General: Trump’s Cut-And-Run From Syria Is A ‘Serious Strategic Mistake’

President Trump’s surprising decision to cut and run from Syria is being panned by military analysts as “a serious strategic mistake” that ranks with such errors as President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq and the abandonment of South Vietnam. Trump’s decision to retreat from Syria reportedly went against the advice of Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top generals.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” Trump said in a tweet justifying his unilateral decision to withdraw American troops from the embattled Middle Eastern country.

But other analysts, such as Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and army vice chief of staff, disagree. Keane, now a military analyst for Fox News, lashed out at the president, calling the move “a serious strategic mistake” with “dire consequences.”

Keane, who has generally supported Trump’s foreign policy, told Trish Regan on Fox Business that, “It’s a decision that the president will come to regret.”

“The obvious analogy is a simple one,” Keane said. “How you end a conflict is more important than how you start one and history will tell you that. When we stayed in post-World War II Germany, Italy and Japan, we helped to stabilize those countries. We did the same thing in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

However, he added, “When we prematurely withdraw forces because we’re tired or it or we’re frustrated by the time it took – Vietnam, Iraq, and now Syria – the consequences are usually unfavorable and quite dire.”

“It is not speculation that ISIS will indeed reemerge,” Keane said. “Our intelligence services have already forecasted that. The reality is they will come back. They are conducting terrorist operations around Raqqa right now on a low level.”

Keane said that ISIS leaders around Raqqa had been telling people there that the Americans had not followed through with their promises to rebuild schools, power plants, and other infrastructure destroyed in the war against the terror group. ISIS will use the unkept promises and withdrawal of American troops to recruit and gain influence.

“The Iranians, which are a much greater threat than ISIS, will now own all of Syria,” Keane said. “That is a fact. They will encroach on the sovereignty and security of Israel.”

Keane also warned that the withdrawal would have implications beyond the Middle East. “Russia and our adversaries will look at this, not as a victory for the United States,” he said. “They will look at this as weakness. It will impact North Korea in terms of the stalemate we have with them right now. It impacts Russia in terms of our ability and willingness to confront them and have some impact on them. And certainly, it’s going to impact also with China…. It’s going to encourage them and embolden them. All these things are related to one another.”

Keane acknowledged Trump’s concern for casualties and the fact that ISIS was temporarily on the run in Syria, but said, “The one thing I think history has also told us is the Middle East is a breeding ground for radical Islam and it’s also the place Iran wants to dominate and control.”

Keane said that Trump’s withdrawal is already encouraging ISIS to reemerge. Noting that the president said he was willing to redeploy forces to Syria if ISIS returns, Keane asked, “Why? If you’re willing to do that let’s finish it. Let’s stay the course and finish this thing once and for all.”

The Trump withdrawal closely mirrors Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Against the advice of military leaders, Obama removed the US military and the resulting power vacuum allowed ISIS to flourish and gain control over large swaths of both Iraq and Syria. The expansion of ISIS required the US to recommit troops to the region and gave Russia a pretext for sending a large military force to Syria in 2015. Additionally, the Syrian unrest created a refugee crisis that led to a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe.

The Trump policy threatens to undo progress made on those fronts. American forces in Syria have subdued but not destroyed the ISIS threat and provided a counterbalance to Russian and Iranian influence in the region. An American withdrawal that allows ISIS to reform would also likely create new waves of refugees fleeing to Europe.

Another big winner from Trump’s isolationist policy is Iran. USA Today points out that the US-controlled eastern portion of Syria had posed an obstacle that prevented the Iranians from being able to move by land from Iran all the way to Lebanon, home base of their ally Hezbollah. Without American forces in the way, Iran can ship heavy weapons all the way to the Israeli borders with Syria and Lebanon. Where Barack Obama gave Iran billions of dollars, President Trump just gave the mullahs something much more strategically valuable.

The Art of the Iran Deal? Trump May Pass the Buck on Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

One of the signature foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration – and certainly one of the most controversial things he did – was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. One of the stipulations of that deal is that the president must certify it every 90 days as a show of confidence that Iran is holding up its end of the bargain. President Trump has done so twice already, but he has indicated that he may not certify the deal a third time.

