2017 Year End Threat Assessment

Many people have their own ideas as to international threats on the horizon so I figured I’d add my own to the mix.  Looking at the top four, in order of how serious the threat appears to me:

North Korea

The NORKs will have a nuclear-tipped ICBM in the foreseeable future unless something is done to prevent this from happening.  What that “something” is remains to be seen.  One thing is clear:  it cannot be more of the same as this has amounted to essentially nothing.  Economic sanctions can be effective, as the Iranians learned over the past several years.  However, for economic sanctions to work, there cannot be a way for the sanctioned country to replace those items that have been sanctioned–and we learned this week that China has, to some degree, allowed this to happen as they were the ones violating the UN approved sanctions.  One of the ways to really ensure that these sanctions could work–on the high seas, anyway–is a naval blockade.  The US and its allies could do this, but it’s risky.  The NORKs have already indicated that the sanctions are an act of war; naval blockades usually are attributed to this as well, though obviously, the risks with a blockade are elevated to a much higher degree.  The bottom line, though, is that unless something else is done, the NORKs will have their nuclear-tipped ICBM relatively soon–possibly sooner than anyone realizes.

Iran

Iran is a far greater threat than I believe most people realize.  They are currently the predominant threat in the Middle East having been a huge regional beneficiary of ISIS’s demise.  For the most part, wherever ISIS had established itself, Iran can be inserted, if not in terms of actual “boots on the ground”–though there are plenty of IRGC/Quds forces on the ground–then most certainly in terms of influence extending all the way across Iraq, through Syria and into much, if not most, of Lebanon–and the Israelis are watching.  In addition, Iran continues to foment regional discord with their very generous military support of both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houtis in Yemen–the ballistic missiles recently fired into Saudi Arabia by the Houtis is an excellent example.  Nor has Iran been on sidelines since the signing of the nuclear agreement touted by Kerry & Obama.  While a case could be made that their nuclear facilities in-country meet the terms of the agreement, they have been relatively active in their pursuit with–and assistance to–the North Korean’s nuclear ambitions.  Their own pursuit of improving their own ballistic missile technology also poses a threat similar to that of the NORKs (while not necessarily of the ICBM-type, certainly medium range missiles).  Indeed, Obama’s nuclear agreement does not prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuke–it only formalizes the “kicking the can down the road” for 10 years (now about 7 or 8).

Russia

The Russians have been relatively silent since Obama left office.  Admittedly, they have continued to expand their presence in Syria at the Latakia naval base and it is looking like they might try and make this permanent.  However, in Obama’s second term in office, when Obama indicated to President Medvedev  that he’d have “more flexibility” in regards to Russia, the Russians essentially annexed the Crimea and invaded the Ukraine, absorbing almost a tenth of this country–with virtually no response from the Obama administration.  What many people don’t realize is that the Russian role in the Ukrainian rebellion continues (The Guardian actually refers to this as “Europe’s forgotten war.”).  I don’t see Putin playing as much of a threat to the rest of Eastern Europe until the situation in the Ukraine settles down.  Moreover, I think Russia will pose a greater threat in the Middle East than they currently do in Eastern Europe.  For example, when was the last time a NATO member country purchased an advanced Russian air defense missile system–as Turkey recently did.  In Syria, I don’t see the country “falling” as such, though it might not be the Syria it once was–though the same may not be able to be said for Bashar al-Assad.  Now that Putin has his naval base in the eastern Mediterranean, I don’t see him giving this up very easily.

China

While China’s help is practically required with the NORK’s, it remains a serious threat elsewhere in the region–Taiwan and in the South China Sea especially.  The map below clearly shows the extent of the issue with the South China Sea as indicated by the dashed red line.

 South China Sea

China has already established–and fortified–at least three man-made islands amongst the Spratly Islands, complete with missile defense and runways.  The main issue with China’s claim here is the threat posed by the control of the seas.  The Strait of Malacca (not visible on the above map but would be off the lower left corner) is a very strategic waterway, control of which could seriously restrict, or threaten, trade–and oil–to many of our allies in the region.  Obviously, several other countries in the region have a claim, and probably a stronger one at that, to the Spratlys, notably, Malaysia, The Philippines, and Vietnam.  China’s dogged claim to this region presents a threat more to American allies than to the US itself but American interests are at stake as well, especially when it comes to trade and freedom of the seas.

