Pivot to Asia; Duterte declares end of Philippines-U.S. war games

Reuters: “I am serving notice now to the Americans, this will be the last military exercise,” Duterte said during a visit to Vietnam. “Jointly, Philippines-U.S.: the last one.”

The significance cannot be overstated. While Reuters interprets this event as “fissures”, it is far more significant. It is a rupture.

The only mitigation of the bad news is that Duterte’s persona has not at this point completely infused and displaced the previous ethos of the Philippines’ government since the Marcos dictatorships: liberal, friendly, inefficient, tolerant, and corrupt. But given Duterte’s ability to actuate an extrajudicial war on drugs, the displacement may happen. Liberal Philippine politics seems in a pushover situation.

This is also the big issue of U.S. presidential election: the tradition of liberal democracy challenged by authoritarian promises of prosperity that would presumably result from greater order, at the cost of constitutional sacrifices dimly appreciated by large swathes of the electorate. Memories are short. The political pendulum oscillates with a period on the order of a generation.

The oscillation occurs spontaneously. It does not have to have a cause. But the timing is probably influenced by a rising China, the preeminent example of economic and social success under an authoritarian, elitist regime. The Philippines, in its short existence, has always been a poor country, struggling with a self-inflicted stigma of cultural dependency. This is why the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay was closed in 1992, though the closure was certainly catalyzed by some high profile crimes of American servicemen.

Duterte’s statements, predating his election, suggest his specific thinking. He wants Chinese money. He wants a railroad. He is unwilling to sacrifice  potential prosperity, even as a Chinese vassal state, for the abstraction of geopolitics.

So the future trajectory of U.S. / Philippines relations is stunningly derivable from open sources by appropriate consideration of Duterte’s history, demeanor, and personality. Duterte is a pragmatist in the extreme. He has no interest in the formal structures of either domestic government or foreign relations. He is more like a U.S. big city mayor from the early-to-mid twentieth century. Richard J. Daley comes to mind, though it remains to be seen whether Duterte’s course will follow the dictum, “Power corrupts…” Every once in a while, we find an honest  (personally) man.  But like a Daley, he already has a machine that can steamroller the institutions of Philippines government.

Arguably, Duterte’s apparent willingness to make the Phillippines a vassal state, and his authoritarian fix for social problems, could result in greater prosperity and happiness for the majority of Filipinos. The political history of the country suggests that Duterte’s tenure could be lifelong.

This severely weakens  U.S. military posture in the region. There is no alternative but to draw the line further out.

When order is missing, it is craved. When order displaces freedom, freedom is craved. So goes the pendulum.



Gulf may arm rebels now Syria truce is dead

Reuters: Gulf may arm rebels now Syria truce is dead: U.S. officials.

I haven’t published Syria Policy Review Part 3, because readers are preoccupied with the presidential election and domestic incidents of violence. Like you, I wish the problems of the rest of the world simply didn’t exist.

But a post from May,  Isis Attacks Russian Base T4; The Kremlin’s Missing Musical Notes might now be worth another look. At that time, I wrote:

But with all that, the U.S. is too sane to give MANPADs to the Syrian opposition. Other regional powers, to whom the Russian presence is a more existential threat, could break the unspoken compact.ROKETSTAN, a Turkish company, manufactures Stingers under license.

The purpose of the citation is not to give myself a pat on the back. But if I foresaw this, any government with a competent foreign policy research arm, or bureau, as the Russians call it, should have had the same anticipation. And the lack should be viewed as a severe deficiency.

This blog has at least a few Russian readers of significance. My question to you, rhetorically, of course, is, what were you thinking? Have you ever heard the poker expression, “overplaying a hand?”

I also wrote,

American policy is not exempt from criticism. Failing to recognize that hope is inadequate justification for  foreign policy, it lacks a prospect for the Russians to grasp. And with their musical limitations, the Russians are apparently unable to synthesize it themselves.

Those of us who deplore our relative lack of cunning compared to the Russians could enjoy a brief moment of schadenfreund, before we resume dolorous contemplation of U.S. policy, which seems almost instantaneously superseded by events.

Russia Bombs Aleppo Aid Convoy; Intentional?

Quoting The Telegraph,

Two US officials said on Tuesday night they had intelligence confirming that two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes were in the skies above the aid convoy at the precise time it was struck, and that the conclusion was that Russia was to blame.