The lifting of sanctions is dependent on Iran restricting its nuclear programme. It must restrict its uranium stockpile, build no more heavy-water reactors for 15 years, and allow inspectors in to the country.

Mr Trump has repeatedly said Iran has broken the “spirit” of the deal.

Trump has until October 15 to decide what to do. If the president chooses not to certify the deal himself, the matter goes before Congress, who has 60 days to decide whether it believes that Iran is acting in good faith. Some are saying that Congress will leave the deal in place, but if Congress chooses not to re-certify the deal, the United State will impose strict sanctions on Iran.

So, what’s behind the change of heart? Why has Trump suddenly decided he won’t stay the course? The president has long been a critic of the deal, so there’s little surprise that he would reject it at some point.

He elaborated recently to the press:

Speaking in the White House’s Cabinet Room, President Trump said: “The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence and chaos across the Middle East.

“That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions. You will be hearing about Iran very shortly.”

The BBC is suggesting that the president could be seeking to have his cake and eat it too by passing the buck to Congress. That seems to make sense. By punting on the deal, Trump can wash his hands of a piece of policy that he has criticized repeatedly while passing the responsibility for rocking the boat – or not – to Congress.

Is this a shrewd move by a skilled deal-maker, or is this the cowardly act of a politician who doesn’t want to be responsible for making waves? Either way, and regardless of the outcome, Donald Trump can’t avoid looking like the guy who is letting other people deal with the problems he should be solving.

Trump Decides to Decertify Iran Deal

Donald Trump spent a great deal of time campaigning against Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Nine months into the Trump Administration, the rubber on the Iran deal is about to meet the road. President Trump must decide by Oct. 15 whether to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal. Under US law, the president must certify Iran’s fulfillment of the deal to Congress every 90 days. Trump has made the certification twice, but there are indications that this time may be different.

The president told reporters on Wednesday that he had made up his mind about the deal, but declined to reveal his decision. Trump is keeping his cards close, telling reporters, “I’ll let you know what the decision is,” but without saying when he would do so. Politico reported that the president even declined to share his decision with British Prime Minister Teresa May.

NBC News reports that the president is leaning toward decertifying Iran’s compliance with the deal, citing four unnamed sources within the White House. The sources indicate that the president has resolved to change the “status quo.”

If the president decertifies Iran’s compliance with the deal, it would not necessarily mean that the entire deal would be scrapped. NBC’s sources indicate that the president would use the decertification to attempt to persuade the European partners to renegotiate the deal. At this point, Britain, France and Germany are strongly opposed to ending the deal.

There are other options if the president decertifies the deal as well. If the president decertifies the deal, then Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on Iran. The president could also choose to withdraw from the deal entirely as Ambassador John Bolton has urged.

Trump’s position is awkward. The president has spoken out strongly against the treaty, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday, “Perhaps the technical aspects have (been met), but in the broader context the aspiration has not.” Tillerson said that reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency “continue to confirm that Iran is in technical compliance with the agreement.” A common complaint is the fact that Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, which are not covered under the agreement.

President Trump’s decision will be closely watched by North Korea, where the president is currently engaging Kim Jong Un in a tit-for-tat over the country’s missile tests. How the president handles the agreement with Iran will almost certainly impact the resolution of the North Korean problem.

Whatever direction Trump is leaning now, nothing is certain until a formal announcement is made. Last spring, the president reportedly changed his mind on withdrawing from NAFTA at the last minute. More recently, the president’s commitment to withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty and his hardline immigration policy have been called into question as well.

Time will tell how strong President Trump’s resolve to confront Iran is and which faction of White House advisors have his ear.

Trump to Address the Nation on Afghanistan and South Asia

President Donald J. Trump will address the nation about his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia this evening at 9:00 p.m. from Fort Myer in Arlington, VA.

