Options to Manage the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions

Joshua Urness is an officer in the United States Army who has served both in combat and strategic studies roles.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  In a notional future the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Defense Ministry leadership are strongly advocating for initiating a domestic nuclear weapons development program and have begun discussing the issue at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.

Date Originally Written:  January 14, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  March 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a non-proliferation and arms control professional working in the U.S. government. This professional was asked to provide recommendations to members of the national security council on how to dissuade the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Background:  This background, though containing some facts, is based on the above described notional situation. Key drivers for the KSA on the issue are anticipation of the expiration of the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action within 10-15 years and persistent adversarial relations with Iran; likely attributable to continued Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activity throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council region. This adversarial activity includes perceived Iranian support of Houthi Rebels, by proxy, in Yemen, a force that frequently fires ballistic missiles into KSA territory and has destabilized the KSA’s southern border region.

For this notional scenario we assume that the KSA:

– is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has actively supported the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East (as recently as May, 2017[1]).

– does not currently possess the technological, intellectual or infrastructural capability necessary to produce fissile material or a nuclear weapon[2].

– has been working to develop a domestic nuclear energy program.

– possesses nuclear weapon capable delivery vehicles which were purchased in 2007 from China (DF-21 ballistic missile variants) and has spent substantial resources developing its Strategic Missile Force[3].

– recently published a plan for state-level economic reformation (“Vision 2030”[4]).

– signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. in 2008 on nuclear energy cooperation, an objective also discussed with France[5].

– has illicit agreements with states such as Pakistan for “off the shelf” nuclear weapons capabilities based on the known fact that the KSA funded work by A.Q. Khan[6].

Significance:  This situation matters to the United States because of the following U.S. national security interests:

– Prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction (National Security Strategy, 2017)

– “Checking Iran’s malign influence while strengthening regional friends and allies” (Defense Posture Statement, 2017) and, therefore, the security of trade within and through the Middle East.

– Support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the NPT 2020 review.

– Support of weapons of mass destruction free zones and, therefore, the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.

Option #1:  The U.S. focuses on influencing KSA key stakeholder and future king, Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to neutralize proponents of nuclear weapons development by supporting his keystone political platform, “Vision 2030.”

“Vision 2030” is an extremely ambitious and aggressive plan that is heavily reliant on both foreign direct investment[7] and non-native intellectual contribution to domestic institutional development. The U.S. could assist the KSA in providing both in a manner that emphasizes domestic nuclear energy and deemphasizes the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mohammed Bin Salman, author of the plan, is expected to accede the throne soon (to ensure the passing of power under supervision of the current king), and already exercises significant authority regarding the KSA’s future and will be the primary stakeholder in all major decisions.

Risk:  This option accepts that the KSA develops a domestic nuclear energy program which may require more than customary monitoring to determine if this program will become dual-use for nuclear weapons development.

Gain:  This option demonstrates public U.S. support for key allies sustainable economic development in a manner that obscures specific intentions of policy and  will benefit the U.S. economy in long run because of increased ties to development.

Option #2:  The U.S. enhances its current security guarantee and cooperation by expanding the types of weapon systems/services delivered to the KSA and making rapid initial delivery of key systems, which will provide public regional assurance of commitment.

Recent weapons agreement with the KSA totaling $110 billion (bn) U.S. dollars ($350 bn over 10 years) does not include long-range stand-off weapons (land, air or sea) capable of counter-battery fire that could reach Iran. The agreements do include air defense systems (Patriot, THAAD) in limited numbers. This option would expand the current weapons agreement to include such stand-off weapons and increases in air defense systems. This option also emphasizes rapid delivery of equipment currently available to satisfy urgency of KSA military leaders. Expanding service packages with equipment would require forward stationing of U.S. service members in the KSA to train, maintain and develop technical institutional knowledge of new systems, further promoting STEM initiatives of “Vision 2030.”

Risk:  This option only passively addresses KSA nuclear weapon development discussions as it seeks to address insecurity by attempting to conventionally deter Iran.

Gain:  The U.S. Department of Defense is currently seeking acquisition of long-range munitions in significant numbers and funding from this expanded agreement could be used to jump-start production. Rapid delivery would reinforce commitment to all allies in the region.