 

 

Review of America’s War for the Greater Middle East

I just finished reading Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East.  This is a very good survey of the United States’ role in the Middle East starting with the Shah’s demise in Iran in 1979 continuing to the present (2016). Bacevich does a nice job juxtaposing a reported rhetorical question of the Shah’s that seems to set, at least one of the themes, for the entire book: “What will you do [the US] if one day Iran will be in danger of collapsing? Do you have any choice?” The Shah supposedly asked this question as he saw “Iran performing a critical security function that the United States was unable or unwilling to perform itself.” Ironically, Bacevich ends with Iran as well in the fight against ISIS trying to re-establish some sense of security in the region (even though Iran has a totally different idea of “regional security.”  Iran wasn’t an American ally but they had effectively enlisted in the war against ISIS.

Bacevich also confronts several questions about America’s role in the Middle East, since today’s problems in the region are substantially greater than when the US got involved more than 30 years ago. Two main questions: “Why has the world’s mightiest military achieved so little even while itself absorbing very considerable losses and inflicting even greater damage on the subjects of America’s supposed beneficence?” And, “why in the face of such unsatisfactory outcomes has the United States refused to chart a different course?” An overriding theme to the answer to both questions: American hubris.

Bacevich isn’t afraid to pull any punches, either.  When it comes to why we got involved in Iraq under Bush:  “The US was intent on establishing the efficacy of preventive war; it was going to assert its prerogative of removing regimes it deemed odious, and it was seeking to reverse the practice of exempting the Islamic world from neo-liberal standards.”  Similarly, Obama doesn’t fare any better:  by electing Obama, “Americans once more entrusted the highest office in the land to a foreign policy neophyte”–and Bacevich’s analysis doesn’t get any better for Obama regarding Syria and the rise of ISIS.

Overall, this is a very good survey for anyone interested in America’s role in the Middle East over the the last 38 years.

Israel – and an emerging Arabian Entente?

In the last two weeks, a couple things have happened that one might think would really destabilize an already destabilized region:  First Israel launched a series of attacks on Syria, targeting the suburbs of Damascus.  The actual targets remain somewhat hazy but it appears the Israelis took out possibly a couple military bases and chemical munitions sites and then possibly, a base operated by the Iranian Republican Guards.  This was followed very shortly by President Donald Trump following through on a promise that several other recent presidents have made:  to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy to Jerusalem.  Each of the last few US Presidents have promised to do this but ultimately failed to follow through on this.

The obvious concern with these two anomalous events is that any attempt at peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would be shattered.  However, it is appearing that the Iranian threat might be more of a threat to regional stability than the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  This is obviously not what the Palestinians want to hear.  The immediate reaction from most every country in the world condemned Trump’s action–especially in the Arab world.  Even American allies in Europe were quick to denounce the move.

However, at the UN today, US Ambassador Nikki Haley, took on the regional instability issue and turned the tables on the Palestinian issue by introducing some dramatic evidence of Iranian malfeasance in the Arabian peninsula:  She produced missile fragments and debris from remnants of a missile the Houti rebels fired into Saudi Arabia–remnants of missiles manufactured in Iran.  Haley went on to indicate that US strategy towards Iran would be changing and focusing on the overall Iranian threat to the region, rather than simply focusing on the Iranian nuclear issue.

As for the Arab response to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the US moving it’s embassy there, word is coming out that both the Saudis and the Egyptians gave the Trump administration their prior approval.  While spokesmen for both countries vociferously opposed Trump’s move, in private, it would appear that both countries recognize that it might be time to move on and focus on a more potent threat to the region.

The U.S., China, and North Korea – a Sobering Assessment

Just after yesterday’s posting on the US, China and North Korea I saw a posting from Herschel Campbell in this morning’s edition of The Hill.  Campbell’s article, The Time for doing nothing on North Korea is Over, offers a sobering assessment of what could  happen in the wake of a military confrontation.  It’s long been known that North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces essentially holding Seoul hostage.  At the same time, he proposed some similar ideas:  the possibility of a naval blockade of North Korea and the possibility of China undertaking a regime change in the North.  One thing I think everyone agrees on though, is that time is running out.

