Category Archives: Security

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.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister-Delegate Faces Long Odds

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.
HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hassan Diab, who is set to become Lebanon’s new prime minister, will not overcome the country’s political, economic or security challenges.
  • Prolonged political paralysis will heighten Lebanon’s economic crisis, and potentially spark violence as major factions like Hezbollah struggle to hold onto power.
  • Heightened tensions between the United States and Iran could also lead to more sanctions on Lebanon, or even to open conflict there.

Lebanon’s new candidate for prime minister, Hassan Diab, stands little chance of breaking Lebanon’s political deadlock. And he will face even greater challenges than political paralysis, such as a worsening economic crisis and security crises as Hezbollah turns to stronger tactics to maintain its influence and as the chances grow of a U.S.-Iran regional conflict that could draw in Lebanon.


The Big Picture
Lebanon is engulfed in political paralysis and economic crisis, and its prime minister candidate, Hassan Diab, will not have many ways to overcome either. As the economy worsens, Lebanon’s security situation will become even more precarious. Meanwhile, rising tensions between Iran and the United States could spark a conflict that brings a regional war to Lebanon itself.
 

Daunting Prospects for Domestic or Foreign Support

Diab, who is set to succeed longtime Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri as prime minister, will face substantial hurdles. These include winning the support of a protest movement that will not accept a prime minister with ties to the establishment, which they blame for Lebanon’s economic crisis and long-standing corruption. They also include simultaneously winning the support of either the country’s March 8 alliance, to which Hezbollah belongs, or the March 14 alliance, to which al-Hariri’s Future Movement belongs. To maintain the support of either of the alliances, Lebanese prime ministers must dole out state support to them and their adherents. But it is precisely that sort of insider activity that is motivating protesters to take to the streets. Protests have helped accelerate Lebanon’s economic crisis by disrupting the economy, driving away tourists and causing capital flight. By pleasing either protesters or politicians, a prime minister angers the other, making it much harder to govern. At the same time that securing domestic support will prove daunting, foreign support will be harder to find. Lebanese prime ministers have often been able to govern thanks to foreign largesse. That support, which in the past has taken the form of direct U.S. or French aid and favorable bond purchases from Gulf Arab states, has allowed the government to spend lavishly to keep its own supporters happy, often through providing government jobs or favorable contracts. But foreign benefactors have become unwilling to grant Lebanon new aid unless it enacts austerity measures, a requirement that would cut the funds the government needs to maintain patronage networks.
This will undermine the political consensus among Lebanon’s major parties (and their associated militias) that has kept them from challenging the sectarian political system, which since independence has guaranteed that a Christian will serve as president, a Sunni as prime minister and a Shiite as speaker of parliament. Moreover, the nonsectarian nature of the Lebanese protest movement undermines Lebanon’s sectarian political system, challenging traditional political players.

Few Good Options for Politicians

Lebanon’s government and political insiders have little recourse. They cannot rally protest movements against their political enemies, like the March 8 and March 14 alliances did in 2005 after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s slaying created a political crisis. Today, with the bulk of the protesters angry at all political parties, the alliances don’t have the same rallying power. Beirut can’t increase spending to alleviate the country’s economic woes either, given the drop in foreign aid, the government’s indebtedness and its dwindling foreign reserves. Diab is not immune to these challenges. Though a relatively apolitical Sunni, he faces strong resistance from the protest movement in large part because he’s seen as too close to Hezbollah — and therefore as too much of a political insider. He also lacks the kind of foreign allies to tap for aid that al-Hariri had, though even if Diab did ask, aid would probably not be forthcoming anyway. He is therefore likely to struggle to accomplish much once in office, and may not stay there long. But even obtaining and exercising power effectively would still not solve three other major problems bedeviling the country: the economy, Hezbollah and potential U.S.-Iranian conflict.

The Economy, Hezbollah and U.S.-Iranian Conflict

Lebanon’s deeply unstable economy is worsening. Some major Lebanese bonds are due as early as March, and foreign exchange reserves, a bulwark the country had built up in case of a crisis, are strained by a combination of U.S. banking sanctions aimed at Hezbollah and the deteriorating economy. The United States has broken with its previous policy by bringing sanctions against Lebanese banks and upsetting the country’s delicate internal balance. In 2020, it is likely to seek to further sanction Hezbollah — and by extension Lebanon’s economy, since Hezbollah is entangled with much of Lebanon’s business. These sanctions would worsen Lebanon’s economic situation and complicate any potential foreign bailouts. The longer the economic crisis goes on, the more likely Lebanon is to run short of basic goods and be unable to pay state worker salaries, issues that will impact all sects and political parties. That will weaken the insiders’ hold on their old loyalists and strengthen the protest movement. In a bid to salvage whatever legitimacy they can, Lebanon’s factions — especially Hezbollah — will pivot from financial incentives to physical intimidation, potentially sparking a civil crisis. Hezbollah and its allies would prefer to avoid civil conflict, but they do not want to lose their gains from the May 2018 election, when a Hezbollah ally became the country’s health minister, giving him significant patronage powers. They also do not want to see the emergence of a less sectarian Lebanon, since this could cause voters in Hezbollah turf to consider backing another party. To prevent this outcome, Hezbollah has already sought to cow Shiites into not participating in protests.
Hezbollah will not purposefully stoke a civil conflict lest things get out of hand, but its increased use of physical intimidation may spawn one anyway. 

But while Hezbollah will not purposefully stoke a civil conflict lest things get out of hand, its increased use of physical intimidation may spawn one anyway, by setting up potential clashes between Hezbollah and protesters, the Lebanese army or other armed political factions. Any ensuing confrontations could eventually spark civil conflict. If that happens, foreigners are likely to get involved. The Americans, the Israelis, the Iranians, the Gulf Arabs and even the Syrians, Russians, and Turks all have an interest in shaping the country’s security situation. Meanwhile, no Lebanese faction has the power to stop the U.S.-Iran conflict, the ramifications of which could hit Lebanon, whether via sanctions or outright military conflict. Should this come to pass, Lebanese political paralysis would get even worse, while the country would face an economic and security crisis unlike anything since its 2006 war with Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah, Tehran’s most capable proxy, could find itself as the spearhead of Iranian retaliation against Israeli or American targets. Doing so, however, would invite a massive Israeli and/or U.S. response in Lebanon. And a military conflict of that scale would usher in yet another troubling chapter in Lebanon’s crisis-ridden history.
 
Editor’s Note: The map accompanying this assessment has been replaced to correct a mislabeled city name.

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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.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

www.stratfor.com