Strategic Heights

On the 21st of March 2019, with a characteristic lack of warning, the President of the United States stunned allies and adversaries alike by announcing — on Twitter — the United States should “fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The surprise move reversed 52 years of US policy toward the contested area and prompted emergency meetings in capitals across the globe. Within minutes, a storm of diplomatic protests from around the world reiterated support for a 1981 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 497) that specifically rejects an Israeli move to annex the Golan.

Not surprisingly, Syria vowed to retake its strategic terrain by “all means available”, a proclamation vigorously supported by Syria’s traditional backers, Russia and Iran. They were not alone, however. Even America’s allies rejected the move, citing principles of customary international law and warning the President it could decrease stability in the Middle East and have ripple effects elsewhere. As the President tweeted, the Golan Heights is strategically important and its annexation will have strategic consequences.

Trump Golan Tweet
President Trump forecasted his move to recognize Israeli rule in the strategic Golan Heights.

Strategic History

The topography and hydrology of the Golan has divided empires, fixed boundaries, and concentrated warfare since Biblical times. When one considers its history, it is easy to understand the Golan’s intense strategic importance to the security and stability of the greater Middle East. Shaped like a bowl surrounding the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights provides a significant percentage of Israel’s fresh water. The terrain feature rises rapidly east from the Sea of Galilee to a ridge that towers 1000 feet over the Transjordanian Plateau and provides a commanding view across southern Syria to the ancient Damascus-Amman Road. Whoever holds the Golan Heights commands all north-south movement in a significant part of the Middle East.

The first Jewish communities settled in the Golan in the 6th Century BCE but later fell under Seleucid rule after the partition of Alexander the Great’s empire in the 3rd Century BCE. The Jews regained their independence after a revolt only to be conquered and crushed by the Roman 10th Legion under Vespasian in the winter of 66 A.D.. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area changed hands in step with the ebb and flow of fortunes in Constantinople. First the Byzantines, then the Ottomans ruled the Golan until their defeat in the First World War placed the area under the British Mandate. The British ceded it to France a year later and Syria inherited it at the end of the Mandate in 1944.

The British decision to cede the Golan Heights to France left Palestine without a defensible northeastern frontier. When Israel declared independence a few years later, it found itself in a vulnerable position with a modern Arab army in a strong position to threaten Israel’s main source of water. The Six-Day War in 1967 provided the opportunity for Tel Aviv to address the vulnerability by seizing the Golan. At the time, the United States joined the world in calling for an Israeli withdrawal, a policy every President since has supported. When Israel attempted to annex the area in 1981, the Reagan administration went even farther, joining the UN in declaring the move “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Golan Proclamation
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. Source credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Elsewhere Matters

President Trump’s move to recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is a historically significant break from the policies of every US President since Lyndon Johnson. Though there will be immediate impacts on the stability of the Middle East, international law and the overlapping interests of regional stakeholders will cause ripple effects on US interests in unexpected places.

When Russia employed ‘hybrid warfare’ to invade and annex Crimea in early 2014, the US response was fairly robust and focused. Aside from a frenzy of bilateral military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, US messaging on the legality of Russia’s move battered Moscow with principles of international law. The United States specifically cited Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of force in territorial disputes. More importantly, perhaps, the White House invoked the principle that states have an obligation ‘not to recognize as legal’ the acquisition or occupation of territory resulting from aggression or the threat or use of force. The Obama Administration argued at the time that Crimea was taken by force and therefore the United States had an obligation to reject its annexation by Russia.

Recognition of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights effectively abandons this legal principle as a basis for US foreign policy, putting the US position at risk in Crimea and damaging other, longer-term US interests. The occupation of Northern Cyprus for example, seized by Turkey in 1974, is still not recognized internationally. President Trump’s capitulation on the Golan may give Turkey a sense that now is a good time to push for annexation of Northern Cyprus. Timing aside, such a move could threaten peace with Greece and destabilize NATO. Further afield, the principle of non-recognition protected the Baltic states for 51 years and guaranteed support for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Already nervous about Russian territorial ambitions, Baltic leaders are concerned abandonment of the principle now could encourage Russian ambitions in ways detrimental to numerous NATO member states. One can imagine similar issues arising in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, and perhaps even provoking sovereignty questions in US territories conquered during World War II or the Spanish-American War.

Some argue changing the status of the Golan Heights will not significantly affect the situation on the ground. However, the political narrative will have global consequences as states with territorial disputes rush to take advantage of America’s recent flexibility with international law. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States is the principal benefactor of an international system that affords states a privileged position on questions of sovereignty. Eroding the legal principles that underpin those positions weakens our foreign policy. Doing so in pursuit of short-term gains is the exact opposite of principled action and certainly not the height of strategic thinking.


