According to much of the early commentary, Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday before two US congressional committees was a disappointment.
Democrats are frustrated the special counsel did not make a clear-cut case for impeaching President Donald Trump. Mueller answered questions in the most minimalist way possible, often suggesting congresspersons simply read his report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats wanted Mueller to testify in the hope the American public would start paying more attention to his findings on how Trump obstructed justice.
It turned out that Mueller’s testimony was more sophistic than animating. But it did again highlight damning things about the president’s behaviour.
During the hearing, Republicans unimaginatively echoed Trump’s claims of a “witch-hunt” and asserted that the Mueller report turned up no evidence of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election or of obstruction of justice.
Like Attorney-General Bob Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller report, these claims by Republicans this week were not true, but they have created a narrative that Trump is innocent. This claim is given ballast by Republicans’ allegations that FBI agents conducting the Mueller investigations were politically biased because some of them had said negative things about Trump in private correspondence or donated money to the Clinton campaign.
If saying highly negative things about Trump behind closed doors disqualified bureaucrats and politicians from doing their job, Washington DC would grind to a halt. However, in public Republicans are sticking with Trump, doing his bidding in the Congress and tying their fortunes to him at least for the foreseeable future.
Democrats may initiate impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, but the trial ultimately occurs in the Senate, where the Republicans have a 53-47 majority. As a result of these numbers and the need for a two-thirds majority vote to dismiss a president, removing Trump from office via impeachment proceedings is very unlikely.
Republicans are showing no signs of abandoning Trump. It is worth remembering that no president has ever been removed from office by the Senate, although two – Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson – have been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Given these political rather than legal realities, will Democrats continue to push for Trump’s unlikely impeachment? The answer is yes. Although Democratic house leaders led by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, are urging caution, the fresh wave of Democratic congresspersons elected in 2018 who rode a strong wave of anti-Trump sentiment in their congressional districts will continue to push hard for impeachment.
However, this divide can be overstated. As Pelosi’s comments following Mueller’s testimony demonstrate, the fact that Republicans control the Senate and are unlikely to convict the president may not factor into future considerations among the house leadership. Pelosi wants a strong case, not an act of political theatre. As she put it:
The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook.
Pelosi knows that the case against Trump continues to build. Democrats are pursuing the president in federal courts for a number of alleged financial improprieties, and the House Judiciary Committee is preparing to enforce a subpoena against Don McGahn – the former White House Counsel allegedly directed by Trump to fire Mueller during his investigation.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Mueller confirmed that Trump pressured McGahn in yet another attempt to obstruct justice. Those who have read the Mueller report would know that there were many such attempts. These include Michael Flynn’s lies to the FBI about his conversations with Russians during the transition, the pressuring and eventual firing of FBI director James Comey, and the attempted cover-up of Don junior’s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016 to get whatever dirt he could on Hillary Clinton.
The challenge for Democrats, if they go ahead with impeachment in the House of Representatives, is to articulate a clear case about why such drastic action is justified.
In legal terms, the case that Trump obstructed justice is strong, whereas the case for collusion with Russia is weaker.
It is easy to impute guilt by association with Trump and the Russians. First, there are Trump’s business dealings with Trump Soho and the push to have a Trump Moscow hotel. Then there is Paul Manafort’s close associations with Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, there is Steve Bannon’s appreciation of Putin’s support for ultra right-wing populists across Europe.
However, the Mueller report and his testimony produced no smoking gun. Mueller rightly warned that the Russians have an ongoing campaign to undermine the faith of Americans in democracy. Given the existing levels of frustration and apathy about politics in America, Mueller’s alarm on this issue should be taken seriously. This was one of the few issues that the reluctant witness Mueller became more animated and forceful about.
Many of us are following the vast cast of characters central to the Trump era, the complex details of the Mueller report and Trump’s financial dealings, as well as the congressional hearings into Trump’s behaviour in office.
However, there is a simpler reality to keep in sight. That is that during the Trump presidency, the truth has been more politicised than ever. Increasingly, the truth is presented as a lie and a lie as the truth.