After a seven-month review of options in Afghanistan, during which President Trump expressed frustration about continuing to follow a losing strategy, Trump and his advisors have decided upon a strategy. The decision emerged from a meeting he held Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other top advisors at the presidential retreat at Camp David, in rural Maryland.

The details of the Trump strategy havens been revealed but Defense Secretary Mattis offered a few comments about the strategy Sunday:

“The process was rigorous,” Mattis said Sunday, speaking to reporters in Amman, Jordan, as he visited the region. “And it involved all members of the Cabinet, of the national security staff, writ large.”

Without going into detail, Mattis said the strategy “involves significant allies,” presumably members of the NATO coalition that have fought at the U.S.’s side in Afghanistan since the invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“The president has made a decision,” Mattis said. “I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.”

“It is a South Asia strategy,” he added. “It is not just an Afghanistan strategy.”

Reports say that the new strategy includes an increase in troop strength of 4,000 troops. That’s not really new because President Trump authorized the troop increase in June. Mattis refrained from building up the American force there until Trump agreed on a broader strategy.

Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that, “Trump’s top national security advisers all agree the only way they’ll win their missions in Afghanistan is to modestly increase troop levels, keep training the Afghan military, and keep a strong CIA and special forces presence to run aggressive counter-terrorism operations.” Mattis has reportedly “been using this line in meetings: ‘Mr. President, we haven’t fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war, 16 times.’”

Trump’s advisors presented him with other scenarios, which included a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan (a continuation of Obama’s failed strategy), and counter-terrorism-only options. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon wanted Trump to gradually withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan and replace it with private paramilitary forces to hunt terrorists. Swain tells us that Mattis and company never took that idea seriously:

I’m told the Bannon strategy has never been part of the NSC paperwork, though the former chief strategist circumvented the official process and took his arguments directly to the president.

According to Swan, despite his reluctance, Trump “doesn’t want to be the president who loses the country to the terrorists.” Should Trump order a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, advisers believe he’d all but ensure the Taliban completes its takeover of the country. Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be allowed to flourish, and you’d have a terrorist launching pad similar to before 9/11.

President has told his advisors that while he thinks the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster, and the U.S. is losing, he thinks total withdrawal would be bad. Trump saw what happened when Obama withdrew from Iraq and believes that doing so precipitously in Afghanistan would allow the Taliban to take over, and Al-Qaeda would be resurgent.

The new strategy will only work if the Taliban is denied its sanctuaries in Pakistan. Reuters reports that Trump’s advisors are split on how much to pressure Pakistan:

Nicholson, McMaster and Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, favor taking a strong hand with Pakistan to deal with Taliban militants using that country as a base from which to plot attacks in Afghanistan, current and former officials say.

On the other side are State Department officials and others at the Pentagon, including Dunford, who take a broader view of Pakistan’s strategic importance and are less convinced that harsh actions will secure more cooperation from Islamabad, they said.

I don’t see how we can win in Afghanistan unless the Taliban is denied safe haven in Pakistan and Iran and Russia are made to stop sheltering, training, funding and arming Taliban insurgents.

Iran’s Navy Seeking Blue Water in the Atlantic

Iran has announced its intention to send a naval group to the Atlantic Ocean, after approving a $500 million military spending package.  The approval of the spending was greeted with cries of “Death to America” by Iranian lawmakers.

Iran’s navy has been in a quest to achieve true “blue-water” status, with the ability to project power anywhere in the world.  Indeed, this is a similar path that China has been on as well.  Historically, navies have been an important arm of a country’s diplomacy, giving it the ability to exercise its will far from shore.  Currently, Iran’s navy is considered to be “green-water;” that is, it can operate within Iran’s home region (this is a step up from many countries’ navies, however, which are “brown-water,” i.e. able to operate only along their inland rivers and close to shore).

The desire to operate in the Atlantic Ocean is a bid by Iran to increase its world power and influence events in the Western Hemisphere.  Iran has already been active in Latin America for many years, working to achieve Iran’s economic, military, and propaganda goals in the region.  A true blue-water navy will assist Iran in this effort.

