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Posts from the ‘Middle East’ Category

Russia’s Carrier Is Unlikely to Make a Difference in the Syrian War

By Taylor Marvin

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1966. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1996. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

Today rumors surfaced that the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, would be sent to Syria to support the Russian forces assisting Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime (via Mark Mackinnon). A spokesperson for Russia’s Northern Fleet appeared to quickly deny the rumor, according to a report in the admittedly unreliable Russian Sputnik propaganda outlet. Though the Kuznetsov is probably not heading to Syria, it is possible that one day it will. Vladimir Putin seems to see Russia’s intervention in Syria as not only an operation prevent the fall of the Assad regime but also as an opportunity to flaunt Russia’s ability to conduct military operations beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Deploying the Kuznetsov to Syria could be a highly visible status symbol, and potentially a tempting one. Imagine the howls from American journalists and politicians!

Even if the Kuznetsov is ever deployed to Syria, the ship is unlikely to significantly impact the war. First, the Admiral Kuznetsov faces significant reliability concerns that would complicate a combat mission off Syria. As David Axe reported in 2013, throughout its life the Kuznetsov has suffered from a string of accidents and mishaps. As of 2013, the Kuznetsov’s reliability was so poor that ocean-going tugboats accompanied the carrier on each of its short, sporadic deployments. An intended major refit scheduled from 2012 to 2017 never happened. If a mission to Syria is partially motivated by a desire to showcase Russian military capabilities, the Kuznetsov’s well-known reliability problems would be a particularly convincing reason to keep the ship home – especially after Western commentators gleefully mocked the recent failure of Russian Syria-bound cruise missiles.

Secondly, the Admiral Kuznetsov has never conducted combat operations. Carrier operations, particularly high-tempo strike missions, are an extremely complex logistical and operational dance, with lethal consequences for mistakes. Since the USSR and Russia has had little opportunity to build these skills, and none to test them in combat, any strike missions from the Kuznetsov would be limited and mostly for show.

Finally, the Kuznetsov itself was not designed for Syria-style power projection. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union did not enthusiastically embrace aircraft carriers and their mission of projecting airpower from the sea. Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended “bastions” shielding their ballistic missile submarines* and not seaborne power projection. Accordingly, the Soviet Navy prioritized fielding formidable submarines, not multi-role surface ships and aircraft carriers. While the USSR became more interested in the ability to project naval power in the 1970s, Soviet surface ships remained optimized for destroying their NATO counterparts rather sea control.

Unsurprisingly, despite this logic Soviet admirals dreamed of fielding their own aircraft carriers to rival America’s, but the funding was never quite there. As Robin J. Lee documents, the USSR’s path towards fixed-wing carrier-borne naval aviation was a halting one with many half steps. Over decades the Soviet Union built a series of aircraft-carrying ships more and more dedicated to the naval aviation mission, culminating with the Admiral Kuznetsov and its uncompleted sister ship (which became China’s first aircraft carrier). More ambitious supercarriers to rival the US fleet were never built.

The Kuznetsov was deemed an “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” rather than an aircraft carrier, both to sidestep a treaty that forbids carriers from transiting from the Black Sea to Mediterranean and because its intended mission differed from that of American carriers. “According to Soviet doctrine,” Lee writes, “aviation cruisers were intended not to serve as the centerpiece of naval strike capability (as the USN regards its own carriers), but as a supporting element for other naval operations.” (Notably and unlike US carriers, the earlier Kiev and Admiral Kuznetsov classes sported a number of large anti-ship missiles, offensive armament that rivaled their air wings.) Also unlike American carriers, the Kuznetsov was not equipped with a powerful steam catapult; instead, aircraft take off with the aid of an inclined “ski-jump” ramp, which severely limits their takeoff weight. As Axe notes, the ship’s Sukhoi Su-33 fighters can only takeoff with a minimal weapons (mostly light air-to-air missiles) and fuel loads.

These constraints make the Kuznetsov much less versatile than an American supercarrier. It is difficult to see any prospective deployment to Syria as anything more than a risky stunt, as Dan Trombly noted on Twitter:

All this doesn’t mean that Putin won’t order the Kuznetsov to Syria; after all, there appears to have been no pressing need for Russia’s recent cruise missile strikes launched from the Caspian. It is possible that the Russian leadership will judge the prestige and experience upside from a successful deployment to be worth the cost and risk of embarrassing failure. But given the ship’s limitations, if the Kuznetsov goes to war it is unlikely to make a major difference in the course of the Syrian conflict.