Amid the news last week that the perpetrators responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) will be put to trial next March, a report was released identifying further suspects responsible for escorting the missile to and from the launch site.
Who were the investigators behind the report? The CIA? MI6? No. It was Bellingcat, a large group of mostly volunteers working from laptops using only information available to anyone with an internet connection.
In February, Bellingcat also identified a third suspect alleged to have been involved in the poisoning of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom last year.
Bellingcat describes itself as citizen journalists, but its activities illustrate a growing phenomenon my colleagues and I call “citizen intelligence.” This is work that would count as intelligence gathering or analysis within an intelligence organisation, but it’s undertaken by citizens operating outside the traditional intelligence ecosystem.
The rise of citizen intelligence
Citizen intelligence has been made possible by the internet in various ways.
Since its advent, we’ve seen an explosion of “open source” information. That is, data that’s accessible without any special organisational privileges. For example, just by opening Google Earth you can view satellite data of the kind only available to analysts in government agencies not many years ago.
There are now free new tools for gathering and analysing these vast troves of information, such as the analysis platform Maltego. Aspiring citizen analysts can now train themselves using resources available online or in workshops offered by various organisations.
Expertise in intelligence work is no longer the preserve of those hired and trained by traditional organisations. Powerful collaboration platforms, such as Google Docs, allow interested individuals to work effectively together, even when scattered around the world.
It could get even bigger
We’ve all seen how global, cloud-based marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have transformed their respective domains. Citizen intelligence could grow even faster if a suitable marketplace is developed. At the SWARM Project, we’ve begun exploring the potential design of a platform where those seeking intelligence can transact with those willing to provide it.
What might that look like? A marketplace for citizen intelligence could be built on a “sponsored challenge” crowdsourcing model.
Imagine an organisation with an intelligence question. Say, for example, the organisation wants to identify potential threats to a proposed infrastructure development in an unstable region. The organisation pays to have the question posed as a challenge on the platform, with a prize for the best answer. Groups of citizen analysts self-organize and submit reports. When the deadline is up, the best report garners the prize – and bragging rights.
Why crowdsourced citizen intelligence could be effective
There are reasons to think that crowdsourced citizen intelligence could match, or outperform, traditional intelligence organisations on some kinds of tasks. Traditional organisations have advantages, such as access to classified information and highly trained analysts, but crowdsourcing has compensating strengths.
Many intelligence organisations are small and under-resourced for the number and complexity of issues they are supposed to handle. Crowdsourced intelligence can potentially draw from much larger pools of citizens. For example, the analytics crowdsourcing platform Kaggle has over a million people signed up, and it gets literally thousands of teams competing on big challenges.
With scale comes diversity. Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives. A question like the one in the example above might require fluency in an obscure dialect, or specific technical know-how. No intelligence agency can maintain in-house everything it might need for any problem.
Crowds can be more agile than agencies, which are risk-averse bureaucracies. For example, individuals can more quickly access and use many of the latest analytical methods and tools.
Perhaps most importantly, intelligence work by unpaid volunteers is driven primarily by passion. Passion certainly exists within agencies, but is often stifled in various ways.
The SWARM Project ran a tournament-style experiment in 2018 that illustrated how everyday citizens can sometimes beat the professionals. Teams tackled four tough, fictional intelligence problems over four weeks. Some teams were made up of analysts provided by organisations with intelligence functions, some of analysts recruited via Facebook, and some of citizens (non-analysts) recruited via Facebook.
On average, the citizen teams outperformed the professional analysts – and some of the citizen reports were astonishingly good.
How this could affect the intelligence industry
Citizen intelligence will likely create some headaches for intelligence agencies. For example decision makers might increasingly look to citizen sources over formal intelligence agencies – particularly where citizen intelligence delivers reports more quickly, or with more “convenient” findings.
On the other hand, citizen intelligence could have a lot to offer intelligence organisations. A suitably designed marketplace might enable the traditional agencies to take advantage of the power inherent in the crowd. Such a platform could be a “force multiplier”, at least for certain aspects of intelligence.
