death has yet to be confirmed. The Pentagon explicitly noted that among other reasons, the United States conducted the strike in retaliation for the attempt by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Dec. 31, but the decision to target one of Iran’s most important military figures is sure to raise tensions between Iran and the United States in the Middle East to new heights. 

Soleimani’s death, which had followed a stark warning by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the United States was willing to preemptively strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to protect U.S. forces, will reverberate throughout the Middle East. As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was, more or less, the peer of generals leading the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Naturally, his killing opens the way for a significant escalation, as Iran could well target high-ranking U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in response. Ultimately, Iran will absolutely seek to retaliate against the United States — the only question is at what level, what scale and when. 

Here’s how Soleimani’s death might affect a number of areas around the Middle East — and the wider world:

Iraq

The risk that Iraqi militias backed by Iran would attack U.S. and Western forces, assets and, potentially, commercial interests was already high, but it’s just increased precipitously. Although Iranian-backed militias led by leaders like al-Muhandis were not popular among many Iraqis, the U.S. move to stoke a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil will inject serious diplomatic tension into Baghdad’s relationship with Washington and fuel nascent efforts in the Iraqi parliament to reevaluate Iraq’s security cooperation with the United States. It will also complicate the Iraqi security force’s efforts to continue to work closely with Washington against the Islamic State.

Israel

Israel reportedly had come close to assassinating Soleimani a handful of times in recent years. And based on the missile threat that it perceives from the Quds Force and the Iraqi militias led by al-Muhandis and others, Israel will no doubt support this decision by Washington. But potential Hezbollah retaliation against U.S. interests in Lebanon could also turn into attacks on Israel, given the widespread perception in Lebanon — and throughout the region — that U.S. and Israeli interests against Iran and its allies are one and the same. In the worst-case scenario, that could touch off a separate fight between Israel and Iran.

Lebanon

Iran’s strong presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah makes the possibility of retaliation against U.S. targets there a distinct possibility. Hezbollah exercises influence in large swaths of Lebanon, including parts of Beirut, and has the capability to launch attacks against U.S. targets in the country. That risk will be even more pronounced if the death of Qassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, is confirmed.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf Oil Producers

It has been nearly four months since Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais oil-processing facilities, taking half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production down. If the United States and Iran continue their escalation with direct strikes on one another, Iran could certainly retaliate against countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, and their economic interests. Each of the Gulf Cooperation Council states — particularly Bahrain and Qatar — hosts a significant U.S. military presence that Iran could target.

Persian Gulf

In addition to direct attacks on GCC member states, Iran could launch more attacks against the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. For most of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term in office, Iran has hesitated to use its naval assets to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman despite its aggressive strategy to counter U.S. sanctions pressure. That, however, could change: As it is, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group reported last month that Iranian naval ships had harassed it as it was leaving its deployment in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Syria

Soleimani’s death is a blow, but likely not a crippling one, to Iran’s ability to conduct its extensive operations in Syria. The United States does not have a significant presence in Syria compared to what it has in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but the remaining U.S. forces in Syria are near Iranian-allied militia forces, meaning they could become a target. 

Afghanistan

Iran could decide to strike the United States in Afghanistan, given the target-rich environment of U.S. soldiers and military assets in the country, as well as Iran’s history of support for the Taliban. Iran is better positioned to strike elsewhere — since it does not directly control or direct the Taliban as it does other proxy forces — but the possibility of retaliation in the war-torn country cannot be ruled out.

Yemen

Iran could push the Houthi rebels in Yemen to launch retaliatory attacks against U.S. allies as well, even though Iran does not directly control that group, either. The Houthis maintain a robust arsenal of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles, which they have used to carry out attacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and surrounding waters such as the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Potential targets include, but are not limited to, airports, critical infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military targets and vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Beyond the Middle East

The threat of retaliation is not limited to the Middle East, given Iran’s history of conducting attacks against targets ranging from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, among others. Iran has also been linked to numerous plots in Western countries, including in Belgium, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years.


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