*Update (11/18/2015): I altered this sentence to more accurately show that later Soviet naval strategy focused on defending ballistic missile submarine bastions rather than interdicting convoys and the US Navy in the Atlantic, which Robert Farley recently highlighted.

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What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument — is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

Does Khamenei Believe Obama’s Threats?

By Taylor Marvin

Last week President Obama addressed West Point’s graduating class in what was widely acknowledged as the clearest explanation of his second term foreign policy yet. In a speech stressing that not every global problem requires American military action and celebrating the role of multilateral diplomacy, Obama’s comments on Iran were nothing new. While praising the coalition-building that has facilitated extremely harsh sanctions, Obama warned that despite ongoing negotiations “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” While welcoming the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis — “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force” — Obama implicitly reminded that if the Iranian regime does not cooperate it risks an American effort to violently put a stop to its nuclear ambitions.

American observers alternatively characterized the speech as an example of foreign policy realism or not realism, suggested that it provided little guidance on Syria and Iran, and warned that Obama’s reluctance for war would embolden America’s enemies. Has it? Via Lobe LogIranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Wednesday that the United States has indeed taken the threat of force off the table. As the New York Times reports:

Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

“They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

While defiance and harsh statements by Khamenei is not new, his apparent dismissal of US threats appears to be:

Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the past has repeatedly said the United States was intent on attacking Iran, but incapable of doing so, has apparently now concluded — at least in public — that military action from the United States should not be expected.

Arash Karami has more.

Does Khamenei, who is ultimately the final voice for major decision within the Iranian government, actually believe that the principles outlined in the president’s West Point speech indicates that the United States will not risk strikes on Iranian nuclear infrastructure or, in a broader option, government and military targets?

There are three broad possibilities. The first is that Khamenei’s statement is simply posturing. The Supreme Leader has an incentive to increase his own standing among audiences within the regime, Iranian society, and the world by making Iran appear strong and the United States weak. The Iranian government and Supreme Leader especially defines itself in opposition to the West, and especially the United States. Talk is cheap, and stating that the risks of striking Iran are so high that the US government will not back up its threats is a means of demonstrating Iranian strength to both Iranians and sympathetic Muslims around the world, and strengthens Iran’s position in its competition with Saudi Arabia for a leading position in the Middle East.*

But even if Khamenei believes that Obama would not follow through on threats against the Islamic Republic, Obama will only be in office for another two and a half years. While authoritarian leaders often appear to have problems internalizing the significance of democratic countries’ constraints on executive power and elections, Khamenei should realize that many of the potential Republican presidential candidates would be far more likely to attack Iran, meaning that in the longer-term the American ‘realization’ of airstrikes’ risks is not set in stone. If this is the case, then Khamenei’s statement is just another variety of the unconvincing posturing — “even more dangerous” seems a stretch — that some elements of the Iranian government appear so weirdly prone to.

A second possibility is that Khamenei does believe that Obama would not order airstrikes if Iran appeared to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon or negotiations somehow catastrophically broke down, but that he is wrong. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Khamenei seeks to avoid US strikes, this threat is sincere, and Khamenei has somehow come to believe that it is not credible, then a serious and dangerous miscommunication has occurred. An Iran that interprets a perceived American reluctance to attack as a green light for a nuclear weapon could easily stumble into a war that it did not foresee.

If this is the case then Obama must seriously reconsider his rhetoric, avoid admissions by the US government that strikes would be risky (in effect, lie), or somehow demonstrate his resolve. Critics have often argued that the Obama administration’s failure to follow up on its anti-weapons of mass destruction red line in Syria has weakened his credibility everywhere. While is a mistake to judge credibility in one crisis based on another — governments have priorities, after all — its plausible that Khamenei sees US inaction in Syria as a precedent.

However, it is important to note that striking Syria could just further decrease the president’s credibility with Iran if a disgruntled American public decisively turned against the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. If the Iranian leadership sees an unsuccessful American air campaign against the Syrian Assad regime as constraining the United States it could interpret threats as even less credible than before.

