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Extension of the New START Treaty?

A senior US State Department official told a seminar in London on 11 February that there remains time for Russia and the United States to work through processes for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that is due to expire in February 2021.  There are several extension possibilities in the treaty.

Rumors are that John Bolton wanted to try and lure China into a tri-lateral nuclear control agreement.  There are no rumors to date on what the president or his new National Security Adviser might be thinking.  I know from personal experience that time is actually short to decide to try for a treaty extension and then negotiate it.  Let alone add in the Chinese.  There has not been any evidence of the agencies—State, Defense, Energy, or Intelligence—manning up for such an effort.

The New START Treaty is the only strategic nuclear arms control agreement still existing between the United States and the Russian Federation. It was negotiated by the Obama administration and approved by the Senate. It limits both sides to no more than 1,550 strategic offensively deployed nuclear weapons on no more than 700 deployed launchers. Further, it provides the United States with access to and information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and vice versa. Both signatories are reportedly fully complying with the agreement, as verified by the U.S. intelligence community.  The new nuclear capable missiles deployed by the Russians into Eastern Europe are not covered by the treaty.

The agreement entered into force in 2011 and will expire on February 5, 2021. However the agreement can be extended by executive agreement for up to five years, a step that would not require further Congressional approval. Both the Joint Chiefs and the U.S. intelligence community allegedly support such an extension. Russia, for its part, has repeatedly and unconditionally offered to extend the agreement.

The Trump administration has been in office more than three years and has yet to determine whether it is interested in extending the New START Treaty. It is easy to see the administration holding such a negotiation as a carrot for after the election.  This might attract more moderates and some Democrats to support Trump.  Conversely new allegations of the Russians meddling in the election and supporting Trump could dissuade the administration from offering such a negotiation lest it appear soft on the Russians.

It is in this context that one should consider any reports of interest by the US in negotiating a new broader multilateral strategic arms control agreement either independently or with both Russia and China. Some American military and security officials are reported to be eager to expand strategic conversations with Russia to protect American interests, and also right to want new and expanded strategic conversations with China, whose actions and capabilities pose growing military and security challenges to American interests in East Asia. Those that are eager feel that discussions are urgently needed to prevent conflicts and diffuse unnecessary tensions in volatile areas and develop new rules for our growing competition with these states.

Before going any further one must determine who the people are that are reported to be eager for such negotiations.  To carry the day in the Trump administration they must be completely without any swamp smell.

What are the arguments for such an extension of the existing agreement and then its expansion into a tri-lateral agreement? It is well known that Russia is developing new strategic nuclear systems, some of which would be covered under the New START if it remains intact. Allowing the agreement to expire or trying to expand it in an unrealistic way and in an unrealistic time frame means Russia would be free after 2021 to develop as many of these new systems as it chooses without any constraint or rights of American access. Of course the US would have the same rights, but in a deficit cutting world there might be strong voices to avoid another nuclear arms race.

There is also nothing that prevents the Trump administration from extending the current agreement and at the same time beginning negotiations on new ones with Russia, China, or both.

As we go forward we will keep an eye on this area as there is the potential for much to happen..

Attack kills Quds Force leader

As was to be expected after the US attack on General Qassem Soleimani the media speculation, comparisons with the Clinton impeachment and scare mongering has dominated the “news” media.

First we should establish the known facts:

  • A US strike[i] killed General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in Baghdad
    • The Quds have been responsible for the death of hundreds of US personnel in Iraq.
    • The attack unfolded early on Friday local time in a precision strike on two cars that were carrying Soleimani
    • Soleimani had just arrived in Baghdad on a flight from Syria and was leaving the airport when he was hit
  • The attack also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Iranian militias in Iraq which led the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad.
  • Both the US Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State have stated unequivocally that the Iranians, using their proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the militias in Iraq were plotting attacks against US personnel and interests in the region.[ii]
    • The attack has therefore been categorized as a deterrent or preemptive attack.[iii]

The media hype has focused on the unrest that this attack is going to create.  The speculation includes:

  • Terrorist activities in the middle-east against US military and other targets
  • Attacks by “sleeper” cells in the US
  • Efforts by Iran to close the Straits of Hormuz
  • Attacks against Israel by Iranian proxies
  • Cyber-attacks anywhere in the world

The media has even gone so far in at least one case to refer to the attack as an assassination.  Of course this is an attempt to create another article of impeachment as assassination is against a US avowed practice as outlined in an Executive Order signed by Ronald Reagan.  This attempt is far fetched, but shows how desperate some “pundits” are.  The General was a military combatant on a battlefield and had just been responsible for an attack on a US embassy.  End of the assassination impeachment idea!