 It’s worth quoting RT, because, as a state channel, their explanation is the Russian exculpation:

The Russian Center for Reconciliation said that it had used drones to accompany the convoy because its route passed through territory controlled by the rebels, but only to a certain point…Russian and Syrian warplanes did not carry out any airstrikes on a UN humanitarian aid convoy in the southwest of Aleppo,”  Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement Tuesday….Around 13:40 Moscow time (10:40 GMT) the aid convoy successfully reached the destination. The Russian side did not monitor the convoy after this and its movements were only known by the militants who were in control of the area,” Konashenkov added…The Defense Ministry spokesman said that the Russian military had been looking at video footage…“We have closely studied the video footage from where the incident took place and we did not find any signs of any ammunition having hit the convoy. There are no craters, while the vehicles have their chassis intact and they have not been severely damaged, which would have been the case from an airstrike,” Konashenkov said.

Several refutations are immediate:

  •  Unlike gravity bombs, rockets that strike trucks do not generally leave craters, unless the trucks themselves contain munitions that result in large secondary explosions.
  • The damage is not compatible with a heavy high-explosive warhead, one of the three choices for the KH-23 ground attack missile.  But it is compatible with another choice, a fragmentation warhead, which is the logical loadout for attack of unprotected positions, providing greater area coverage.
  • A relatively new tool, Google Search, is a remarkably useful tool for assessment of psychological perspectives. The search term is “Russians take responsibility for tragedy.” See what you come up with, from any time period.

But was it intentional, an act of revenge for   the mistaken U.S. bombing of Assad’s army? One additional detail of the Russian excuse is noteworthy, the Russian claim that the convoy was escorted by terrorists. Reuters reports , and quoting The Telegraph,

Russia’s defence ministry released drone footage late on Tuesday that it says showed a pickup truck carrying militants and hauling a heavy mortar driving alongside the convoy before it was bombed…In a statement posted on its Facebook page last night, the Russian defence ministry said the drone footage cast “new details on the incident.”…”It is clearly visible how terrorists deploy a pickup with a large calibre mortar alongside the convoy,” the ministry said. 

So what do we do with denials that smack of  O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It, resonating with the street classic, “I didn’t do it, but if I did, I was drunk”? Perhaps counter-intuitively, open source analysis requires developing the argument of the adversary. If you want to get fancy about it, we could quote Hegel ‘s thesis, antithesis, synthesis. By this process, we at least partially free ourselves from our personal biases.

The conclusion that the act  was intentional from the highest level weakens a little with the extended playout of Russian excuses. Typical Russian propaganda, prepared ahead of time, doesn’t pay much attention to temporal plausibility. It is also weakened by characteristics of  the Russian military about which the popular media is not very informative.

Of all the subjects covered in the popular press, military reporting is  the weakest, and unintentionally deceptive. For politicians as well as journalists, weapons systems are a kind of toy store, as well as  jobs programs for the elves that make them. Consequently, most of the world’s militaries are “hollow”, meaning that they are incapable of actualizing the incredible specifications their weapons systems are alleged to have.

Modern warfare is not composed of isolated weapons systems. They are complex syntheses of man and machine, not simply at the tip of the spear, as in the cockpit, but encompassing logistics, communications, and decision making that forms a kind of inverted pyramid. The pyramid is broad, heavy, and substantial, narrowing to the tiny needle of the warplane the carries out the attack.

The beginning of the modern pyramid dates back to 1937, in the U.K., in the design of air defense control that ultimately lead to victory in the Battle of Britain. Development in the West of operations research (OR), has been continual since that time.  The vast technological and procedural knowledge is continually augmented and passed on in our war colleges, which are nothing like the blog-fests of the major news sites. It is a serious, highly intellectual affair that eludes casual interest.

For the Russians, this is very new. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the advanced concepts of the West could not even be considered because Soviet doctrine was one of central control of relatively simple elements that were not expected to exhibit intelligent, initiative-born behavior. In lieu of modern, almost instantaneous command pyramid communication and control, the Russians relied on simple “standing orders.” Since that time, the Russians have embarked on drastic modernization, not simply of military hardware, but of the doctrines that run the whole enterprise. They haven’t had a lot of practice.

