Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 18, 2012

Syria: US reconnaissance drones, Iranian warships

Because there is no international security problem that can’t be ameliorated with drones, the Obama administration has deployed its platform of choice to perform reconnaissance over Syria.

We’ll get to the Iranian warships.  The drones – according to Pentagon officials, a “good number” of them – are reportedly being used to collect information on Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on his people.  They will provide supporting evidence to justify an international intervention in Syria.  The US officials say the intelligence collection is not a precursor to military operations in Syria.

The US has actually done this before.  During the gruesome internal conflict in Rwanda (back in the Clinton administration), when Hutus were massacring Tutsis, the US dispatched military reconnaissance aircraft to collect intelligence on the fighting.  We have also, of course, operated drones over Somalia and Yemen at various times in the last decade, both to collect intelligence and to target terrorists.  But in Syria, the interested parties include Russia, Iran, China, and a collection of Islamist groups.

The US administration’s interlocutors are not wrong to wonder if sending in the drones is a preparatory measure for sending in troops to intervene: the intelligence collected by tactical drones is more immediate, dynamic, and ephemeral than that gathered by standoff collection assets.  If you want to know what Assad’s overall posture is, you use the standoff assets; if you want to know what his forces are doing on a moment-to-moment basis, you use operational-level (e.g., Predator) or tactical drones.  (If there are a “good number” of drones being used, most of them have to be operational or tactical drones – and are probably Predator operational-level drones, with good range and altitude.)

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Iranian warships that stopped in Jeddah earlier this month have transited the Suez Canal – without any prior brouhaha in the press – and arrived in Syria.  They are in Syria exactly a year after their last visit, and presumably will offload weapons and/or ammunition from the supply ship Kharg, which is accompanying the Iranian destroyer.  Reporting from a Syrian defector (see last link) indicated that last year’s Iranian naval task force delivered weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime.

The ships’ arrival makes Iran the third foreign government that has been able, without hindrance, to enter a Syrian port and offload whatever it wants, in spite of the sanctions being imposed on the Assad regime.  Hugo Chavez has delivered diesel fuel to Syria since the sanctions were imposed, and Russia, besides sending her carrier task force to Syria during its recent deployment, used a commercial cargo ship to deliver arms to Syria in January.  The sanctions thus look pretty perfunctory (not to mention perforable).

Could a US drone be shot down over Syria?  Yes, the capability is there.  I don’t assess that Assad wants to do anything so provocative, and Russia – the supplier (and very possibly the current operator) of anti-air missiles in Syria – will want to keep things calm as long as possible.  But drones watching Syria will inevitably end up watching Russian forces there, and at a certain point Russia may well find that intolerable.  If a combination of Assad’s and Moscow’s preferences should cause them to want to exclude the drones, the question will really be whether anyone thinks President Obama would retaliate for a drone shoot-down or two.

There are too many variables in this situation to predict narrowly which direction things will go.  The reason for that is largely that the Obama administration’s policy is to avoid securing an outcome with the use of US power.  If the US will not seek a particular outcome, we will be consigned to waiting on others to do so.  There are many players, and numerous potential reactions.  The permutations of hostility and resistance along the way are endless.

What should the US do?  Our first principle should be that Assad must go, but that principle can’t stand on its own. It would not be better to have a new government of Islamist radicals than to have Assad in power.  It matters who takes over, and how.

A key problem, however, is that we have put our chips on Muslim Brotherhood groups and the brokerage of the Erdogan government in Turkey.  That is a very bad policy move, one guaranteed to generate enemies (Russia, China, Iran) for our non-policy policy while giving nations like Saudi Arabia less reason to endorse our activities.  We can’t make the Muslim Brotherhood good for the Middle East by throwing our weight behind it.