Each of the above attacks by Iran is possible.  One can be sure that US, Israeli and Saudi forces are watching for any and all such attacks.  One can also expect that any indicator of the possibility of a given type of attack could cause another pre-preemptive effort.

What if this attack, when coupled with the effect of the embargoes against Iran, is the tipping point that causes Iran to truly seek accommodation by pledging to withdraw its support of proxy forces throughout the region and agreement to adhere to a realistic regime of inspections and limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of the embargo.  Most will find this unlikely.  It does clearly define the US goal vis-à-vis Iran.

A possible scenario is that Iran does seek revenge by one of the above types of attacks and it is soundly stopped or pre-empted.  How many such rebuffs can Iran tolerate before internal domestic pressures cause political change?

Finally. Might this attack convince the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he is also at risk and be another cause of an Iranian reversal of policy?  Only time will tell, but all of the gloom and doom punditry is most likely just irresponsible punditry.

A follow up attack today killed another Quds Force leader.

 

As this gets posted the media is full of reportedly inflamed rhetoric from Iran and its proxies. Reportedly Iran has at least 35 targets on its target list, which could include US bases, ships, etc. and Saudi and Israeli targets.  We will follow such engagements, preemptions and reactions and report again in coming days.[iv]

[i] 1.  The speculation also abounds on the nature of the attack.  In one article the attack is described as an airstrike, a drone attack and a helicopter attack.  For sure it was one of these.  Each could launch precision munitions that could track and engage the two vehicle convoy.  The exact platform from which the munitions were launched may never be released.

2 ‘General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,’ the Pentagon statement said.

3..  Obviously, there was an ongoing surveillance of Soleimani using multiple means.  The New York Times reported that Friday’s attack drew upon a combination of highly classified information from informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance techniques. This shows how important the General’s activities were.

4. John Bolton is even reported as hoping that this will be the beginning of efforts to cause regime change in Iran. We will see.

Media Excursion

The announcement that the US would re-position some of its 1000 troops in Syria to avoid their being engaged by Turkish soldiers if they invade has created another firestorm in the media.

Now that the Turks have started their attack there are numerous reports flying around:

  • Civilian targets are being attacked
  • The Kurds have requested that the US impose and enforce a “no fly zone.”
  • The Senate is considering severe sanctions against Turkey

The media and even some Republicans fear is that Kurdish fighters may be attacked by Turkish armed forces moving into north-eastern Syria.  In essence the media and other pundits are saying that the lives of US soldiers should remain at risk in order to protect the Kurds.

Hidden in all of this punditry are several hard facts:

  • The Kurds, with US support are holding 11,000 ISIS prisoners. An attack on the Kurds would possibly result in their freedom.
  • There are only about 50 Special Forces that are being tactically relocated.
  • The US has always wanted the US presence in Syria to be a short term operation
  • Now that the Turks have invaded their stated goal is to create a free zone in Syria so that many of the refugees that are in Turkey can be relocated to this safe zone
  • There is no indication that the Russians in Syria will get caught up in engaging the Turks—if that should happen it could trip the NATO obligations of other states to come to the assistance of an attacked ally. There are even reports that the Russians were trying to negotiate some form of cease fire.

What I seem to have missed in the reporting is why the Turks chose to attack into Syria now.  Probably missed because there are so many possible explanations:

  • Expansion of Turkey’s geographic area of control
  • Resettlement of Syrian refugees
  • Further destabilizing Assad of Syria
  • Weakening/destroying the Kurds

None of these explain the current timing.  Could the real reason be because Erdogan is in trouble politically?  The above objectives could all be valid but the domestic political situation is responsible for the present timing.

If the Turks don’t attack the Kurds and their US Special Forces advisors there will be no problem.  The US will have reduced its footprint in Syria and be on the way out, leaving the resolution of the conflict to regional actors with the Kurds secure in an enclave away  from the Turkish border.

So when you cut everything away the media frenzy is about US credibility in supporting allies in the future.  This assumes that the Kurds are being deserted by their Special Forces advisor / assistants and especially that their logistical support and air support will be shut off.  It is difficult to see that happening if for no other reason than the 11,000 ISIS prisoners that they hold.