The video of drone footage provided by the Russian and exhibited by The Telegraph shows what the Russians call a “large caliber mortar”, towed alongside the stopped convoy. It cannot excuse the subsequent attack. But given the level of ability of Russian command-and-control, it may explain. The far better U.S. command-and-control system did not prevent the U.S. accidental bombing. Quoting CNN,

That’s a working theory of how US, British, Danish and Australian aircraft may have incorrectly assessed intelligence and targeted the site that killed more than 60 Syrian personnel near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The UK Ministry of Defence is saying it used drones in the strike.

And U.S. command-and-control, intelligence gathering, analysis, and decision has been honed to perfect pitch since the 1991 Gulf War.

The open source conclusion is that this was a Russian command-and-control misfire, approved at a level incompetent to make the decision.

Few are the countries strong enough to admit mistakes. Russia is not one of them. What remains to be seen is their sensitivity to human suffering.


New York/New Jersey Bombs, Part 3 — Terror Cell?

The five intelligence  crowd sourcing programs funded by IARPA had a common structure: a game, with “players”, such as yours truly, who made predictions by manipulating pie charts representing outcomes. Hidden in the bowels of the recycled software that ran these sites was a “market”, so that players were actually buying and selling shares in the outcomes of questions.

Each question had a meticulously devised set of outcomes. The purpose of the meticulousness was to insure that, come hell or high water, the eventual outcome would be one of the choices offered to the player. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In some cases, the question was invalidated, with no points or penalty to the player.

Happily, this has not happened this time. With the capture of Ahmad Khan Rahami, a well-written question would have had a valid outcome. We can now conclude that the bombings were terrorism. If you would like to continue to play the “game”, you may now wish to consider the following subsidiary question.

Is there a cell, or is Rahami a lone wolf? All of the information which has so far been arrayed to answer the original question, about a terror act, can be applied to this new question. As with the original question, your judgment will be formed from consideration and weighting of:

  • Forensics, available in open source, such as what has been revealed about the crime scenes.
  • Competence of the perpetrator and the technology used.
  • The resources of an individual.
  • The resources of a group.
  • How a group action might differ from one planned and executed by an individual.
  • Possible hybridization of the two, meaning, an atypical profile.
  • Anything else you can think up.

Have fun!

Terror bombs? New Jersey, Part 2

As of 2:32 a.m. CNN: Five devices were found near a bridge on the on the Northeast Corridor line in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  One of the robots sent to disarm a device cut a wire, and it exploded. These elaborations are given in the article:

  • The devices were not equipped with activation circuitry, such as cellphones or timers, so they were incomplete.
  • They were found in an area away from pedestrian traffic.
  • It is surmised they were discarded.

Logical thinking alone is not enough to milk this event set. This is an example of how an open sourcer benefits greatly from an insatiable curiosity, resulting in a large general fund of knowledge. Philip Tetlock’s online crowdsourcing prediction project, Good Judgment, creates the fund by forming teams. So get together with friends.

With that knowledge, which in this case regards the characteristics of explosives, this is what comes out:

  • The devices were discarded because they could not be used anymore.
  • They could not be stored for future use because the explosive substance is unstable. Hence the explosion when the wire was cut.
  • One substance notoriously fits: TATP, either as the main charge, or in a fuse, for which it is particularly suited . It is the favorite explosive of terrorists because it can be made out of household materials, and because it contains no telltale nitrogen.

EDIT, 8/20/2016, 1 a.m.: The initiator (fuse) has been identified (NY Times) as HMTD, another peroxide based explosive . It is more stable than TATP, except when exposed to common metals, such as the casing of a pipe bomb. This could have caused the explosion in Elizabeth when the robot cut the wire.

Unlike the use of stolen commercial explosives, TATP takes suicidal commitment at the outset. It is very dangerous to make.

It is also congruent with the NYPD controlled detonation Sunday at Rodman’s Neck. A commercial explosive would have been retained for analysis, tracing manufacture and sale. It suggests that while the bomb mechanism was sent to F.B.I. Quantico, the explosives were not, because they were too unstable to ship, and because TATP has no signature.

Practically speaking, all open source intelligence involves likelyhoods, and, at best almost-facts. There is a late, off the record statement of Tannerite residue in the 23rd Street explosion, and another citing black powder in the Seaside Park devices. Nothing has been said about the 27th Street device, where the explosive material was recovered intact. It’s up to you to decide where to place the above in this limited spectrum. Then add it to your derivation per New York Bombs, Terrorism?

New York Bombs, Terrorism?

Quoting CNN,

“We know it was a very serious incident, but we have a lot more work to do to be able to say what kind of motivation was behind this,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Sunday. “Was it a political motivation? Was it a personal motivation? We do not know that yet.”