Doing so is, in fact, wasting and diluting the power we still have.  If the US policy were to fence in and discourage the Muslim Brotherhood, while bolstering liberalizing elements instead — elements that exist in every nation of the Middle East – we would make it more desirable for a nation like Russia to collaborate with us on the Syria problem.  Russia is the one nation that could directly help us to get rid of Assad; if one of our top objectives were to ensure that the follow-on government was not taken over by Islamists, we and Moscow would have that key objective in common.

The only way to secure a positive outcome in Syria is to use US power, under US strategic direction, to do it.  This has never necessarily meant military intervention, but it does necessarily mean acting with purpose and determination, rather than throwing random reconnaissance assets into the fray while handing the political problem over lock, stock, and barrel to the Arab League and the UN.  Even after the non-intervention intervention in Libya, there is still a level of respect for US power; it would still be possible for America to foster a good outcome in Syria by bringing together the positions of the various parties.

We cannot exclude Turkey, the Arab League, or Russia from Syria, but the US could establish limits on what they can hope to do there.  For the sake of the Syrian people and regional stability, one of the two most important things in ousting Assad is preventing an Islamist takeover.  (The other is fostering a positive character for the follow-on government of Syria.)  Liberalization of the Muslim Middle East faces obstacles under any kind of regime, but radicalization is most likely under Islamism.  There are elements in the Arab League (and in the larger OIC as well) that want an Islamist takeover as little as Russia does; there is common ground to be found if the US is willing to take leadership.

We have not been, however.  The Obama administration has chosen an ideological course of passivity as regards concrete political outcomes, combined with courtship of third-party Islamist groups.  This is an exceptionally bad approach.  Nothing this administration does is a conventional use of US power – and that is why Assad is still mowing down his hapless people while his allies deliver fuel and arms to him without let or hindrance from NATO or the United States.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


  1. It is interesting to note that the ‘Kharg’ is a tanker using “oldtime” boiler/steam turbine propulsion. It has a capacity of approximately 200,000 bbls. The Venezuelan ship has a capacity of 250,000 bbls of liquid cargo.

    Are Syria’s refineries having problems? It has two of them with a combined capacity of approx. 250,000 bbls per day.

    Here was an interesting tidbit that I found regarding “sabotage” of refined products infrastructure

  2. One troublesome aspect of the present situation in Syria is that a considerable amount of crude oil pipeline capacity from fields in Iraq and Saudi Arabia terminate at ports in Syria. That is an alternate route of trade should the Straits of Hormuz become closed (due tanker insurance suspension in that region).

  3. Why wouldn’t the Syrians or their Russian assistants shoot down a drone invading their airspace? The US justifying military action on the basis of such an event would be beyond provocative.

    When major league sports teams travel to a different city, the advertising is that “Jeremy Lin and the NY Knicks are coming” or “Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are invading”. Evidently people have a hard time ginning up hate for an abstract entity like the Dodgers. The case must be the same with national governments. Syria’s bad guy is Assad, Iran is captained by the evil Ahmadinajad, Castro bats clean-up for Cuba Roja. But Assad isn’t walking around with an AK-47, telling everybody what to do. All these guys have substantial retinues, lots of followers, or they wouldn’t be able to stay in power at all. They got their own team. The opposition are the losers in the struggle for power, but who’s to say that those fellows aren’t similar players on a different team, just as nasty, just as evil? Why would Saddam’s or Khaddafi’s or Assad’s opponents necessarily be good just because they’re opponents? Maybe there are no factions worth supporting in some of those places. Maybe we’d be better off not getting involved.

    • “Maybe there are no factions worth supporting in some of those places.” More accurately, there are no factions in Syria worth supporting that have a snowballs chance in hell of attaining and holding power.

    • Congratulations. You are capable of joined-up-thinking after all.

  4. Syrian opposition leader Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria is the figurehead needed.

    The Arab league is the regional political support needed.

    Turkey is the only Muslim nation with the military muscle who could maintain order in Syria while a transition government organizes and establishes itself.

    In the face of Russian and Iranian opposition, only the US possesses the influence and military muscle to oust Assad.