In view of these potential threats and opportunities, the Australian intelligence community should get on the front foot, shaping the future of citizen intelligence rather than just reacting to it.
This is a condensed version of a presentation given at the Technology Surprise Forum, Safeguarding Australia Summit, Canberra May 2019
The New York Times reported earlier this month that the United States was increasing its cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid. The attacks are seen as a warning against Russian intrusions into US systems, but one that carries a risk of escalation.
The public reporting of previously covert cyber attacks earned a retort from US President Donald Trump, who accused the New York Times journalists of a “virtual act of treason”.
But the story has been useful in generating discussion about the reasons for – and potential consequences of – such actions. It also raises the question of how vulnerable Australia’s power grid is.
So let’s take a look at who is capable of carrying out these kinds of attacks, how they work, and whether Australia is doing enough to protect itself.
Are these attacks limited to the US and Russia?
Recent events may be newly reported, but the events themselves aren’t that new. Russian cyber attacks on US infrastructure may have been going on for years. According to the New York Times report, the US may have been undertaking similar intrusions in Russia since 2012.
While the story is limited to discussing cyber conflict between the US and Russia, there are many nation states with the ability to carry out such attacks.
To make things more complex, non-government actors can also launch cyber attacks. That includes individuals, organised crime groups, and proxies for nation states.
Why are we learning about this now?
When we talk about cyber security, and how to defend against threats from nation states, we’re usually talking about protecting confidential information. But when it comes to power grids, confidentiality isn’t particularly important. What is important is continuity of service, also called “availability”.
An adversary’s power availability would be a high-priority target during a conflict. Outside of conflict, the only logical rationale for a nation state to intrude on such systems would be to undertake reconnaissance and deploy malware that can remain dormant until needed.
In this regard, it doesn’t make sense that the US would intentionally leak its efforts, as appears to have been the case. It would prompt Russia to find the malware and, by disclosing intrusion techniques, it would “burn capabilities”.
Additionally, evidence of attacks could lead to an escalation of cyberwar between the US and Russia. Escalation is unlikely as long as responses to counter cyber attacks are undertaken in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality. But the uncertainty of attribution and consequences creates a potential for miscalculation in conducting cyber attacks.
The New York Times article was notable because it suggested the US president gave his commanders authorisation to undertake cyber attacks without his oversight. To avoid miscalculation, a balance is needed between a speedy response in cyber “active defence” and the kind of proper deliberation that will ensure the response is appropriate.
To date, there is no evidence that nation-state delivered attacks have resulted in power outages in the US or Russia. The apparent leak to the New York Times may not relate to a specific counterattack against the Russian power grid. Instead, it may be a form of diplomacy intended to signal US willingness and capability to counterattack.
How are such attacks possible?
Critical infrastructure is a term that refers to chemical production plants, power stations, oil platforms, and water pump stations. The technology that operates such infrastructure is called “operational technology” (OT). OT is a cyber-physical system that controls electricity generators and valves that mix chemicals in vats or transfer gas through pipelines.
To understand the threat, it helps to contrast OT with information technology (IT).
Confidentiality is a primary consideration for IT staff, who are focused on securing data from threats. They are well practised in patching vulnerable systems under their control. In an OT environment, availability is the primary driver, so keeping the plant working is considered more important than protecting against cyber threats.
Another difference between the IT and OT worlds is the lifetime of assets. OT system devices are built to last a long time before replacement. Using legacy OT technology that still works in itself is not a problem, as long as that technology is separated from other systems.
But the IT and OT worlds are converging to enable remote control and access to real-time plant operating data. Aside from the tension between priorities of confidentiality and availability, this convergence opens up OT vulnerabilities to attack.
When OT systems were developed decades ago, there was little thought of security, since most systems were only accessible on-site or through dedicated networks. With IT-OT convergence, keeping systems secure becomes a priority, but not at the expense of availability. Stopping a system, either for an update or due to a cyber attack, results in lost revenue and impact upon customers who could, for instance, lose power to their homes.