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

Left at the Altar: Hanoi Honeymoon

As Kim Jong Un began his first state visit to a country other than China yesterday, the collapse of the Hanoi Summit must have weighed heavily on his mind. Though neither side had taken any concrete steps toward the substantive issues of denuclearization, sanctions relief, or ending the Korean War, expectations for the second Trump-Kim summit were guardedly positive. Even if the bizarre Trump-Kim platitudes were just marketing noise as some feared, perhaps the two leaders could move the process forward enough to give working level staff what they needed to hammer out the details…or so the wishful thinking went. In international affairs however, a relationship without a solid preparatory foundation is a volatile one indeed. With lunch on the table and the international press standing by for a joint declaration, Kim Jong Un must have realized he had pushed his position just a bit too far.

Flattery Will Get You Somewhere

There is a perception in some capitals that the President of the United States is vulnerable to flattery. Though hard to imagine, there is some justification for the idea. World leaders that swallowed their pride and applied this tool found an accommodating ear in the White House. Shinzo Abe of Japan, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and indeed Kim Jong Un of North Korea were early adopters of this approach and benefitted tremendously from the results. More recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also went on a charm offensive. Recognizing the catastrophic consequences of being on the wrong side of Trump’s vanity and hoping to deflect his attacks on the Alliance, Mr. Stoltenberg gave President Trump credit for what was actually a long planned increase in national contributions to NATO common funding. By contrast, the leaders of America’s traditional allies in Europe, Australia, and Canada insisted on equality and found themselves on the receiving end of the President’s apathy and even insults. Flattery it seems, might just get you somewhere.

None of this is lost on the Chinese. Cynical in their outlook and culturally attuned to seek opportunity in every situation, China’s leaders surely arrived at this conclusion long before Mr. Stoltenberg and they would have advised Mr. Kim to push his advantage. Their active intelligence support to Kim Jong Un reflects the reality that a secure and economically viable North Korea is very much in Beijing’s interest. They are not alone. A stable North Korea contributes to the security of the entire region and Japan, Russia, and especially South Korea will also be interested in helping Kim Jong Un make good decisions vis-à-vis Mr. Trump. Unfortunately for peace on the Peninsula, Beijing and Pyongyang overestimated their ability to extract concessions from the United States in Hanoi.

Hanoi Honeymoon

The effects of Trump’s uncoordinated and impulsive decision making will have far reaching impacts. Determined to appear strong, it is unlikely Kim Jong Un will sheepishly accept Trump’s bombastic rejection. Armed with nuclear weapons, Kim has a real ability to threaten vital US interests in the region. Perhaps more importantly, by resuming missile and nuclear testing that Trump unwisely claimed credit for stopping, the North Korean leader also has the means to directly threaten the President’s credibility. South Korea’s President Moon Jae In, who brokered this process at the Pyeongchang Olympics a year ago, is also at risk. His party will suffer catastrophically in the polls if diplomacy falls apart now. In the event of renewed nuclear or missile testing, Moon is likely to be replaced by a leader that is neither interested in nor positioned to continue the peace process as it currently exists. Japan’s cautious steps toward talks with North Korea will cease entirely while China will gain influence over inter-Korean dialogue at the expense of the United States.

Moon Jae In receives an unwelcome task from Trump after the disaster in Hanoi
A Korean Problem: Trump’s call to Moon Jae In after walking out of the Hanoi Summit puts the pressure on Moon to salvage the process he started.
Image credit, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/us/politics/us-korea-trade-talks.html

Mr. Trump for his part seems not to understand there is great risk in trying to manage international relations like a business. Whereas one can walk away safely from a real estate deal, he cannot simply end our troubles with North Korea despite his belief he’s called Kim Jong Un’s bluff. Trump should have taken this lesson from his failure to reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership after walking away from it in 2017. Then, like now, his refusal to find some middle ground or at a minimum, preserve the possibility of future progress, actually did nothing but cede power to the whims of others. In this case, Kim Jong Un’s wounded and possibly nuclear fueled response.

So as Chairman Kim spends the next day and a half honeymooning with the Vietnamese Communist Party, he must surely be pondering his next move. Let’s hope he exercises a bit of restraint after being left at the altar.


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

Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe

As the US Government shutdown enters its fifth week, federal employees and the businesses that support them are feeling the pinch. While it is somewhat easy for the average American to see the effects of the impasse on the Transportation Security Administration or the US Coast Guard, there is an entire range of services from food safety inspection to scientific research that are just as important but less obvious. The same is true of security and counterintelligence programs that play a critical, yet largely unseen role in keeping America great.

US security and counterintelligence programs are designed with the principal aim of maintaining American advantage — and therefore our power — against foreign adversaries. These programs, and the legions of professionals that implement them, protect our sensitive sources and methods for gathering intelligence, our plans for responding to contingencies, and our valuable people and resources overseas. We simply cannot allow these things to be neutralized, countered, or lost; a job that is made increasingly difficult by the ongoing government shutdown. As one colleague, a former CIA case officer suggests, the intensifying financial hardships of US government workers present a growing opportunity for criminal organizations and foreign intelligence services. If you have an axe to grind, they will be happy to help.

Patrick Skinner @SkinnerPM
Patrick Skinner is a well-known former CIA officer.