    Russia and China will block any UN endorsing of the ouster of Assad, so it would of necessity be a unilateral action on the US’ part.

    All of the needed elements are there, if the Arab league and Turkey could be convinced to get on board such a plan.

    None of this will happen.

  5. […] More here. // This entry was posted in Syria, US politics. Bookmark the permalink. ← CHARLES ADLER ON MUSLIMS RADICALIZED IN SCHOOL……. […]

    • And does one suppose that the Yeshivas run by extremist Rabbis in West Bank settlements teach their students Christian values such as respect for your neighbours and their property?

      Give us a break.

  6. Ok, Genius. Indulge us. Tell us EXACTLY how you would “use US power to secure a positive outcome in Syria”. All you have done is suggest we might try unspecified actions (It is never entirely clear) with, or against (It is never entirely clear) the Russians, Turks, and others (again, It is never entirely clear).
    I suspect from the general vagueness (and frequent incoherence) of your “analysis” that your only trick is to concoct an excuse for a rant against a President.

    • The comment “use US power to secure a positive outcome in Syria” implies that any US Pres. should at least try to use US power to effect the most positive outcome possible. Obama’s M.E. ‘policies’ fall so woefully short of that goal as to make clear he’s not even trying.

      The consequences of US passiveness is either the continued reign of Assad’s Syria, a terrorist supporting state or the creation of another Iran. Either outcome is inimical to US interests.

      Just above, I outlined the EXACT elements and their roles that could lead to a relatively positive outcome in Syria. I freely admit that the odds of success are problematic but given the alternative, we have little choice.

      That’s because our current path is leading to the emergence of more Iran’s. Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan & Jordan are all headed in that direction. The Arab league states current governments will collapse once enough Iran’s emerge, because the majority of their populations support radical Islam. Reflected in 84%+ Egyptians supporting the death penalty for apostasy.

      Four more years of Obama’s acquiescence and passivity will result in the emergence of an Iranian/Muslim Brotherhood led alliance of nuclear armed states, a new Caliphate as dangerous as Hitler’s German Reich.

      “When you’re one step ahead of the crowd, you’re a genius.
      When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.” — Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

      “All [any unpalatable] truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

      • I appreciate your thorough treatments on this, GB. The main point I would disagree on is the idea that the Russian position is intractable.

        The Russians know they can’t keep Assad himself in power, and they are not determined to do so. Numerous reports out of Europe and the Levant indicate that they are working hard to come up with a compromise to get Assad out. Reportedly, they are talking to Arab leaders and Turkey literally every day through diplomatic channels. They want to do it on their terms, but they know the only workable end-state is Assad being removed.

        What they won’t tolerate is what Obama and the EU have presented to them: a plan that allows the Muslim Brotherhood to install a new government in Syria, with the blessing of the West.

        If the US administration were as determined to keep Syria from going Islamist as Russia is, we and Russia would be able to work together on this problem. And we should be that determined. Russia sees the Middle East going Islamist with the approval of the West, and regards that as appalling, And RUSSIA IS RIGHT. It is the worst thing that could happen.

        We’re not in a permissive status quo any more, principally because the Obama administration has shown clearly that it will not use US power to guard the status quo: the network of expectations about what the great powers’ interests are and what we will do about them. One need hold no brief for Vladimir Putin or his brand of authoritarianism to recognize the valid concerns any Russian government would have about the course of events.

        Russia is the nation with forces all over Syria; it is Russia’s objections that have to be addressed if we want to end this thing peacefully. And the good news is that Russia’s chief objection is one we should share. No Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Syria. That’s an irreducible principle we should get 100% behind.

        • Sorry for giving the impression that I believe Russia view to be intractable. Of course it’s not, Russia has always understood and embodied Lord Palmerston’s aphorism; “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

          Indeed, Putin’s Russia has shown the ability to work with Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs! Which makes me wonder whether they are, in reality, as adamantly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in Syria as one might suppose.