The initial focus of this blog was on the techniques of open source analysis. Perhaps it is unfortunate that readers seem more interested in the results I obtain when I apply them. But this is an opportunity to refer back to the original purpose.  When an authority makes a statement on an issue which has not been factually decided, the content is not simply based upon the probabilities. Because the content of the statement becomes a fact in and of itself, a prominent factor is the effect on public welfare.

When an official public statement has the status of fact, criteria for the statement have evolved that surpass such things as probabilities and common sense.  The most obvious example is a criminal conviction. The guilt or innocence of the individual becomes a fact that supersedes personal opinion. You have probably followed a case in which the defendant walked free, yet your personal opinion of guilt did not change.

A purely opposite example involves the decision of turning the steering wheel of a car to avoid an obstacle. It is purely fact-based, relative to your personal perceptions. To prove otherwise would involve a complicated investigation, with complicated reasoning. And it has been done.

At this early stage, the event presents an interesting conundrum to the would-be open source analyst. It involves a meta-analysis of the thinking of the authorities who present the facts, basically as they see them, with some consideration for minimal disruption of the normal fabric of life.

The caution of the authorities in association of the event with terrorism could be due to technical facts, derived from crime scene investigation, and the forensics of the devices, that can trump every argument. Examples of the possible:

  • The devices are  missing parts that would enhance their lethality.
  • The level of construction is significantly beneath that seen in previous devices, or missing elements advised in terror training materials.
  • The signature of the explosives themselves indicate an origin not likely to be terrorist.

 Their caution could also be a consequence of the traditional tools of criminal investigation, which include the psychology of the criminal act, and profiling of the unknown perpetrator(s). An off-the-record statement has been made to the effect that the locations of the devices, which were not places of maximum public exposure,potential lethality, and landmark-value, runs counter to the terror hypothesis. These are weaker criteria.

Their caution could also be a consequence of the need of the investigators to prioritize limited resources. It is a natural tendency to explain operational procedures in the form of the official statements that have been made, even if not justified by the events.

All of this will eventually be supplanted by actual knowledge. In the meantime, it presents an interesting exercise for the open sourcer. In order to not short-circuit that, no opinion is offered. But don’t forget to include these factors in your deliberation:

  • Coincidence in time.
  • The at-least superficial resemblance to IEDs of the past, both related to terror, and the randomly personal.
  • The very low success rate. Out of a total of five devices, two pressure cookers and three pipe bombs, only two devices exploded, with no lethality.
  • The tentative similarity of the devices in NYC and Seaside Park.
  • Well developed theories of profiling, of both plain criminals and terror, exist to guide and prioritize the investigation. These are useful tools, but not as inviolable as technical facts. What are the alternatives?





Syria Policy Review Part 2

In the  open-source struggle for reliable information, Chatham House is  a high-quality source on the process of developing a new constitution for Syria. The dateline, 17 May 2016, offers a perspective more useful than immediacy. Since then, there has been absolutely no political evolution. Carrion eaters cluster around Syria as with the corpse of megafauna on the African plains. History suggests that this death of a nation is more a part the process of regeneration than we would care to admit.

When the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, a deeply intellectual life of national aspiration  evolved over the swath of land that includes the Levant, and adjacent regions, surviving until mostly exterminated by the Ba’ath Party. The remnants continue to comment plaintively from the sidelines, mostly, but not completely, drowned out by men-with-guns. An Al Jazeera editorial gives voice, lamenting the imposition of a process from the outside. Quoting,

What is most unfortunate is that the deliberation over the constitution will take place outside of Syria, among non-Syrians, and to the long-term, generational detriment of Syria and its people’s right to determine their future.

Intellectuals are not immune from disconnectedness with reality. The error of the quote is equating “people” with a body politic.  A “people” can be as impersonal as a census designation, or as poignant as a cultural group. But it can exist, as it does in Syria, without the possibility of political expression.

The existence in Syria of  isolated intellectual life may fuel the notion in the minds of our best thinkers that a body politic can be nurtured. In August, former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford criticized the Obama Administration for not forging “consensus”, a word belonging to the  political lexicon. CNN:

“The United States does not have leverage to forge a consensus,” Robert Ford told CNN’s Clarissa Ward, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour. “And, frankly, the Obama administration is doing very little, if anything, to generate leverage to forge that consensus.”