The US, North Korea, and China

In the wake of North Korea’s latest missile launch National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster admitted that military action is becoming more and more likely – and indeed, time is getting short to prevent the NORK’s from getting an ICBM tipped with a nuke. China is again getting some attention as the one country to prevent this from happening but here again, interests collide.  China’s interests in the region are stability first, no nukes, second; the US, on the other hand, is no nukes, first and foremost.

In addition, part of what needs to be seen is that China views the United States as the greater threat to them than a nuclear North Korea.  China’s interest in the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands is no small example.  Then of course, there is the issue of Taiwan, which never seems to go away.  Trade with China is also becoming more and more of an issue.  So, when China hears that the US is continuing to ask for their assistance in “persuading” Kim Jong-Un into relaxing his nuclear ambition, there are a few other issues on the table that need to be addressed.

Stability in the region is obviously of mutual interest for both the US and China–but defining what that “stability” looks like is a huge question mark as there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition” within the North Korean government to look to, to replace Kim – he has taken care of that right down to eliminating his own family members.

Then again, there is the very real possibility that the Chinese–and the Russians (and possibly Iran)–are betting that the NORK nuclear and ICBM issue is a “red line” that the US will not cross.  According to Michael Yon, the view here is that North Korea represents a “very low risk/high reward” in a major geopolitical endgame.  If the US doesn’t cross this red line, stability would remain–but we’d be throwing all of our allies in the region, i.e., South Korea and Japan, especially, under the proverbial bus.  If we cross it . . .  well, military action often solves the immediate problem, only to create others of a different sort.  If indeed the line is crossed, China will not stand for a unified Korea under American auspices; I believe that much is clearly understood.  Secondly, as mentioned above, there is no one apparent to whom the reins of power could be left to in Kim’s absence or demise.  Finally, if the US, and its allies, took some sort of military action–even if only a naval blockade of all of North Korea–the Chinese would be involved in some manner or another, and who knows what that would look like–both during, and after, the US action.

And while it might be agreed upon that North Korea is within China’s sphere of influence, there are no talks–that we know of–behind the scenes between the US and China about China simply going in and replacing the Kim regime, ala what the Soviets did in the 1956 Hungarian uprising or in the ’68 Czech rebellion during the Cold War–if the Chinese would even be able to do something like this.

As H.R. McMaster mentioned earlier in the week, time is running out and the NORK’s seem to learn after every failure–and they are becoming very quick learners.  If a stable-de-nuclearized North Korea is in the offing, time is definitely running out for a peaceful solution, unless the current administration simply rolls over and capitulates to the North Koreans as the last several administrations have.

 

Israel, the Saudis, and the growing Iranian Threat

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so says an ancient Indian proverb.  This ancient proverb lays the foundation for what might seem as an incredible alliance between Israel and the Saudis.  Iran’s ascendancy in the entire middle east — something which both the Saudis, and especially the Israelis — poses a serious, if not existential, threat to both countries.  The increasing role in Iraqi politics, and the Iraqi military, that Iran’s Republican Guards is playing poses a clear threat to the region.

If Iran can turn the Iraqi government into a puppet, which it appears to becoming more and more likely, they will dominate the entire Euphrates river valley, but they will also have a tremendous corner on the oil market.  There are estimates that Iraq has up to 300 billion barrels in oil reserves (both proven and unproven estimates); Global Fire Power puts Iran in 4th place in terms of proven oil reserves at over 150 billion barrels of oil.  With the growth of fracking in the US, estimates of American oil reserves have seemingly exploded.  Nevertheless, the combined total of Iran & Iraqi oil reserves is enlightening as there is more to power than simply military might, which the Iranians recognized over the past couple of years, coming out on the short end of some rather serious economic sanctions — a very apt demonstration of economic power.  After President Obama’s nuclear deal, and the dropping of the sanctions, estimates range as high $33 Billion that the US alone gave to Iran!  There is nothing like being on the short end of this type of economic stick to teach an opponent the demonstration of power.  Combine the rising economic potential that Iran is gaining in the middle east with the exportation of their Republican Guards and all of the military support to Hezbollah, the Houti rebels in Yemen, and the Syrians — and a very clear threat emerges.