          I suspect Russia prefers Assad simply because they know he’ll work with them and is unlikely to engage in actions directly opposed to Russia’s interests, whereas any other government is at least somewhat problematic. So for Russia, Assad is a case of “a bird in the hand is always better than a bird in the bush”.

          I’m convinced that the Brotherhood is going to take over Egypt and if they can find the funds, I expect Putin will ‘find a way to cooperate’ with the Brotherhood’s nuclear ambitions, which they surely must dream of.

          Once Iran gets the bomb, nuclear proliferation will explode throughout the region and Putin’s Russia will be at the heart of facilitating that proliferation. As, for Russia to regain it’s former glory (Putin’s end game), the precipitous decline of the US is required and, Obama is effectively collaborating with that goal…

        • You are still waffling.

          Is it seriously your proposal that we should join with the Russians to engineer the replacement of Assad, not with a a government chosen by the Syrian people, but by some regime more conducive to the US far-right and the Russians? (Strange bedfellows – but perhaps on second thoughts, not so strange!)

          • Paulite, I’m not going to answer stupid questions based on your flawed assumptions.

            The Syrian people would not vote to install a Muslim Brotherhood government. It would have to be imposed on them. This is the case for various reasons, among them that there is a very large non-Arab population in Syria and that a regionally-unusual amount fo religious freedom, for Christians and non-fundamentalist Muslims, has been an important condition in Syria for decades. Syria, like Iraq, is composed of multiple healthy minorities and is not monolithic in terms of Islamism or Islamist or “Arabist” identity.

            But the Obama administration has been backing the very Muslim Brotherhood forces that would impose an Islamist government on unwilling Syrians.

            The Syrians should of course get to vote for their own government. But that process should not be arranged for them by the Turkish-backed Islamists whom the Obama administration is supporting (who were photographed recently with members of al Qaeda with a pair of al Qaeda flags displayed behind them).

            It would be possible to work with the Arab League, Turkey, and Russia to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria. No one would get everything he wants, but concessions could be forced if the US were upholding the principle of not letting Islamists take over newly liberated peoples.

            This statement isn’t for Paulite, BTW, who will come back with some confrontational accusation or name-calling, followed by a misrepresentation of what I’ve said. That is never worth responding to. But it has been a while now since Western dialogue on these matters proceeded in sensible patterns, and it’s worth laying the case out.

            • The Obama has most certainly not backed the so-called Moslem Brotherhood to replace Assad. Your government has called for Assad to step down and stop shooting his own people. Our NATO allies have taken a similar stance.

              Neither you, nor I, nor the Administration, know for certain whom the Syrians would vote for in free and fair elections. After all, Syria is a Moslem country, and it is natural that its government might well opt for a government incorporating Islamist factions – moderate or otherwise. The assumption that such a government could only come about if be “imposed” on them is nonsense given what we have seen elsewhere in the region. (For example, its neighbour, Israel, has some very extreme quasi-religious factions in its government). But saying that the Administration is engineering the imposition of the Islamic Brotherhood on the Syrian people only betrays a judgement that is seriously deranged by animus towards the President.

              I may add, that you still haven’t provided details of the exact action, or actions, you consider the US should take. And, if you are not suggesting we join with the Russians to engineer or “impose” a post-Assad government in Syria in keeping with the preferences of yourself and Mr. Putin (irrespective of the wishes of the Syrians) perhaps you might clarify what exactly it is you are suggesting?

              Should I now presume you will now come back (in a cowardly, third-person way, of course) with some confrontational accusation or name-calling, followed by a misrepresentation of what I’ve said?

  7. Well there is a similarity with Iraq micro clique, the Tikritis ruling Iraq, till 2003,
    the Assads have a similar setup among the Alawites, as for the FSA, one assumes are predominantly Sunni tribesman, including those adjacent to
    Anbar/Dulaimi, but with Druze and Kurd elements.