The third possibility is that Khamenei believes Obama will not strike Iran, and that he is right. As analyst Matt Duss remarked in a February 2012 conversation with Jamie Fly, there’s reason to think that privately the Obama administration is just “not interested” in war with Iran, though whether Obama could escape his rhetorical hands-tying when it came down to it is an open question. While President Obama has downplayed hopes of a lasting diplomatic end to the crisis and emphasized that no option is off the table, the rest of his foreign policy does suggest a reluctance to stumble into unnecessary wars. Despite the problems of linking American resolve on Syria and Iran too closely, they are somewhat related: The Obama administration ultimately elected to not to use force to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite a prior commitment to do so. And while rhetorical commitments and three decades of sometimes violent confrontation obviously make Iran a special case, commitments to block nuclear proliferation suffer from an inherent credibility problem when the United States did not use military action to prevent North Korean building a bomb.

Alternatively, Khamenei may be correct without Obama — or anyone else outside his inner circle, really — knowing it. Neoconservative urging aside, the Obama administration is unlikely to actually make the serious decision to attack Iran unless it feels that it has no other choice. If the Iranian regime would like to avoid strikes it may have made the conscious decision to pursue a nuclear program popular with ordinary Iranians while refraining from baiting American strikes. Of course this is a difficult balance to strike, but Iran has successfully done so for the last decade by simply not giving any concrete indication that it is rushing towards an actual bomb, rather than meandering towards nuclear capability. If this is the case then Khamenei might be saying that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions” not because Obama’s threats are not credible but because he plans for Iran not to give Obama reason to follow through on them.

Which of these possibilities are the most likely? I have no idea, and you’ll have to ask a Persian-speaking Iran specialist.

*For an excellent, if dated, account of this competition see Vali Nasr’s 2006 book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

Keeping Up Appearances in Damascus

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

By Taylor Marvin

The Syrian government today announced plans to create a national space agency, supposedly aimed at scientific research. The announcement was met with disbelief among many commentators. Why would the Assad government, which is locked a deadly war that threatens the regime’s survival, devote resources to a space program? Perhaps more importantly, how could a government busily engaged in slaughtering its own citizens have any concern for space research at all?

It’s possible that the vague Syrian “space program” is a cover for rocket and missile research, as the inherent dual-use nature of civil rocket development programs make them useful for concealing military research. However, given the severe resource constraints facing the embattled Assad regime, I’d guess that this program will never return much actual research, military or otherwise. Instead, it appears to be another entry in the series of bizarrely banal announcements by the regime, following Bashar al-Assad’s praise for South African leader Nelson Mandela last December and the regime’s 2012 pledge to restrict genetically-modified foods to protect public health.

Like these previous announcements, grand proposals for a Syrian national space agency are unsurprising. To win the war the Assad regime needs to project strength, whether this strength is illusionary or otherwise. For the Assad regime to defeat the rebel insurgency it must convince both rebels and fence-sitting Syrians that the government’s eventual victory is assured, and there’s no point in resisting if the regime is going to win anyway — the “minds” side of the famous phrase. High-profile shows of strength also serve to discourage foreign donors from costly support for the rebels, whether in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or the West. Just as a farcical commitment to diplomacy means benefiting from the implicit international acknowledgement of the Assad government’s sovereign role, high-profile shows of normalcy and stability are a valuable strategy.

The problem is that relevant shows of strength — like defeating rebel forces or capturing cities — are militarily difficult to achieve. So the Assad regime strives to project an illusion of normalcy that signals to both Syrians and the outside world that it is secure and confident. Countries that are locked in stalemated civil wars do not announce space programs. The Assad regime wants to show the outside world that it is confident of its prosperous future — a future that requires winning the war — so it does the opposite. As long as a space program doesn’t consume resources that could be better, from the regime’s perspective, devoted to the military, press announcements and disbelief among outside commentators is a small price to pay for keeping up appearances.