For Riyadh and Tel Aviv, an Iran flush with cash and an improving economic infrastructure, the question of working together hardly needs to be asked.  Rather, its more how can they work together, not whether they should.  The one obvious issue in the midst of this is the Palestinians, and what to do with them.  However, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Saudis would rather see the Israelis with them against the Iranians than they would the Palestinians with them against the Israelis–viewed in this light, it’s a no-brainer.

Iran & the War for the Greater Middle East

Last week I posted how Iran’s influence is spreading throughout the region, from Lebanon through Syria and into Iraq, indeed much of the area where ISIS previously ran rampant.  Now, it looks like someone else has much the same idea.  See the latest article by Jonathan Spyer in the most recent edition of Foreign Policy here.   Spyer goes into considerable more detail than I did but he clearly demonstrates how Iran’s influence is spreading throughout the region at the expense of the Saudis who seem to miss out on every opportunity they’ve had.  In the “war” between Tehran and Riyadh, the Iranians clearly have the upper hand.

The Iranian Ascendancy in the Middle East

“No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent,” claimed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  While this might seem as mere braggadocio on the part of an ambitious Iranian bureaucrat, a close look at the growth of Iranian ascendancy in the region is enlightening.

Iran’s influence, if not outright control, of Hezbollah has been known for years.  Hezbollah’s arsenal of small arms to relatively sophisticated short range ballistic missiles comes straight from Iran–and their inventory of rockets and missiles of all types exceeds 100,000.  Over the last few years, Hezbollah has gradually taken on an increasing role in Lebanese politics, to the extent that Hezbollah is all but a state within a state–complete with its own military force which Iran used by proxy in the fight against ISIS.

Iran’s ties with Syria, likewise, has grown immeasurably both in the fight against ISIS and what is clearly a Syrian civil war.  With President Obama essentially ignoring his own red line, the United States left Syria’s fate to be decided by Russian and Iran–both long-time allies of the Assad regime.

Iraq offers the Iranian regime is latest opportunity.   When Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry failed to get a status of forces agreement with Iraq, the US essentially abandoned its role in Iraqi power politics to anyone else willing to fill that role–and Iran didn’t need an engraved invitation.  The Iraqi army all but collapsed with the rapid rise of the so called “Junior Varsity” ISIL.  To help fill the void in the Iraq, Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMU’s) rose up practically independent of the Iraqi Government.  These paramilitary forces–for that is essentially what they are–are nothing new.  Rather, they amount to essentially a re-branding of similar units like the Mahdi Army that was loyal to Muqtada al -Sadr back when the Iraqi insurgency first started.  (See the link here for a brief explanation of the Iraqi PMUs.)  Enter the Iranian Republican Guards, and men like General Qasem Soleimani, who offered unwavering support to the growth of, not only, the Shia PMUs, but also the Shia state militia–both officially recognized by the Iraqi government.  (Here in the United States, we are falling all over ourselves blaming each other for the supposed Russian interference in our last election.  In Iraq, a foreign–and hostile–government has a sweeping–and growing–influence over government recognized military units!)

On the Arabian Peninsula, Iran has been a long-time supporter of the Houti rebels in Yemen–to the point that the rebels have actually forced the government to flee the capital.  The Saudis, who see the peninsula as their little sphere of influence, have been conducting a rather vigorous, and seemingly futile, air campaign against the Houtis for the past several years.  Again, and similar to Hezbollah, Iran has been smuggling weapons to the Houtis for years.  We saw just how sophisticated these weapons are when, just two weeks ago, the Houtis launched a ballistic missile at Riyadh, the Saudi capital.  Fortunately for the Saudis, they ere able to intercept this missile over the capital–though not before this missile had traveled over 500 miles!