Taken in isolation, the above seems blandly helpful. But it contains, in latent form,  the  presuppositions of the neoconservatives, when they tried to construct a political state in Iraq from the ground up after the 2003 war.

In October 2015, Ford was interviewed by the BBC. Although Globalresearch.org is an interpretive, not a neutral source, their transcription is accurate. The transcript is so revealing of the purest form of the diplomatic mindset, I have chosen not to redact (ellipsis due to Globalresearch.org):

This is how I define as a moderate in the Syrian context, Stephen; a moderate is a group that accepts there has to be a political negotiation and there has to be a political process after a transition government is set up.. a political process to determine the future permanent government of Syria.. That there must be pluralism in that process… and it’s one that works with other groups/ factions in a pluralistic setting… I don’t agree at all with Ahrar al Sham’s desires to set up an Islamic State (in Syria).. but I have to admit that they accept the needs to be a political negotiation.. I have to admit they’re willing to work with other groups and they do on the ground with great effect…This is one of the reasons, they’re strong as they are, as you mentioned… It’s not a group I ever want my daughter to marry into… I don’t agree with their vision of society…but I would not call them jihadis, they’re not looking to impose an Islamic State at sword point… Different, they’re therefore, from al Qaeda… Different therefore from the Islamic State..And they’re willing to accept even such things as Parliament…and some kind of government institutions… So, yes they want Sharia … but the kind of Sharia they want may in fact, in the end, not look like the kind of Sharia the “Islamic State” already imposing over most of central and Eastern of Syria…

 Ambassador Ford has apparently not lived through an American presidential election, when some candidates offer and withdraw “promises” with the dexterity of a card sharp. With this kind of thinking, talk is the reality, and the reality is talk. It is an apparent residue of a diplomat’s education, and deep institutionalization of the State Department. It is not a particularly partisan phenomena. Not all diplomats think this way;  it is a hazard of “going native.”

The open source argument that Ahrar al-Sham is not benign, and would establish a “malignant” Islamic theocracy, has these points:

  • Cooperation with terror groups: transiently ISIS, and ongoing with Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda brand name.
  • Intermittent atrocities of significance, without punishment, or even identification, of the perpetrators.
  • As discussed in Part 1, strong influence  and participation of Salafist elements, the ideology of whom tends to merge in the psychology of war with Salafi Jihadism. This makes all representations by Ahrar al-Sham of respect for plurality meaningless.
  • As men-with-guns, they have the power.

In response to the above argument, a  thinker committed to the doctrine of Syrian national sovereignty might enumerate these options, and even choose one:

  •  If Assad is to be overthrown, there is no alternative to support of Ahrar al-Sham. And overthrow of Assad is preeminently desirable.
  • The U.S. should support Assad, since the level of future atrocities by Ahrar al-Sham is likely to be similar to that of the Assad regime.
  • U.S. policy has no options that could be morally redemptive, so we should disengage.
  • The U.S. should pursue “influence” as a goal, so that we do not allow Russia to become more “influential.”
  • The argument is false.

Some still hark to the Cold War, when “influence” was a currency sought to be mined wherever the Russians were mining, a tool for breaking the adversary bloc. The game lingers, but the etiology is different. To have “influence” implies ownership of a problem, which is not as universally desirable as in the time of the Cold War.

The options list is not inclusive.  In June, VOA News reported, “US Diplomats Criticize Obama’s Syria Policy”,  Quoting,

The criticism came in a memo signed by 51 mid- to high-level diplomats involved in U.S. Syria policy. It calls for targeted airstrikes against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The protest, filed through the State Department “dissent channel”, does not imply that the 51 mirror Ford’s credulity. There could be another thought option, the shaping of a situation by force, into one offering broadly different possibilities. It does not have to coincide with the views of Robert Ford on political evolution.

To be continued shortly.



Syria Policy Review Part 1

It is impossible to begin without mention of the U.S./Russia cooperation agreement.  Anything that ameliorates the suffering deserves kudos. The agreement has two inherent propositions:

  • Address the horrors of war by tactical measures.
  • Serve as a basic, incremental step away from conflict and towards political process.

So it might enable some good, akin to the small favor of a meal for a homeless person. It’s not going to change a life, but it leavens a life for a brief interval. The value of that is not to be dismissed. But the specialty of this blog is the largely immoral world of international relations. Because his volumes are so thick, I beg the indulgence of Henry Kissinger, who writes (paraphrasing) of the need to take small steps of uncertain moral value, in the hope that eventually, a better world will result.