Have we seen successful attacks in the past?
Cyber attacks on Ukrainian power stations in 2015 and 2016 affected more than 200,000 customers, and provided lessons for the rest of us.
These events showed that an attack was more than just theoretical in the domain of energy systems. Engineers needed to physically visit each substation to return systems to operation.
As similar technology is used worldwide, the power grids of other nations are potentially vulnerable. Additionally, the malware used to command and control attacks is increasingly available for hire as cyber crime moves to a service-based model. And more sophisticated tools mean attackers require less skill to locate and attack internet connected devices.
How vulnerable is Australia’s power grid?
In 2016, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel released a review into the future security of the national electricity market. Following advice that the cyber threat to the national energy market was increasing, Finkel recommended stronger security measures be put in place.
By 2017, some action had been initiated to mitigate threats in the energy sector. Subsequently the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 was passed. The Act contains elements to help the government better appreciate the risk and to make certain directions to service providers to increase security.
The government is reportedly considering a proposal to enable the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to access the networks of companies operating critical infrastructure to defend them against cyber attacks.
In 2018, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released the first annual report into the cyber preparedness of the market, identifying that current provisions are inadequate. AEMO has established a framework for operators to assess their security maturity, and strengthen measures.
For many critical infrastructure systems, OT is a sunk investment that would be expensive to replace. Implementing substantial security improvements to upgrade the legacy energy environment will also be expensive, and it’s likely that costs will be passed onto customers. But there are cost-effective ways of improving security, including threat/vulnerability system monitoring. Some companies in Australia are doing this.
Cyber warfare is a reality. We should expect that cyber criminals and nation states adversaries could have some impact our lives in future by attacking critical infrastructure, such as the electricity grid.
Securing our infrastructure is a priority for the government and increasingly recognised as such by the market participants. The cost and need for security mitigations may seem unpalatable to many, but steps need to be taken to prevent a return to the dark ages.
Dutch prosecutors will launch a criminal trial in The Hague on March 9, 2020. But the accused are beyond the jurisdiction of the court, and will most likely be tried in absentia. This means the accused will not be physically present in the court room.
The prosecutors argue the four accused were jointly responsible for obtaining a BUK TELAR missile launcher (a launcher for self-propelled, surface-to-air missiles allegedly owned by the Russian military) in the city of Kursk, and launching it from Ukraine.
They say the four men are responsible for the atrocity because they had the intention to shoot down an aircraft, and obtained the missile launcher for that purpose.
While investigators have not accused any suspects of actually firing the missile, they say in future they may identify others with that responsibility.
For the victims and their loved ones, these Dutch criminal trials present the best hope of legal acknowledgement for the tragedy.
The MH17 atrocity
On July 17, 2014, flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine.
The Joint Investigative Team (JIT), led by Dutch authorities and comprising investigators from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2016 that the flight was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.
The JIT identified the launch location as a field in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was in territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
The countries central to the investigation – including Australia, which lost 38 people – and the victims’ families have explored a range of legal strategies to assign blame for the attack.
Some civil claims on behalf of victims’ families are ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights.
And hearings are ongoing before the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine seeks to make a case against Russia. Ukraine cites the MH17 atrocity as characteristic of broader Russian aggression and lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected this week’s announcement, in line with its earlier rejections of the JIT conclusions. It said:
Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier called the crash a “terrible tragedy”, but said Russia bore no responsibility for it.
Russian officials have claimed they were prepared to assist the investigation but had been “frozen out” of it.
Who are the accused?
Three of the four accused are Russian nationals, believed to be living in Russia.
Igor Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian security service. At the time of the atrocity, Girkin was the minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region of Ukraine.
The other two Russian accused, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, are former Russian military intelligence agents who worked under Girkin.
Leonid Kharchenko is the only Ukrainian national accused. Investigators are not certain of his current location. At the time of the atrocity, Kharchenko led a separatist combat unit.
The specific charges in relation to the four named suspects will be:
Causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, punishable pursuant to Article 168 of the Dutch Criminal Code
The murder of the 298 persons on board of flight MH17, punishable pursuant to Article 289 of the Dutch Criminal Code.