As Iran continues to spread its influence in the entire region, the rivalry between the Saudis and Tehran is guaranteed to heat up–especially with the present leadership in Riyadh.  One thing that has yet to be addressed, though, is that Israel will not be left on the sidelines when it comes to the growth of Iranian hegemony in the region.  Israel has not made many overt moves but, given their track record, I believe its fairly obvious that  their Mossad clearly has their finger on the pulse of the region.

Will Iran fill the ISIS Void in the Middle East?

Nature abhors a vacuum–so, it would seem, does international politics.  With the collapse of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a power struggle is emerging in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia, though you wouldn’t know too much of that listening to much of the media.

Last Saturday, the Houti rebels in Yemen launched a ballistic missile at the Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia–500 miles away.  Fortunately for the Saudis, their military was able to intercept this missile.  However, no one (as far as I’ve seen) has even posed the question as to where, or how, the Houti rebels obtained a missile like this.  The Houtis, of course, are claiming that this is a home grown weapon; personally, that seems a little hard to believe.  A more likely scenario is that Iran has been smuggling weapons to the Houti rebels–and has up-ed the ante here with the introduction of a missile of this caliber.  (Which would also be a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions.)  Clearly, the Saudis believe this as well, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman blamed the Iranians for this claiming that this was a “clear act of aggression” and could be considered an act of war.  Earlier today, Fox News indicated that fragments of the missile bore markings indicating an Iranian origin.

In Lebanon, Iranian backed Hezbollah continues to stir the pot.  However, instead of targeting their favorite nemsis, Israel, they’ve essentially turned north, to Beirut.  The Saudi-supported Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, resigned this week amidst fears of a Hezbollah assassination plot.  In addition, both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have ordered all of their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately.  Obviously, something is stirring in Lebanon.

Just a couple weeks ago, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region several times.  Iran has been a strong supporter of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the leading factions amongst the Kurds, and even though Iran supports the PUK, they do not want to see an independent Kurdistan–and that’s precisely why Soleimani traveled to Kirkuk, to dissuade the Kurds from their independence goal.  Ironically, part of the Iraqi army that would fight against the Kurdish independence movement is a large contingent of Iraqi Shiite Militias–which is also heavily supported by Soleimani and the Revolutionary Guards.  For that matter, Iran’s military role in Iraq isn’t even much of a secret anymore.

Clearly, with the demise of ISIS, Iranian influence in the region is more and more apparent–and, apparently, more and more provocative.

North Korea . . . and a very quiet US military buildup

News broke earlier this week that for the first time in a decade the United States had three carriers in the western Pacific.  The USS Ronald Reagan is permanently forward deployed to Japan.  However, the USS Theodore Roosevelt left San Diego earlier this month and is currently in relative close proximity to the Reagan.  The USS Nimitz is on its return leg from the Persian Gulf region and just happens to be transiting the Western Pacific.  I believe that the Roosevelt is likely taking the place of the Nimitz in the Gulf but the overlapping schedules is an interesting coincidence as it is not very often the Navy has two, let alone three, carriers in any one region.

While the assembling of the three carriers could be explained as a scheduling overlap, a few other items of note add to the quiet buildup:  The USS Michigan, a converted ballistic missile submarine which is capable of carrying more than 150 Tomahawk missiles, made a port call in Busan, South Korea in mid-October.  In addition, the Air Force is quietly moving a dozen F-35’s to the region at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa.  These will work in combination with another group of Marine F-35B’s that are already stationed at MCAS Iwakuni in Japan.  In addition, the Air Force seems to routinely station at least a couple B-1’s out of Andersen Air Force base on Guam.

This quiet buildup has, surprisingly, largely been off the radar of most in the media.  In the Persian Gulf Wars, the United States used six carriers in Desert Storm, four carriers in Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and then five carriers for Iraqi Freedom.  However, due to the continued development of smart bombs and guided munitions since Operation Desert Storm, the corresponding result significantly multiplies the effectiveness one carrier has today over what two, or even three, carriers had 26 years ago!  The Marines, and more specifically, the Army, haven’t conducted anything like the Navy’s build up.  However, with three carriers and the USS Michigan in the Western Pacific, the US Navy is loaded for bear!