The U.S./Russia agreement, by parties outside the region, is probably not a step towards that better world. The intent is blocked by too many parties native to the region. But potential value  is backstopped by conceivable near term accomplishments, such as the lifting of  numerous sieges throughout Syria, and the cessation of aerial atrocities. The terms  have not been made fully public. Plausible reasons  are to:

  • Allow fixing it by dynamic adjustment, without loss of credibility.
  • Avoid use of allegations of violation  by the combatants for propaganda.
  • Completely remove from view the issue of compliance by the Russians, with the hope that the personal touch will do what public embarrassment cannot.
  • Completely remove from view the issue of separating the rebels-who-are-not-terrorists from ISIL and Al-Qaeda.

The diplomatic mind casts the intermingling of the rebels with ISIS and terrorists  as an issue, which can change, in contrast to a fact which cannot.   In Turkey in Syria; The New Ottoman Empire; a Brief Note about Cultural Affinity, I wrote

Relative to the other players, Turkey and “the Kurds”, or the five or so groups of them,  are unique to this region in the degrees of their Western cultural affinities.  Cultural affinity is not of great significance to the diplomatic mindset, which is typically occupied with statecraft, geopolitics and, for us, the universal rights of man.

This is one wording of the dilemma that afflicts U.S. strategy in Syria. The largest-by-far opposition group,  Ahrar al-Sham and  (German Institute for International and Security Affairs)    Ahrar al-Sham: The “Syrian Taliban”, contains, along with Islamists, a Salafist component. Scholars debate whether Wahabism includes Salafism, or the reverse, the issues being historical precedence, commonality of beliefs, and divergences. All of the issues are debatable, save the popularization of Wahabism by a particular historical figure, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab .

The cultural distance of the western observer offers the objectivity of detachment. The apparent doctrinal differences are close enough to  merge with variations of the emotional states of the practitioners. These emotional states are dictated by the facts of war, which promote instinctual atrocities in the absence of strong social controls. Avoiding needless doctrinal analysis, Salafism, and by extension or primacy, Wahabism, contain the origins of the modern terror era. Opponents to the idea must refute Gilles Kepel, who coined the term Salafi Jihadism in 2002.

The seeker of a political solution might ask whether the Islamist component of Ahrar al-Sham could moderate the Salafist component. Here open source analysis relies on an “almost-fact” with no apparent exceptions. In every case of conflict in Syria and Iraq involving ethnic Arab groups, the more radical groups have dominated those with traces of moderation. The current success in Iraq against ISIL is not an exception; it has been enabled by U.S. air power, logistical support, and numerical advantage. And much of it is the work of the opposing fanaticism of Shiite militia.

 Except for ISIL, all parties to the conflict have expressed the intent to be governed by their own versions of the laws of war. For the sake of due diligence, let’s look at some statements. Hassan Aboud, leader from 2011-2014, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, (Wikipedia)

 “Democracy is people governing people, according to rules they please, We say that we have a divine system whose law is Allah’s for his creatures and his slaves who he appointed as viceregents on this Earth.”[74]

A diplomat might argue that Aboud’s statement does not represent the opinion of the majority of Syrians. But even if it happened to be so, Aboud’s group has the most guns. The Wikipedia article quotes a statement from this video (English subtitles), 49:00, by Mohamed Najeeb Bannan, a judge of the “Islamic Front” umbrella organization with which Ahrar al-Sham associates:

“One of their mistakes is before the regime has fallen, and before they’ve established what in Sharia is called Tamkeen [having a stable state], they started applying Sharia, thinking God gave them permission to control the land and establish a Caliphate. This goes against the beliefs of religious scholars around the world. This is what [IS] did wrong. This is going to cause a lot of trouble. Anyone who opposes [IS] will be considered against Sharia and will be severely punished.”

Without clarification from the speaker, the significant meaning of the above is that the only thing ISIS has done wrong is to criminalize, under sharia law, opposition to ISIS.  It might be the tendency of the western diplomatic mind to fill in perceived ambiguities with the products of the western mindset. But the statement is not political hyperbole, with potential for subsequent moderation. It is the statement of an Islamic scholar, and judge, who has been trained to speak precisely, in accord with his religious tradition. By  inference,  the regime of Syria under Ahrar al-Sham could be virtually identical to one under ISIS.