  8. I would take Geoffreys spot on remark and expand it to include many parts of the arab world. That part of the world is on an express train to the 7th century.
    The Kingdoms may survive by buying off different groups. The military in Egypt may continue control.
    I do not fully understand the tribal influences in Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom may survive in some form.
    My man on the street view is the US has three important interests in the Middle East:
    (1) Free flow of oil/ clear un-interrupted shipping lanes
    (2) Protecting and supporting Israel
    (3) Continuing to seek to deny Russia any other warm water port.
    Geography has not been kind to the Russian Navy.
    Vladisvostok is the sole warm water port, but it is neutralized by South Koren and Japanese domination of the strait of Tsushima.

    I did not include the disposal of terrorists, because that priority is not limited to the Middle East.

  9. Unconfirmed report. Syrian SAM batteries (S-300PMU-2) operated by “Russian Technical” advisers have recently locked on to American UAV’s over Homs. It was requested that UAV’s be withdrawn immediately and not return.
    Another “UAV over Iran” style fiasco in the making?

    • Where did that report come from, jgets? Personal contact or is there a link? Thanks.

      • You will have to translate item. I don’t have time to provide a proper translation, sorry. Article quotes sources in Moscow. Incident allegedly occurred several days ago. Syrians acted like Castro during Cuban missile crisis, insisted drones be shot down. Russian upper echelons balked at idea. Russian request to US stated previously, US response unknown. Current US drone overflight policy over Syria unknown Current Russian rules of engagement on drones unknown. My instinct tells me both sides wish to show restraint. Your welcome

  10. Thanks, jgets. Very helpful. This article seems to suggest that the US made the UAV (drone) operations public because of the incident described.

    • My pleasure, I cannot vouch for the reliability of article’s intentions. Sometime this site is prone to hyperbole. The course of operations over the next few days should confirm whether in fact, the UAV overflights were made public because of the incident. I don’t believe DC or Moscow is dumb enough to let this get out of hand. Although, “stupidity has a habit of getting its way”

      • I agree — said in my original post — that neither side wants to start shooting over this. And I certainly hope both sides will exercise restraint. As long as the principals are the US and Russia, I think we will, at least in the sense of tactical confrontations.

        • JE, why all the hand wringing, concern,from Western Europe and the US about regimes in Libyia, Egypt, and Syria while the Iranian thugs receive only a muted round of “thats too bad”. The current administration has stated the fear of making the situation in Iran worse if we voice support for the opposition.
          I understand the situations are different, geography and the ability of the populations to fight are not the same.
          Is it simply the flow of oil blackmail game or am I missing something?
          The economic sanctions simply signal the Wests self imposed impotence, in my opinion.
          On a very serious note, I await your Spring Football Practice thread. Red-White is not that far off.

          • scale of the murders, use of artillery against neighborhoods rather than clubs against backs …and the difference between corrupt elections and the absence of any at all.

  11. The Syrian fiasco, like that of Egypt or Libya, is a normal feature of Oriental politics, dynasties come and go just as they always have. The travails of Assad and his subjects are a distraction from the most important issue right now, which is the disintegration of the European social welfare state. Ireland and Greece, to be quickly followed by Portugal, Italy and Spain, and ultimately the UK and France, are demonstrating what happens when democratically elected officials keep promises to the masses by mortgaging their countries for sums that can never be repaid. The US, too, is standing in line for this experience. While our political and economic elites have a very good chance of surviving the economic explosion with a minimum of discomfort, just as FDR, Colonel House and Harry Hopkins thrived during the Great Depression, the same will not be the case for the more ordinary citizens. It is an arithmetical certainty that the magical creation of trillions of dollars will dramatically devalue the greenbacks in your billfold or your IRA or your social security account. Assad can’t double the price of ham and eggs. The US Congress and BHO can.

  12. […] time, and meanwhile, the president’s continuing flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood is chilling the chances for any U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria: A key problem, however, is that we have put our chips on […]

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