It will also drive the Arab Gulf states to look for support in countering Iran’s regional and global ambitions.  Currently, the region is eyeing both Russia and the United States to see who will step up to counter Iran.  With Russia a defacto ally of Iran, this may serve to help the U.S. maintain influence over the Middle East.  However, with recent missteps by the U.S., China is waiting in the wings to provide a viable alternative to either the U.S. or Russia as the region’s guardian.


Vlad the Downsizer – Russia Responds to U.S. Sanctions

In a statement on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to anticipated new U.S. sanctions against his country.  He has ordered the U.S. to cut its embassy staff by 755 people and has seized two American properties in Moscow (a house and a storage building).

Putin’s statement came after the U.S. Congress last week passed a sanctions bill by a vote of 98-2 in the Senate and 491-3 in the House.  U.S. President Donald Trump has not yet signed the bill, but has said that he will.  Indeed, Congress could easily override a veto anyway.

The U.S. sanctions are in response to suspected Russian interference in the 2016 elections, it’s seizure of Crimea, and its actions in supporting rebels in Ukraine.  Vice President Mike Pence has also stated that he hopes the sanctions will encourage Russia to cease its support of North Korea and Iran.

Both sides have indicated that they will continue to respond “in-kind” to one another’s actions.  Iran, Syria, North Korea, and the future of NATO remain as areas of dispute between Russia and the U.S.; these issues are likely to further aggravate the relationship between the two countries.

Iran Should Have Been a Slam Dunk for Trump, But He Bungled It

President Trump should have done what he said he would do. He should have torn up the Iran deal on his first day in office. He should have put Iran on notice and let Congress deal with the consequences. But a few months into his term, he let advisors talk him into certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal.

This time around, Trump was once again convinced to give Iran a pass, The reasons given for the decision was to give the administration more time to work with Congress before pulling the plug. The New York Times reported Monday:

At an hourlong meeting last Wednesday, all of the president’s major security advisers recommended he preserve the Iran deal for now. Among those who spoke out were Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official who described internal discussions on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Trump had spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.

Trump should have gone with his gut this time. But that’s the hazard of always shooting from the hip. With the president distracted by his war on the press, the administration went forward with plans to re-certify Iran’s compliance this quarter, until Trump voiced his objections. ABC News reported:

Then, just as the White House was preparing to brief reporters, the announcement was abruptly halted and the talking points temporarily recalled as the president reconsidered the decision, according to officials and others briefed by the administration. Among the options Trump discussed with Tillerson and other aides was to extend the sanctions relief but refuse to certify Iran’s compliance, several officials said.

Nobody in the administration had prepared Congress, talking points, or any kind of strategy to deal with yanking the Iran deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “JCPOA”). So, ultimately, Trump was forced by his own lack of self-discipline to go ahead with something he didn’t want to do, and in fact should not have done.

John Bolton chided Trump in The Hill for an “unforced error”:

Certification is an unforced error because the applicable statute (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, or “INARA”) requires neither certifying Iranian compliance nor certifying Iranian noncompliance. Paula DeSutter and I previously explained that INARA requires merely that the Secretary of State (to whom President Obama delegated the task) “determine…whether [he] is able to certify” compliance (emphasis added). The secretary can satisfy the statute simply by “determining” that he is not prepared for now to certify compliance and that U.S. policy is under review.

So the administration made the really stupid and meaningless comment that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, but not with “the spirit” of the deal. I suppose that means Iran wants to violate the terms of the agreement but is getting away with it?

Trump’s team, to save face, has come up with some new economic sanctions against Iran for its ballistic missile program. Bloomberg reported Tuesday:

The U.S. Department of Treasury said in a statement it was targeting 16 entities and individuals for supporting what is said was “illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity.”

Those sanctioned had backed Iran’s military or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by developing drones and military equipment, producing and maintaining boats, and procuring electronic components, it said. Others had “orchestrated the theft of U.S. and Western software programs” sold to Iran’s government, the Treasury Department said.