Other Comments:  Option #1 maximizes benefits for both parties, better than other options. While U.S. national interests are supported in the region, the U.S. will also benefit economically from partnerships built out of acknowledgment and support of the KSA’s effort to achieve “Vision 2030.” Option #1 will also demonstrate U.S. engagement in the region’s key interests and political/economic initiatives. Discussions of nuclear weapons development will be decisively dealt with in a non-public manner; an issue that, if handled publicly, could cause concern in other regional states.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] “United Nations PaperSmart – Secretariat – UNODA – NPT – First Session (NPT) – Documents.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://papersmart.unmeetings.org/secretariat/unoda/npt/2017-first-session-of-the-preparatory-committee/documents/

[2] “Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons? | NTI.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/will-saudi-acquire-nuclear-weapons/

[3] “Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?” Foreign Policy. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/30/why-did-saudi-arabia-buy-chinese-missiles/

[4] “Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://vision2030.gov.sa/en

[5] Department Of State. The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs. “U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation,” May 16, 2008. https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2008/may/104961.htm

[6] Sanger, David E. “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability.” The New York Times, May 13, 2015, sec. Middle East. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-promises-to-match-iran-in-nuclear-capability.html

[7] “Goals | Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://vision2030.gov.sa/en/goals

Capacity / Capability Enhancement Joshua Urness Nuclear Issues Option Papers Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) Weapons of Mass Destruction

Assessment of North Korea’s Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Chemical Weapons, and Small Arms

Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as an engineer specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems.  Past projects include development of EWTR systems, Antifragile EW project and development of Chaff countermeasures.  Sam now teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part-time engineering professor and is the ASEAN affairs correspondent for Gun News Daily.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of North Korea’s Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Chemical Weapons, and Small Arms

Date Originally Written:  August 25, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  October 2, 2017.

Summary:  Syria has repeatedly used chemical weapons for large-scale assaults on its own citizens.  North Korea has been instrumental in helping develop those weapons, despite numerous sanctions.  Without being put in check, North Korea’s current regime, led by Kim Jong Un, will likely continue this behavior.

Text:  A confidential report released by the United Nations (U.N.) in August of 2017 indicates that North Korea had sent two shipments, which were intercepted, to front companies for the Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC)[1].  The SSRC is known to handle Syria’s chemical weapons program.  These shipments violate sanctions placed on North Korea, and U.N. experts note that they are looking into reports about Syria and North Korea working together on chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and conventional arms.

One U.N. member state believes the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) has a contract with Syria and both intercepted shipments were part of that contract.  In 2009, the U.N. Security Council blacklisted KOMID under concerns that it was North Korea’s key arms dealer and exported supplies for conventional weapons and ballistic missiles.

This is just the latest example of North Korea’s ties to chemical weapons.  In February of this year, Kim Jong Nam, who is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, died in Malaysia[2].  Malaysian police called the death an assassination done using the nerve agent VX, which is part of the same chemical weapons family as sarin but considerably more deadly.  North Korea has denied any involvement in Kim Jong Nam’s death and attributes the death to a medical condition.  Many didn’t believe this denial, and the incident led to people calling for North Korea to be put back on the list for state sponsors of terrorism[3].  In April, the United States’ House of Representatives voted 394-1 in favor of putting Korea back on that list[4].

North Korea has continually crossed the line and ignored sanctions regarding its weapons programs and supplying weapons to other nations.  This puts the United States and its allies in a difficult position, as they can’t let North Korea operate unchecked, but they can’t trust the country’s current regime to comply with sanctions and agreements.

North Korea’s ties to Syria are particularly concerning.  Syria has used chemical weapons for years, and even though it made a deal with the United States and Russia in 2013 to destroy these weapons, it didn’t follow through.  There have been multiple uses of weaponized chlorine and sarin, a nerve agent, although the Syrian government has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

North Korea has made its support for Syria clear both publicly and privately.  In April 2017 Kim Jong Un sent a message of congratulations to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for the anniversary of the country’s ruling party[5].  This was the same time that Assad was using chemical weapons on his own people, killing 86, which prompted worldwide outrage and a missile strike by the United States on the Syrian airbase of Shayrat[6].