The investigation is ongoing and continues to call for witnesses to assist.
What are the prospects for the trial?
Dutch investigators will issue international arrest warrants for the four accused and place them on international wanted lists. But they won’t issue extradition requests because they know already that no extradition of nationals is available under the Ukrainian or Russian constitutions.
It seems impossible for the Dutch court to gain actual jurisdiction over the Russian accused. Potentially, should Ukrainian authorities apprehend Kharchenko, he could be tried via video-link.
The Netherlands and Ukraine have entered into an agreement that would permit such an arrangement and – should Kharchenko be convicted – allow for his imprisonment in Ukraine.
The charges and any penalties originate in Dutch, rather than international, criminal law. Convictions for murder or the intentional downing of an aircraft could result in sentences of up to life imprisonment.
It’s fair to question the value of a prosecution without a court having actual jurisdiction over the accused. The only real answer is that such a trial would enable the presentation and adjudication of evidence and the judgement of a court as to whether charges are made out.
As time goes, the chances of successful prosecutions decline. Meanwhile, interested countries and the victims’ families continue to call for legal redress for the atrocity.
It is also legitimate to ask whether a court can ensure a fair trial for accused persons tried in absentia.
Although it is not explicitly prohibited by international human rights law, the absence of defendants and presumably any legal representative from the courtroom means the accused will not hear the evidence against them or have the ability to present a defence.
Given the four named accused are beyond the actual jurisdiction of the Dutch courts, it can be argued that they (and, at least in the case of Russia, their country) are wilfully avoiding the process of justice. This may be, for some or many observers, sufficient justification for trying them in their absence.
It is 9am on a chilly March morning. Delegates from across the world have assembled for an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main decision-making body. The main item on the agenda: an update from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe on Russian escalations in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, to determine NATO’s response.
No one doubts the gravity of the situation. Russian forces are moving west to occupy parts of Ukraine beyond the Donbas region and the Crimea. There have also been severe Russian cyber attacks on German infrastructure, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to invade Estonia. NATO’s secretary general has asked one of his predecessors, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, to join the meeting and share advice.
Do not adjust your set: this meeting took place, but it was a simulation – set in a very near future in which the Ukraine has joined NATO and the UK has left the EU.
These kinds of exercise are conducted regularly by NATO and national armies to anticipate what might happen in the “fog of war”. Standing in for the NATO headquarters in Brussels on this occasion was the University of Stirling in central Scotland. The delegates were students on the university’s masters programme in international conflict and cooperation, and the doctorate in diplomacy.
Lord Robertson was the only person playing himself. He briefed delegates under Chatham House rules on his time chairing NATO, including the historic decision on September 12, 2001 to invoke collective defensive action under Article 5 of the founding treaty.
Immersed in NATO’s engine room, our delegates had to strike a balance during two days of negotiations between countries advocating conflict resolution and those inclined to deterrence – if not pre-emptive action. As well as informing the students’ learning, it produced the following insights for the real world.
1. Russian capabilities
Delegates had to assess Russian defensive capabilities using real-life data. They concluded that while Russia looks strong on a country-by-country comparison, its armed forces remain stretched and are sometimes poorly equipped. Russia would probably not be able to sustain a war with NATO troops over several months, and would likely be challenged by fighting on two fronts.
Having said that, the country’s forces have recently modernised, making them more effective than a few years ago. Russia is also closer than most NATO powers to Ukraine and the Baltics, so could mobilise more quickly and potentially gain strategic advantages.
NATO action in Ukraine would be complicated by a low bridge that Russia has opened connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. This makes it difficult for larger ships to move between Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and the Mediterranean. Russian expertise in cyber attacks and creating confusion by spreading fake news could also create disunity among NATO members.
Takeaway: the Russian bear is frail but can still bite.