Security & Counterintelligence

Though security and counterintelligence are related, they are not the same. Security refers to efforts to protect information, people, and resources from loss or exploitation. Security covers a broad spectrum of activities ranging from establishing standards for computer passwords to running armed convoys in high threat areas. Security of personnel at diplomatic and military facilities overseas is almost always a cooperative effort with the host nation government and, by extension, the community at large. With contracts frozen and a large percentage of US Embassy staff working without pay, it is only a matter of time before the Embassy relationship with partner governments and their citizens begins to sour as we fail to pay our bills. There will be incidents that result in security problems for our people as the shutdown drags on and there is no government budget that will cover expenses for individual staff members.

Inside Man Sulu Arms Market
As I wrote in my 2011 book, The Sulu Arms Market, an “inside man” embedded in the right place is extremely valuable for criminal and intelligence organizations. Both exploit the same vulnerabilities in their targets.

The much larger and more damaging fallout from the ongoing shutdown comes from intelligence threats. Unlike security, which attempts to prevent loss from within, counterintelligence programs prevent threat actors from coming in and taking what they want. Criminal organizations and hostile intelligence services both seek sensitive information from inside the US government and if possible, agents they can count on to reliably provide information and access when required. Not surprisingly, they both depend on the same human factors that assist in targeting and recruiting Americans to work for them. Among the most common of those factors are financial vulnerabilities: debt and greed. Where the shutdown makes our counterintelligence efforts more difficult is that it is rapidly and massively increasing the number of US government workers that are in financial trouble and frustrated with the Washington power play that caused it.

The Operations Cycle

Intelligence services and criminal organizations are continuously spotting and assessing those they believe have access and placement to the things they want as well as a vulnerability they can exploit. Traditionally American officials are particularly challenging to recruit because they are vetted for a whole range of vulnerabilities through the security clearance process. Though this falls into the realm of security, it is basically an assessment of one’s susceptibility to recruitment. The relatively good pay and benefits afforded to US government employees protected us by ensuring their needs were met and that few would be willing to take the risks inherent with spying against their country. In other words, decent government salaries are a security measure. Needless to say, spotting and assessing vulnerable recruitment targets is becoming a whole lot easier for our adversaries. Since financial difficulties are one of the easiest things for an intelligence service to manipulate, recruiting those targets is also becoming easier.

Cyber Awareness
Though they poke fun at the adolescent presentation, virtually every US government employee is educated in basic counterintelligence via the Cyber Security Awareness Challenge course required for access to government computers.

The recruitment phase usually begins with something mundane that escalates as the subject becomes entangled, knowingly or otherwise, with the adversary. Imagine being a furloughed foreign service officer struggling to pay your bills. You’re having coffee with a local colleague and sharing your distress with the situation. He tells you he has a friend that works at a well-known think tank that would pay $300 — an intentionally small sum — for an article written by a native English speaker with some professional credibility. It could help pay the bills, does not have to be about anything you work on for the Embassy, and does not even have to be attributed to you. You decline the offer initially but the think tank checks out, is not associated with a government, and produces good quality work. You wouldn’t say anything controversial, certainly not about something important to the United States, and no one will know you wrote the piece anyway. You accept, and though everything goes well, you have unknowingly stepped onto a very slippery slope.

A few days later your friend congratulates you on the popularity of the piece. He tells you his colleague would like to thank you in person. You feel honored and write another piece or two in the meantime. When you finally meet your benefactor he tells you he would like to contact the Embassy’s Consular section to vouch for an employee seeking a US Visa. He doesn’t know who exactly to talk to, so he asks for a phone list. Without thinking too much about such a benign request you provide the list. Besides, you want to keep this gentleman happy since he’s paying your bills…

Grinding the Shutdown Axe

One can see where the rest of this tale leads. The subject in the story took money from what may have been a foreign intelligence officer; provided official, though unclassified government documents; and attempted to conceal all of the above. He or she is now ripe for exploitation. Though blackmail and coercion are the least effective methods of recruiting a source, the disillusionment that may come from being left without a paycheck can be a more reliable and productive basis for recruitment. There is nothing better than an agent with a grievance against his own government.

Financial vulnerabilities among staff are a significant counterintelligence and security problem and they are exploding under the shutdown. Some 800,000 federal employees in nine cabinet agencies are furloughed or operating in “exempted” status, meaning they are working without pay. The number of federal contractors affected — some of whom serve in critical national security positions — is estimated to be 1.2 million, most of whom do not expect to receive back pay. Some of those working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, are aware of the irony of being furloughed due to a power struggle that started over immigration.

The same is true of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which has the unenviable responsibility of protecting the country from intelligence threats under these circumstances. One thing is certain, the longer this shutdown continues, intelligence and security breaches will become more common and will take longer to discover and neutralize. As federal employees burn through their savings, more and more will decide their axes require grinding. How many ultimately make that choice is something we may never know.


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. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016 and occasionally writes about intelligence operations like the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

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