In addition to this public message, there have been several shipments from North Korea to Syria intercepted in recent years.  Contents have included ampoules, chemical suits, masks, and other supplies vital in developing chemical weapons.  North Korea has increased its assistance of Syria during the latter nation’s civil war by sending more chemical weapons, providing advice to the Syrian military and helping with the development of SCUD missiles, which can deliver chemical weapons[7].

Although Syria’s use of chemical weapons is appalling[8], it’s North Korea which is proliferating those weapons and others.  In 2007 North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert.  The Israeli Air Force destroyed the reactor.  The desert where the reactor once was, as of this writing, is territory of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Without the attack by Israel, ISIS might have possessed a nuclear reactor that was near completion.  And with the right help and ability to operate unchecked, it is easy to imagine ISIS trying to weaponize the reactor in some manner.

Yet even when the United States catches a North Korean weapons shipment, diplomatic issues can make it difficult to take any action.  That’s what happened in December 2002, when a North Korean ship, the So San, was stopped by anti-terrorist Spanish commandos after weeks of surveillance by the United States[9].  The ship had 15 SCUD missiles on it, which were hidden beneath sacks of cement, and it was on its way to Yemen[10].  In 2001, Yemen, known for harboring terrorists, agreed to stop getting weapons from North Korea.  When the So San was first stopped, the Yemeni government said it wasn’t involved in any transaction related to the ship.

Once the United States commandeered the vessel, Yemen changed its story, filing a diplomatic protest stating that it did purchase the missiles from North Korea as part of an old defense contract and that the United States needed to release the missiles.  It took hours of negotiating between Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president of Yemen at the time, and both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney.  Saleh guaranteed that the missiles would only be used for Yemen’s defense and that the nation wouldn’t make any more deals with North Korea, and the United States released the ship.  The United States was developing a counterterrorism partnership with Yemen at that time, and there were few other options to keep the relationship on good terms, but this incident shows that catching North Korea’s weapons shipments is far from the only challenge.

Efforts to halt the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons by North Korea may lead to destabilizing the current regime.  Although there are worries that this destabilization will lead to loose Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the evidence suggests that the spread of WMD is even more likely under Kim Jong Un’s rule.  Sanctions and more thorough inspections of North Korea’s shipments may help here, but it will require that the United States takes a hard-line on any weapons shipments originating from North Korea, and doesn’t allow them simply for diplomatic reasons.

Other approaches may involve penalizing ports that aren’t inspecting shipments thoroughly and flagging those states that reflag ships from North Korea to conceal their country of origin.  Although this could work, it will take time.  It’s all a matter of determining whether the risk is greater with a more aggressive stance towards North Korea or allowing them to continue proliferating weapons.


Endnotes:

[1] Nichols, M. (2017, August 21). North Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-syria-un-idUSKCN1B12G2

[2] Heifetz, J. and Perry, J. (2017, February 28). What is VX nerve agent, and what could North Korea do with it? Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/23/world/vx-nerve-agent/index.html

[3] Stanton, J. (2017, February 24). N. Korea just killed a guy with one of the WMDs that caused us to invade Iraq … in a crowded airport terminal, in a friendly nation. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://freekorea.us/2017/02/24/n-korea-just-killed-a-guy-with-one-of-the-wmds-that-caused-us-to-invade-iraq-in-a-crowded-airport-terminal-in-a-friendly-nation/

[4] Marcos, C. (2017, April 3). House votes to move toward designating North Korea as state sponsor of terror. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/house/327106-house-votes-to-move-toward-designating-north-korea-as-state-sponsor

[5] Stanton, J. (2017, April 7). If Assad is the murderer of Idlib, Kim Jong-un was an accessory. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://freekorea.us/2017/04/07/if-assad-is-the-murderer-or-idlib-kim-jong-un-was-an-accessory/

[6] Brook, T.V. and Korte, G. (2017, April 6). U.S. launches cruise missile strike on Syria after chemical weapons attack. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/06/us-launches-cruise-missile-strike-syria-after-chemical-weapons-attack/100142330/

[7] Tribune, W. (2013, August 26). Reports: Cash-strapped N. Korea ‘stepped up’ chemical weapons shipments to Syria. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://www.worldtribune.com/archives/reports-cash-strapped-n-korea-stepped-up-chemical-weapons-shipments-to-syria/