In a perfect world the Kurds and Turks could coexist and the Syrian refugees could be relocated from Turkey into this safe zone.  Such a coexistence would be a very fragile one.

Strategically, there is still something missing from the above discussion.  We will watch the situation and update it as appropriate in the future.

We’ll see what happens.

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Update: The Korea -US summit–the process continues

For the last 2 weeks the North Koreans and the US have been playing many “cards” in their efforts to have the upper hand in Singapore.  Let’s review the high points.

  • The North Koreans walk out of a meeting with the ‘south Koreans and issue a searing critique of National Security advisor Bolton. The critique was against him personally, but more importantly the North Koreans were rebelling at the Libyan example—Kaddafi denuclearized and then 15 years or so he was overthrown by rebels armed and provided air support by NATO and then subsequently murdered.  Not a good image to send the North Koreans.
  • The North Koreans also slowed discussions about the summit.
  • President Trump talked less positively about the probability of the summit and mentions the military option.
  • The president send us a letter to Kim Jun Un that was very conciliatory and positive but cancelled the summit.
  • However the President continues with a scheduled meeting with President Moon of South Korea. The two president talked about trade but one can be sure that they were seeking to show solidarity and soften the rhetoric.
  • Today President Moon and Kim Jun meet in for 2 hours in Panmunjom and talked about the relations between the two Koreas. Some pundits of course argue that they can have a summit and don’t need President Trump probably because they don’t understand the “process”
  • Sarah Sanders announced that the US advance team departs for Singapore tomorrow to prepare for the summit.
  • Positive remarks are heard around Washington to include from the President
  • There may be several more back and forths but unless the North Koreans play a strong antagonistic card one can expect a reversal of the cancellation this coming week.

The search for an advantage will continue by both sides but it looks like there will be a summit.

Update 2 on the Korean negotiations

 

Just as I think that I have the process and its linkages figured out the North Koreans throw a curve ball!  The cancellation of yesterday’s talks as a protest against US – South Korean previously planned military exercises may tell us some things about the process continuation.

The North’s official news agency said Pyongyang had called off high-level talks with Seoul. Citing first vice minister of foreign affairs the news agency  said the fate of the unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit, as well as bilateral relations, “would be clear” if the United States spoke of a “Libya-style” denuclearization for the North.

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit”.

There are several possible messages here:

  • There may be a power struggle between the hardliners and those in favor of denuclearization within the hierarchy of North Korea
  • We may be witnessing the traditional North Korean drive a hard bargain approach, which is not incompatible with the first observation
  • This may be a test of President Trump—how tough will he hang? Will he be willing to walk away?

Interestingly the dialogue with Secretary Pompeo by phone has continued.  This is most likely just another negotiating gambit.  However, the power struggle argument must be given serious consideration.  The North Korean military is first in the “chow line” when it comes to the government distributing what little bit of resources that it has.  If the military believes that this favored position will be threatened by denuclearization and the end of the “almost hostilities with the South and the US” then it may be trying to force a more belligerent and stronger position.  It wants its share of whatever good comes form the summit.

Only time will tell.

Update: The Korean negotiation process

Yesterday we published an analysis of the process leading to the meeting of President Trump and Kim Jung Un in Singapore on 12 June.  This is an update on that analysis.

The north and south are meeting today in Panmunjon to further refine the issues of economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

This is a further part of the process.  The process has two levels:

1.    The north south issues

2.    The denuclearization issues which is the US focus

Obviously the two levels of processes are interconnected and it will be impossible to work one process to a successful outcome without the other.  The economic vitalization of North Korea is dependent upon the relaxation of sanctions and economic embargoes which is in turn dependent a denuclearization agreement.

Given these dependencies one can imagine a direct linkage between steps in the two.  In other words, as certain steps are taken in denuclearization certain sanctions and embargoes will be relaxed.  These connected steps will be detailed and require significant negotiation.  /this suggests that the best one can hope for coming out of Singapore in 28 days is a broad agreement that sets the negotiation of the detailed linkages noted above.  The agreement will have both sides make good faith actions immediately to establish a maintainable momentum.

As the details emerge in the coming days this framework should become more evident.  Stay tuned.

Really?