2. Expect complexity
Countries in our simulation negotiated according to national interests. The multilateral negotiation splintered into smaller discussions as mini-alliances emerged. For example, Turkey – with its improving relations with Russia and exposure to potential refugees – was so conciliatory to Moscow that its NATO membership became questionable.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ukraine and also Romania, which feels threatened by Russian aggression in the Black Sea region, sought immediate offensive action. Alliances like these weren’t always visible to the outside world. They complicated negotiations, especially when such countries had essentially non-negotiable aims.
Takeaway: things are not always what they seem, even within a negotiation. Try and stay flexible, and don’t rely on media reports about counterparts’ interests.
3. Events, events, events
Just like in real life, our delegates had to keep monitoring an internal news feed. In one announcement, Russia began mobilising after hard-line statements from certain NATO members leaked to the media on day one of the negotiation. Several times, discussions had to start from scratch as delegations changed priorities and strategies.
Takeaway: constantly ask yourself how events affect your own position and those of your counterparts.
4. Clarity under pressure
With full military intervention and occupation of Ukraine by Russia on the cards by the middle of day two, NATO allies had to deploy ground troops or risk ceding ground to Moscow. Issues agonised over the day before became less relevant as delegations were forced to compromise in the interests of collective action.
Takeaway: time pressure can make decision-making hot-headed, but can lead to clarity of purpose. Negotiators who understand this can use it to their advantage.
5. EU security
As EU members of our fictional North Atlantic Council discussed issues among themselves, we witnessed how the EU has become a geopolitical actor with “state-like” qualities. Before committing to security actions through NATO, EU members negotiated with each other and sought a coherent position.
One important dimension in the real world is the EU’s Russia sanctions, which are slightly different to US sanctions. With Ukraine now also party to an EU Association Agreement, the EU is demonstrating its capability to project power abroad.
Takeaway: the EU is developing its own geopolitical and security role in Europe, with potential consequences for NATO.
6. The UK squeeze
Within NATO, the UK has generally mediated between the US and usually softer EU positions. Our simulation showed that after Brexit, despite its important role as a nuclear-armed NATO member, the UK will likely feel squeezed between the US and EU.
Takeaway: the implications of Brexit for the UK in NATO deserve more attention.
7. Refugee risks
In our simulation NATO members closer to Russia, such as Poland and Hungary, were particularly worried that military action in Ukraine would lead to a large number of refugees – with potentially serious domestic political consequences.
Takeaway: we don’t always take enough account of the linkages between military and human security.
8. Take positive decisions
When the BBC war-gamed a similar scenario several years ago, the UK got drawn into a nuclear war. Our fictional delegates managed to avoid such awful outcomes by using what deterrent power they had. They combined mobilisation with the offer of talks in such a way that Russia backed off. Despite some hawkish pressure, the situation was mostly defused by dominant countries such as the US as well as conciliatory EU voices.
Takeaway: On March 18, on the fifth anniversary of annexation, NATO reiterated its view that Crimea is Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, hostilities continue in Donbas. The apparent stalemate in Ukraine could change overnight – not least with the presidential election at the end of March. If so, NATO members will have to make a choice, despite the fact that Ukraine is not currently a member of the alliance. As became clear to our participants, the one thing you can’t do in a moment of international crisis is to refuse to act if your interests are at stake.
December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
On October 20 2018, US President Donald Trump announced he intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – an arms control treaty with Russia that contributed to the end of the Cold War.
Russia followed suit and reports say it is aiming to create new land-based missiles within the next two years. Reports also say the US is allocating funds for the research and development of such missiles.
So, what is the INF Treaty? And will its collapse lead to an increase of global nuclear tensions that marked the Cold War?
What is the INF?
The INF Treaty took seven years to negotiate, contributed to the end of the Cold War and ushered in three decades of strategic stability.
US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on December 8 1987 to give effect to their declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
The treaty prohibited the development, testing and possession of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500km to 5,500km, whether armed with nuclear or conventional warheads.
A joint statement from Reagan and Gorbachev noted:
This treaty is historic both for its objective – the complete elimination of an entire class of US and Soviet nuclear arms – and for the innovative character and scope of its verification provisions.