[8] Stanton, J. (2017, August 22). Latest cases of chemical proliferation remind us why Kim Jong-Un must go. Retrieved August 25, 2017, from http://freekorea.us/2017/08/22/latest-cases-of-chemical-proliferation-remind-us-why-kim-jong-un-must-go

[9] Lathem, N. (2002, December 12). Korean SCUDs Can Skedaddle; Yemen Gets to Keep Missiles by Promising ‘Defense Only’. Retrieved August 28, 2017, from http://nypost.com/2002/12/12/korean-scuds-can-skedaddle-yemen-gets-to-keep-missiles-by-promising-defense-only/

[10] Goodman, A. (2002, December 12). U.S. lets Scud ship sail to Yemen. Retrieved August 28, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/east/12/11/us.missile.ship/

Arms Control Assessment Papers North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Sam Bocetta United States Weapons of Mass Destruction

U.S. Options for Basing Forces to Deter North Korea

Mark Loncar is retired from the United States Air Force and is a graduate of the Defense Intelligence College, now called National Intelligence University.  He served in South Korea for 23 months.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The U.S. faces a growing existential Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.

Date Originally Written: August 1, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  September 18, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a U.S. foreign policy advisor.

Background:  North Korea recently tested another ballistic missile, the second major test in a month, as part of a nuclear weapons program that, if brought to fruition, could threaten the U.S.  Policymakers in the U.S. are understandably reticent because of the serious threat that North Korea may respond with aggressive military action against South Korea and bring the U.S. into another Korean conflict.

The U.S. security commitment to its South Korea ally has not been in doubt since the Korean War started in 1950.  However, the positioning of U.S. forces in South Korea has been debated, and over the years, the number of U.S. troops has decreased from the mid-30 thousands before the North Korean nuclear program started in the 1990s to around 28,000 today.  Amid the present North Korean nuclear challenge, it is time to reexamine the utility of keeping U.S. forces in South Korea.

Significance:  The Korean peninsula is no longer the center of gravity in any hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. as North Korea’s ICBM capability, according to media reports, could reach Honolulu, Anchorage, and Seattle.  U.S. policy must adapt to this drastic expansion of the threat in order to end the impasse that characterizes U.S. dealings with the North Korean ICBM challenge.  In expanding his nuclear capability to ICBMs, North Korean President Kim Jong-un has turned what was a Korean peninsula-centric issue into more of an eyeball-to-eyeball existential threat to the U.S..

Option #1:  U.S. forces remain positioned in South Korea.

Risk:  U.S. policy options concerning the North Korean nuclear program will continue to be limited due to the risk of war to South Korea.  The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea preserves the status quo, but does not move the U.S. closer to a solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge.  Having U.S. forces in South Korea also complicates U.S. – South Korea relations and gives South Korea leverage in how the U.S. should respond to the North Korean nuclear issue, further constraining U.S. freedom of movement to respond to North Korea.

Gain:  The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea signals U.S. resolve in the Korean Conflict through a sharing of risk with South Korean allies.  This option maintains a U.S. capability to respond quickly and forcibly to North Korean conventional incursions and other hostile actions against South Korea.

Option #2:  U.S. forces redeploy from South Korea to present cleaner options for dealing with North Korean nuclear weapons threat.  The policy would relocate U.S. forces from South Korea to Japan and other countries and bases in the region.  A continued U.S. military presence near the Korean peninsula will help to reassure South Korea and Japan that the long-time security commitments will abide.  The redeployment would also represent a continuation of major U.S. conventional capability in the area to counter any North Korean conventional aggression.

Risk:  Perception of outright appeasement by U.S. allies.  How could the U.S. proceed with redeployment of forces from South Korea without communicating to friends and adversaries that it would be engaging in all-out appeasement of the North Korean regime and surrendering important U.S. and allied interests in Northern Asia to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

Gain:  The removal of U.S. forces from South Korea would be a major inducement for North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program or for the PRC to pressure it to do so.  Indeed, North Korea’s paranoia concerning U.S. – South Korea intentions toward its regime could be significantly pacified by moving U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula.  At the same time, the stakes would be raised for Kim Jong-un and his PRC benefactors to change behavior on terms attractive to all parties—agreeing to a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a reduced threat of war on the peninsula.