Immediately after the President’s announcement that the US will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal the liberal fake analyst pundits announced that the decision would undermine the negotiations with the North Koreans.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In my recently published blog (the workup to the Korean Summit) I wrote: “The Trump Administration will most likely add into the Korean position its stand on Iran.  The Iranian agreement does not provide the example that the Trump Administration wants the North Koreans to think is in the realm of the possible.  It is sure to highlight the loopholes in the Iranian deal no matter how it decides to go forward.”

In other words the withdrawal will highlight to the North Koreans that they cannot get away with some fluffy document that has numerous loopholes and a lack of comprehensive verification of whatever is agreed to.

As the “we hate Trump pundits” look for something wrong with the withdrawal the North Koreans will have received several meaningful messages.  The most important is that they must agree to a comprehensive denuclearization or they too can be isolated like Iran.

What are your thoughts?

Attack on Syria–Many Dimensions

As the Saturday morning quarterbacks seek to portray the coalition missile strikes in ways that support their own agendas it seems necessary to attempt to provide a multi-dimensional view on the strikes.  These dimensions include:

·         The military implications of the strike

·         The diplomatic messages

·         The domestic political reaction

In response to the Syrian attack on its own people using chlorine gas a coalition of British, French and American naval and air forces launched missile attacks against 3 chemical production and storage facilities.  The objective of the attack was two fold:

1.       Seriously degrade/reduce Syria’s chemical weapons capability

2.       Deter Syria from future chemical weapon usage

Reports indicate that the missiles hit and severely damaged their targets.  The ability and methodology used for the attacks indicate the ability to synchronize target engagement between multiple platforms and national assets.  The US attacks came from naval forces in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean ocean.  Air assets launched missiles while over Saudi Arabia and the Mediterranean.  While launching the missiles each element of the attacking force took air defense, naval and cyber efforts to protect the force.  Reportedly all missiles hit their targets while the Syrian missile defense efforts were an abysmal failure.  The Syrians reportedly launched over 40 air defense missiles and none of them successfully engaged a target.  (The Russian disinformation campaign reported that there were 103 missiles and 71 shot down.)

Militarily the mission was accomplished.  However, some pundits are seeking to use this description of the reaction was to be expected as no matter what President Trump and our allies do there will be detractors who are looking for opportunities to speak against the President.

The diplomatic messages of this strike go far beyond the Syrian government.  The clear pronouncement that the intent was not to target Syrian President Assad tells Kim Jung Un of North Korea that the US can accomplish its military objectives without necessarily threatening the regime leadership. (This is not to say that decapitation isn’t an option.)  With the upcoming denuclearization discussions between President Trump and Kim Jun Un it is clear that Kim not necessarily feel personally threatened.

The preparations for the North Korea / United ‘States historic meeting are ongoing using multiple different avenues for the preparation of the meeting.  Reportedly CIA Director/Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo is leading the back channel preparatory talks.  The summit will follow a meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart.

Israel is touting the strikes as a message for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Russia is certainly evaluating President Trump’s resolve to not condone chemical weapon usage.  The same is true for Iran as the May Iran nuclear agreement review approaches.  John Bolton’s appointment as the National Security Advisor also tends to show an increased hardline by the administration on the major issues facing the United States.  Certainly potential adversaries are viewing this whole set of events as a new entity.

The continuing fight against ISIS may have had an unintentional consequence.  The net winner of ISIS’s destruction is clearly President Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.   The anti- Assad forces were not capable of filling the vacuum created by the damage to ISIS.  The continuing conflict in the region is extremely complex given all of the players.  This has been a subject of previous articles and one that we will return to in the future.

True to form the hard left politicians like Nancy Pelosi are condemning the attacks as uncivilized.  This condemnation is to be expected.  The other side of the aisle has been supportive the attacks.  However, there seems to be a universal return to the discussion of the war fighting powers of the President.  This is a continual power struggle between the executive and the legislature.  This debate is probably more posturing than reality but may continue for several weeks and then return to its traditionally dormant status.

The attack against Syria may be the opening gambit in several future conflicts–Russia‘s desire to increase its posture in the Middle-East, Iran’s goal of forming a Caliphate across the region and its conflict with the Gulf Cooperative Council, and Israel’s continual struggle for survival.  These are all issues we will be watching closely.

Whence goes North Korea?

North Korea has recently announced a willingness to:

  • Meet in a summit of the Koreas
  • Defer its nuclear and missile testing while seeking some form of negotiated agreement
  • Stated a willingness to de-nuclearization in exchange for some form of non-aggression effort from the US.