It entered into force on June 1 1988. By its implementation deadline of June 1 1991, 859 US and 1,752 Soviet missiles had been destroyed.
Reflecting the dominant Cold War architecture of nuclear arms control, the INF Treaty was bilateral. US National Security Adviser John Bolton, writing in 2011 as a private citizen, conceded the treaty had successfully “addressed a significant threat to US interests”. The threat was a surprise Soviet/Russian nuclear attack in Europe using missiles in the 500-5,500km range.
But the arms control architecture began fraying when US President George W. Bush pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001. Signed in 1972, the ABM controlled systems designed to counter “strategic” ballistic missiles, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
With the INF Treaty now dead and another arms control treaty, New Start, set to expire in 2021, the world will be left without any limits on the two major nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.
What now, for Europe?
Since 2014, under the Obama administration, Washington has accused Russia of deploying nuclear-capable ground-launched missiles with a 2,000km range (the SSC-8) in Europe that are non-compliant with INF Treaty obligations.
The US decision to pull out of the treaty will deepen the strains in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Baltic countries insist Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty demand robust diplomatic and military counter-measures. The UK has lined up firmly behind Washington, blaming Russia for the breakdown.
But Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, urged Washington to consider the consequences of withdrawal for Europe and for the future of nuclear disarmament. And the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said:
The INF contributed to the end of the Cold War and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture.
NATO stands to lose more from the INF Treaty collapse than Russia. Russia will be able to move ahead rapidly with the development and deployment of short and medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles. But, unlike in the 1980s, the US would face difficulty in finding allies in Europe prepared to station such missiles on their territory.
Also, would the host countries have a voice or veto on launching them and in choosing targets?
What about the Asia-Pacific?
In addition to alleged Russian violations, the US exit is motivated by China’s growing challenge to US dominance in the Pacific. China and North Korea have been developing missile-delivery capabilities.
“To reduce the threat from INF-range missiles,” Bolton concluded back in 2011, “we must either expand the INF Treaty’s membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrent capabilities.” Trump has done the latter.
As a non-signatory, China is unconstrained by INF Treaty limits. About 95% of its missiles are in the prohibited range. This enables it to target US ships and bases from the mainland by relatively inexpensive conventional means.
Without INF restrictions, the US could develop and station ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missiles across the Asia–Pacific, which would force Beijing to divert significant military resources to defend its homeland.
China’s nuclear stockpile has remained relatively stable over many years despite the fluctuations in the Russian and US numbers. It is below 300, compared to nearly 7,000 and 6,500 Russian and US warheads, respectively.
This signifies a policy of deliberate restraint in China despite substantial growth in economic and technological capability since its first nuclear test 55 years ago.
The collapse of the INF Treaty and deployment of China-specific US missiles could compel China to institute counter-measures – such as rapidly expanding its warhead numbers and missile-delivery systems – to protect vital security interests, including nuclear assets deep in its interior.
China’s response in turn may trigger re-adjustments to India’s doctrine of credible minimum deterrence and could produce matching re-adjustments by Pakistan. The nuclear arsenals of both these countries is presently limited to under 150 each.
In a worst-case scenario, China, India and Pakistan could engage in a sprint to parity with the US with a rapid expansion of warhead numbers and missile-delivery capabilities, and perhaps even move to keeping a stock of nuclear weapons on high alert just like Russia and the US.
However, economic and technological limitations will constrain India and Pakistan’s ability to engage in an open-ended nuclear arms race.
Expanding arms control
The sensible alternative would be to begin urgently multilateralising the Cold War bilateral structure of nuclear arms control regimes. This means involving more countries than just Russia and the US in arms control treaties, and in particular involving China. Chinese nuclear expert Tong Zhao’s conclusion holds for the whole world, not just China:
… the era of relying on the US-Russia bilateral arms control structure is at its end.
Multilateralising the arms control negotiating process and resulting structure will avoid a free-for-all nuclear arms race and instead anchor strategic stability in arms control agreements.
Meanwhile, thanks to Donald Trump and John Bolton, we shall continue to live in interesting times.