Second, removing the threat to U.S. forces on the peninsula would present less cumbersome options for the U.S. with respect to the North Korean nuclear weapons challenge, especially concerns about war on the Korean peninsula.  The U.S. would also be less constrained in deciding to preempt or respond directly to North Korean nuclear aggression.  This is the real capability of such a redeploying U.S. forces from South Korea.  North Korea and the PRC would be on notice that if North Korea continued its nuclear weapons ICBM development after a redeployment of U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula, the regime’s action may be met with the gravest of responses.

Third, this option would deny North Korea a pretext for attacking South Korea should the U.S. strike Kim Jong-un’s nuclear facilities.  Such a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would come only after a U.S. redeployment from the peninsula and the North Korean regime’s obstinate refusal to scrap its nuclear weapons program.  In this security construct, any North Korean attack below the 38th parallel in retaliation for a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would likely elicit the immediate destruction of the North Korean state.

Other Comments:  An opportunity is in reach to have a return to the status quo without a Korean peninsula-centric relationship.  This relationship would be more North Korea-South Korea focused, with the U.S. and the PRC overseeing the relationship.  The U.S. would no longer be in the middle of the mix with its own forces physically present in South Korea.  It may not be the best the U.S. could hope for – that would be a democratic government in North Korea if not an eventual unification of North and South Korea.  However, a U.S. redeployment to incentivize peninsula denuclearization and present cleaner options concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be a more viable alternative than accepting and having to deter a North Korean global ICBM capability, or to fight another war on the Korean peninsula.  In the end, by removing U.S. forces from South Korea, friend and foe should understand that if North Korea refuses to scrap its nuclear weapons capability, it will be the North Korean regime alone against the overwhelming power of the U.S..


Endnotes:

None.

China (People's Republic of China) Mark Loncar North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Option Papers South Korea (Republic of Korea) United States Weapons of Mass Destruction

U.S. Options for Regime Change in Syria

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  Regime change in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  April 13, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a retired U.S. military officer whose writings and teaching focus on national security issues related to the Middle East.

Background:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent chemical weapons attack on April 4, 2017 that killed scores of innocent civilians prompted U.S. cruise missile strikes targeting a Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched.  U.S. President Donald Trump said these strikes were designed primarily to “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons[1].”  While the decision to strike has been widely supported by leaders of both political parties in Washington D.C., international reaction has been predictably mixed.  Traditional U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East have been broadly supportive, while supporters of the Assad regime including Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes as a “violation of international law[2].”

Significance:  Beyond the narrow justification of these strikes as being necessary to reinforce an eroding international norm against the use of chemical weapons, this U.S. military intervention has resurfaced questions concerning the ultimate strategy that the Trump Administration is pursuing in Syria.  Before the strikes, senior administration officials including Secretary of State (SecState) Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Halley suggested that U.S. policy would abandon even the pretense of President Barack Obama’s objective of ousting Assad from power in Damascus[3].  However, in the aftermath of the strikes, the Trump Administration signaled an apparent about-face as National Security Advisor (NSA) Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster declared that U.S. policy in Syria would “simultaneously” pursue the twin goals of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and removing Assad[4].  While the fight against ISIS is making significant progress, the administration has not yet articulated a detailed strategy for pursuing the ouster of Assad.  There are two broad options available:

Option #1:  Coercive Diplomacy.  This option seeks to capitalize on the demonstration of U.S. resolve in the wake of the chemical attacks and missile strikes to push all parties to a negotiated solution that would ultimately result in the removal of Assad.  NSA McMaster and SecState Tillerson have suggested that this might indeed be the Trump Administration’s preferred course of action[5].  Additionally, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz is emblematic of this approach and has made the case that “peace is impossible with Mr. Assad in power” and also called on President Trump to lead a “broad diplomatic effort to end the country’s bloodshed[6].”