To be continued shortly. In the meantime, study this video on the problem of separating terrorists from the opposition.

N. Korea Nuclear Test

Readers who don’t go as far back as February of this year may be interested in the post “North Korea’s Plutonium, Iran’s Uranium / Suitcase Nukes”.

Our obvious worry is that it seems increasingly probable that North Korea will field a viable ICBM, capable of hitting the U.S. Psychologically, this takes us back to the time prior to the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China. Back then, both popular and informed opinion took seriously Mao’s boast that China had no fear of nuclear war. As Kissinger discovered, Mao, in his own words, was “firing an empty cannon.” It was all a bluff.

Now we are required to judge the sincerity of Kim Jong-un on the subject of bluff. His murderous instincts seem more gratuitous than Mao’s. But when in 1949 Mao was taking control from the bourgeoisie, his instructions were to kill one landowner in each village. Yet in the study of the mathematics of murder, Mao at his worst does not compare to the current situation in North Korea.

To us, the Chinese seem amazingly blase. They are convinced that the North Koreans would never use nukes against them. Their confidence may be more the result of familiarity with the culture, such as it is, of North Korea, rather than the shared border. China has a better lens for observation.

Our choices are difficult:

  • To put our faith in an ABM system about which Theodore Postol’s  skepticism hasn’t really been debunked. Postol used a seemingly bulletproof argument based on the required energy of a control system to prove that an ABM cannot work. I am neither seconding nor refuting. But the question is 30 years old, and still up in the air.
  • To literally starve, as in deprive of food, North Korea to the point that it loses all societal function.
  • A sanctions regime that actually works. The current one has at least one serious deficiency, allowing continued activity by North Korea flag carriers. By the of nature of shipping in general, this is a hole.
  • Temporize, kick the can down the road, in the hope that nothing will happen “on our watch.”

As a direct threat, the ICBM exerts an hypnotic monopoly. More concerning is delivery by stealth, as described in “North Korea’s Plutonium, Iran’s Uranium / Suitcase Nukes”.




Iranian Speedboats Harass U.S. Naval Vessels

Reuters:  Iran vessel ‘harasses,’ sails close to U.S. Navy ship in Gulf: U.S. officials, the fourth incident in a month.

The most obvious association is with the increased U.S. ground presence in Iraq, and the pending near-term expulsion or  severe diminution  of ISIS in Iraq. But this observation doesn’t nail down the purpose. Some candidates:

  • To intimidate the U.S. to the extent that a continued presence on the current scale would be thought too risky.
  •  To provoke an incident, such as the sinking  of an Iranian speedboat. This would be used to motivate and excuse actions by Iranian forces and Shiite militia against the U.S. presence.
  •  To set a confrontational example, with two purposes: A: In order to block potential co-opting of Shiite politics by the U.S. B: To motivate Shiite insurgency against the U.S. presence.

As a bare list, these are undecidable. But let’s consider further. The speedboats are operated by the navy of the Republican Guard, which is separate from Iran’s other navy. In recent years, the Republican Guard has emerged as a power center distinct from the theologians of Qom. But it is still infused with religious fervor, and retains legitimacy conferred by the  conservative faction of the Qom clerics. Of note, Qom has recently tilted in the conservative direction, the latest of several perturbations within the past five years.

The speedboat activity probably derives from the conservative clerics. The only other candidate for instigation is the Guard itself. Regardless of whose idea it is, it would not occur without the approval of the conservative clerical faction.

This allows consideration of a process unknown to western thought. Unlike Sunni Islam, which has no interpreters officially distinguished by the religion, Shia Islam requires that every follower choose a teacher, who is himself schooled in jurisprudence of Islamic law. The teachers are arrayed in a complex hierarchy of accomplishment. The most accomplished  are referred to as marja-e taqlid, meaning “source of emulation, or marjaʿ taqlīdī, “source to imitate.”

This permeates Iranian society with something akin to the therapy prescribed by behavioral psychology. The Western behavioral analogy is, “obtain the correct behavior and the thoughts will take care of themselves.” It explains the extreme contrast in Iran between behavior behind the closed doors of private residences, which is rarely interfered with, and public display of the like.

Since the speedboat activity originates in the minds of religious thinkers, it is likely intended for imitation. This thought process is alien to Western diplomats, except, possibly, those who have gone native.

Of the list of motives, the last one, “to set a confrontational example”, option B, is most congruent with marjaʿ taqlīdī.