Talks, and the Killing That Won’t Stop

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The killing in Syria appears to be intensifying. Late last year Bashar al-Assad’s military forces stepped up an arial bombing campaign that included an intense assault on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Following regime forces’ gains in the city, in early February rebels announced a new offensive, which was in turn was followed by further regime bombardment. The Syrian military’s preferred aircraft weapons appear to be barrel bombs, unguided improvised explosives that indiscriminately kill civilians and were recently termed ‘barbarous’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The death toll from the regime’s offensive has been severe. In recent remarks, UN Ambassador Samantha Power noted that despite the ongoing UN-backed peace talks in Switzerland, the current rate of killing is unprecedented. “Reportedly, nearly 5000 people have been killed just since the Geneva II talks began,” Power stated. “That is the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict – that’s just in the last three weeks – so it is not enough for us to stand here and say there has been no progress, which there hasn’t, we must recognize and state very forcefully that the situation has gotten worst, and is getting worst.”

In a recent post at Political Violence at a GlanceAllison Beth Hodgkins makes the interesting argument that these two events — the deadlocked Geneva II conference and the Assad regime’s destructive bombing campaign — may not be a coincidence. By indiscriminately bombing Syrian cities at the same time it is obstinately ready to negotiate, the Assad regime is sending a clear message to rebels that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming while also emphasizing that it, not the disunited insurgency, remains the sovereign voice of Syria.

It is entirely possible that Assad’s bombing campaign is intended to send a message to both the rebels and the international community. But at the very least it demonstrates that Assad does not see the negotiations as any constraint on its military strategy. Assad seeks to demonstrate to both uncommitted Syrians and the outside world that his forces cannot be militarily defeated, that the rebellion will not be able to dislodge the regime from its western heartland, and that it is only a matter of time before he takes back the entire country. By carrying out an indiscriminately destructive, resolve-demonstrating military strategy the regime emphasizes that the eventual outcome of the conflict will be on its, not the opposition’s, terms, and that a prospective settlement that does not included Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence at the head of Syria’s government is a non-starter — “please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” in the words of Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

Assad can afford this brutality because he knows that western countries no longer have any leverage over him. The very public opposition to the Obama, Cameron, and Hollande governments’ favored airstrikes proposed in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks revealed just how unpopular and politically painful even a limited military intervention in Syria would be. The Assad regime obviously crossed the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, and the US and France ultimately settled for a toothless, Russian-brokered deal that appears unlikely to actually result in the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons, and is anyway irrelevant to the wider war. While limited strikes were unlikely to have meaningfully alter the course of the Syrian war — and Obama’s red line was always an unwise policy, given the administration’s unwillingness to bind itself to serious intervention in the conflict should the red line be violated — if the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use did not bring serious consequences, bombarding cities and starving civilians will not either. Assad knows this, and the international community does as well.

Assad and the Illusion of Normalcy

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

At the Washington Post’s “Worldviews” blog, Loveday Morris flags a statement by Bashar al-Assad praising the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. “His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” Assad stated, “in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.”

Morris notes that the praise was unsurprisingly “greeted with derision from opposition activists and commentators,” angered by the hypocrisy of Assad’s apparent admiration for the icon of nonviolent resistance. The National Interest’s Ashley Frohwein questions whether “Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke.”

But there’s nothing particularly surprising about Assad’s praise for Mandela. The Assad regime’s potential path to victory in the Syrian civil war requires it to constantly show confidence that it will win. In addition to vowing that it will never surrender, by dismissing the country’s massive armed rebellion as simply “terrorists” and preserving an illusion of normalcy Assad reassures his domestic supporters and fence-sitters that he is winning, discouraging defection. To Syrians inclined to label the opposition terrorists, there really isn’t even any glaring cognitive dissonance in Assad’s praise for the South African leader.

Of course, this signal is not particularly convincing because it is not costly — that is, Assad can feign normalcy whether he is winning or not — but this non-costly nature means there’s no reason not to engage in this particular strategy either.

This is not the first instance of the Assad government pursuing incongruously-banal behavior. In October 2012 it passed a law regulating genetically modified agricultural products; I noted the law’s possible signaling role at the time. The Syrian government-owned SANA news agency’s homepage is filled with, in addition to references to “Wahhabi terrorism”, commonplace human interest stories seemingly out of place in a country wracked by civil war.

A normal government would mark Nelson Mandela’s death by praising the famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Assad wishes his regime to be perceived by both domestic and international audiences as a normal government, so he praises Mandela as well.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.