Risk:  This diplomatic approach is essentially a reprise of President Obama’s strategy to engage Russia to use its substantial influence in Damascus to coerce Assad into relinquishing his position.  Years of a failed Geneva process along these lines are a strong indication that prospects for success are minimal.  Moreover, Russia is either complicit or has been turning a blind eye to Assad’s brutal repression and flagrant attacks on civilians that undoubtedly constitute war crimes.  This blind eye poses a moral hazard to any negotiated agreement involving Moscow.  The real risks and costs for the U.S. will only manifest themselves when prospects for success are greatest.  Presently, there is simply no viable political opposition able to assume power in a deeply divided Syrian society.  As the tragic histories of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest, a strong international presence underpinned by U.S. combat forces and bolstered by U.S. intelligence and logistics support will be required to avoid the eruption of civil war until broader political reconciliation takes hold.  Finally, the reconstruction costs for Syria alone exceed $200 billion[7] – a portion of which will likely be borne by the U.S. Treasury.

Gain:  Option #1 seeks to make maximum diplomatic advantage of a limited U.S. military strike.  It requires little investment beyond organizing a broad diplomatic effort to press all parties to arrive at a negotiated solution.  It is possible that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will serve as an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was a primary party along with President Obama to the agreement that removed tons of chemical weapons from Syria and avoided a U.S. military strike in 2013.  SecState Tillerson’s long experience negotiating with Russia could equip him to successfully exploit this opportunity to leverage Russian support for ousting Assad.

Option #2:  Limited Military Escalation.  Long-time advocates of deeper U.S. military engagement have been trumpeting the recent U.S. missile attacks as an opportunity to escalate a U.S. military campaign to unseat Assad.  Options here range from resurrecting an earlier Central Intelligence Agency / Department of Defense program to arm-and-equip carefully vetted Syrian opposition groups, to establishing no-fly zones or safe areas for the protection of civilians, to conducting an air campaign to destroy Assad’s air force.

Risk:  These military options have been repeatedly debated and dismissed by senior U.S. officials because of the risks inherent in these approaches.  The previous program to arm-and-equip Syrian opposition groups ended in abject failure.  A program designed to raise a force of 15,000 fighters at a cost of $500 million netted only a handful of recruits that were quickly captured by Al-Qa’ida-linked elements as soon as they crossed into Syria[8].  Former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted that no-fly zones and safe areas would require the commitment of “thousands of U.S. ground troops” and would cost billions each month to maintain[9].  Finally, a military campaign taking out Assad’s air force would expose U.S. pilots to an advanced and integrated Syrian air defense system that has recently been upgraded by Russia.   Any such military campaign would almost inevitably result in Russian and Iranian casualties, risking escalation and retaliation against U.S. interests regionally and globally.

Gain:  The potential rewards for this high risk approach would be correspondingly rich if this increased military pressure ultimately yielded a negotiated resolution removing Assad from power.  The successful application of American military power would reassure U.S. allies and potentially bolster U.S. deterrence against potential adversaries including Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by President Trump on Syria,” Washington, DC: The White House, April 6, 2017, available from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/06/statement-president-trump-syria.

[2]  Gregor Aisch, Yonette Joseph, and Anjali Singhvi, “Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria,” The New York Times, April 9, 2011.

[3]  Steve Holland, “White House backs Haley, Tillerson on Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, March 31, 2017, available from www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-idUSKBN1722US

[4]  Mahita Gajanan, “National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster:  U.S. Wants to Eliminate ‘Murderous Regime’ in Syria,” Time, April 10, 2017.

[5]  Ibid and Josh Lederman, “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Issues Warning About Syria:  ‘We Cannot Let This Happen Again’,” Time, April 11, 2017.

[6]  Paul Wolfowitz, “What Comes After the Syria Strikes: With American credibility restored, Trump should lead a diplomatic effort to replace Assad,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2017.

[7]  David W. Lesch and James Gelvin, “Assad Has Won in Syria.  But Syria Hardly Exists,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017.

[8]  Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[9]  General Martin E. Dempsey, Letter to Senator Levin on the U.S. Military and the Syrian Conflict, July 19, 2013.  Available at:  http://www.cfr.org/syria/general-dempseys-letter-senator-levin-us-military-syrian-conflict-july-2013/p31198.

 

Civil War Dr. Christopher Bolan Leadership Change Option Papers Syria United States Weapons of Mass Destruction