The recently concluded Winter Olympics provided a scene changer and face saving opportunity for the North Koreans.  Behind the screen of the Olympics the North Koreans could say that the atmosphere of détente offered by the South and the world conclave showed a different face of a world willing to talk to the Koreans.  It might be that the continuing tightening embargoes and financial and trade isolation of the North was finally being felt.  Those who oppose President Trump’s saber rattli9ng will be quick to jump on this position.  They will also quickly seek a loosening of the military build-up and potentially the offer of lifting of trade restrictions to show good faith.  To say that this is what the North Koreans are seeking would be an under-statement.

The North Koreans played a similar game with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with the desired results.  The North Koreans have demonstrated a much longer view of history than past US administrations.  The North’s bellicosity is reduced, promises made, military preparedness reduced and from Clinton energy and trade concessions made in exchange for what?  Words?  What concessions in reality were made? NONE!

A program of international inspections to verify the dismantling of certain production facilities—nuclear and missile technologies—is what is required for there to be a meaningful change in the situation on the Korean peninsula.  Will the North Koreans agree to such terms?  Will the South Koreans have the backbone to hang tough in demanding such terms in the face of numerous promises and possibly even the renewal of family visits?  That would be tough for the South Koreans to do.

In short while the North Korean words sound good, we are a long way from a meaningful resolution to this almost 75 year old growing problem.  This will require continued vigilance and as Ronald Reagan said: “Trust but verify.”

Behind the smoke screen?

President Trump’s tweets and what seem to be off the cuff remarks are providing a perfect smoke screen for the media that want to focus on what they think is outlandish rather than do good journalism and find out what is happening behind the smoke screen.

Behind the smoke screen and the bluster and the magician act that the President is using to focus attention there seems to be a lot going on.  Hate for Trump, which the President thrives on, is allowing strategic activity that would remind one of the Kissinger days when the bureaucracy was busing doing busy work while real strategic moves and ground work were occurring behind the scenes.

McMaster

                                                        National Security Adviser                                                                Lieutenant General H R McMaster

If one follows the National Security Adviser LTG H R McMaster there is not much to see until this last week. During the annual Munich Security Conference he seems to have emerged and has laid down several markers:

  • Used the incontrovertible truth that Russia sought to sow instability in the US elect ion process as a background to say that it was impossible for the US to work with Russia on cyber issues.
  • Called for action against Iran while scolding those states that traded with Iran for giving the terrorist sponsor a blank check
  • Called for action against Syria for using chemical weapons again

In addition he orchestrated the current Olympics lowering of the volume with North Korea.  One can readily see the North Koreans using the very fragile détente with South Korea coming out of the Olympics as an excuse for a “delay” in missile testing.

One can be sure that both LTG McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis, who has also adopted a low profile, are very aware of the trategic weapons growth by the Russians and Chinese and are laying long term plans to address the potential imbalances.

As the remarks in Munich indicate relations with Russia and the current sanctions will not improve until Russia makes a positive move in the Ukraine or elsewhere. In the meantime the nuclear modernization announced by the President will go on unabated.  Is the ground work being laid for a new round of arms control negotiations in 2019?

If the naval armada that has gathered in the South China Sea as a deterrent to North Korea starts migrating towards the Persian / Arabian Gulf one can anticipate the screws being applied against Iran.  Obviously Secretary of State Tillison and LTG McMaster’s trips to Turkey and discussions with the Saudis and Israelis have laid the groundwork for such actions.  These discussions also have further provided the venue for a consensus on how to deal with the continuing Syrian debacle.

In the first year of the Trump Administration while working behind the Trump smokescreen Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS), was put together by McMaster’s team. It champions a realpolitik worldview that puts American national interests first and sees the world as a competitive stage. “The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world,” the NSS states.

Additionally, it has a focus on “revisionist powers” China and Russia and “rogue regimes” North Korea and Iran as acting in ways that are against American interests. “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”

The strategy development in which the entire national security apparatus –State, Defense, and Intelligence Agencies etc.—participated took a year.  The media has given little attention to this strategy complaining that it is lacking in detail.  One is now starting to see the details based upon that the interests and objectives that were clearly defined and agreed to across the government.  In their most likely timeline now is the time for the deliberate but well thought out execution behind the smoke screen provided by the President.

It will be fascinating to see the media reaction as they see behind the smoke.  Or will they given their Trump hatred?