This shoot-from-the-hip approach, like with Qatar, Taiwan, Syria, Russia and practically every foreign ally and opponent in the world, presents hazards, along with unintended consequences and departments in chaos.

What is our policy vis Iran? Nobody really knows.

Our foreign opponents take advantage of the chaos. Don’t think for a moment they don’t. Our allies become confused, not knowing what the U.S. will do in any given situation.

Iran wants to expand (and has been expanding) its influence in the Middle-East. Trump’s latest deal with Russia for a Syria cease-fire has Israel very worried–in fact some see that as making war “inevitable.

“The agreement as it is now is very bad,” an official told Haaretz. “It doesn’t take almost any of Israel’s security interests and it creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria. The agreement doesn’t include a single explicit word about Iran, Hezbollah or the Shi’ite militias in Syria.”

The U.S. re-certifies Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but then slaps sanctions on it for its incursions into Syria and Lebanon, as well as missile development. But the Syrian cease-fire gave Iran plenty of maneuver room to do the very things these latest sanctions seek to punish.

I’m reminded of a Rhode Island tax policy I read about, where it costs more to register a tractor-trailer to legally travel through the state than it does to pay the fine for being caught in violation. This is what Trump has done with Iran.

Trump’s total unpreparedness and tendency to shoot from the hip has given Iran the signal that they can continue doing exactly what they’re doing with no more than a slap on the wrist.

Even when the president’s instincts are right, his lack of organization makes the world less safe for America and our allies. Bolton sums up:

In the last six months, Iran has made six more months of progress toward posing a mortal threat to America and its allies, and now totals two years since the JCPOA was agreed. This U.S. approach is both dangerous and unnecessary. Care to bet how close Tehran — and North Korea — now are? Consider the costs of betting wrong.

American and Russian Relations Worsening

Tensions between the United States and Russia continue to worsen, with the conflict in Syria serving as tinder to the fire.

On Sunday an American F/A-18 fighter shot down a Syrian Su-22 bomber which had targeted American-backed fighters in Syria.  The incident was precipitated by Syrian government-backed ground troops attacking the American-backed fighters.  U.S. warplanes “buzzed” the Syrian troops to force them to break off their attack.  American commanders then called the Russian commanders in the region to attempt to de-escalate the situation.   However, a couple hours later a Syrian Su-22 plane bombed positions near the American-backed troops.  It was therefore shot down by the American F/A-18 in order to defend the American allies.

The next day, “Russia responded by saying its surface-to-air missile systems in Syria would begin to track manned and unmanned aircraft from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition if they go west of the Euphrates River.”  Thus, Russia is threatening to target U.S. aircraft who overfly Syrian government-held positions.

Also on Monday, an armed Russian Su-27 fighter approached within five feet of an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane in the Baltic Sea.  This was the most dangerous of 35 similar incidents in the area since the beginning of June.  It is also consistent with escalating Russian interceptions of U.S. aircraft in other regions, particularly the Black Sea and off the coast of Alaska.

On Tuesday, another incident occurred in Syria.  An American F-15 shot down an armed Syrian-government drone which appeared to be advancing towards American-allied forces.  A couple weeks previously, another armed drone was shot down by U.S. forces under similar circumstances.

In addition, the U.S. has launched strikes against Iranian-backed militias which have threatened U.S-backed forces in Syria.  Turkey has also bombed U.S-backed Kurdish forces.

Put it all together and Syria is a mess.  Within the country are Americans, Russians, Syrian-government forces, American-backed Syrian militias, Russian-backed Syrian militias, Iranian-backed Syrian militias, Turkish forces, and ISIS forces.  Broadly speaking, everyone is “battling ISIS.”  However, the Turks do not want the Kurds to gain power.  President Assad of Syria and his Russian allies want him to remain in power.  The Syrian rebels want Assad gone.  The U.S. wants Assad gone.  It’s hard to determine just who is whose ally in this tangle of alliances.

The risk is high, therefore, that a miscalculation can lead to a greater conflict in the region or see U.S. and Russian forces engage in a direct confrontation which could quickly escalate.  The emerging new “Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia could then get very hot.