Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Propaganda and truth in Syria

These days it can be hard to know where the cold reporting of facts gives way to propaganda and public relations.

Journalism is the discipline of gathering facts and relaying them to the public in a comprehensible way. It’s an important part of a progressive society to have a free press, one removed from political motivation of manipulation. This is the process, generally speaking, that Western journalists follow to gather their news each day. It is a robust and healthy profession that is ever-changing and evolving.

However, the very openness of our society sometimes makes it easy to manipulate the media. Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war and it has been attacked for centuries. Our standards for what is real or true are high, but the constant stream of information makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially in warfare.

A few weeks ago the reasons that are convincing the international community to not intervene in Syria were explained. Outlined were the main arguments against intervention, from the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) to the political fallout of post-regime collapse to the spread of weapons to the rest of the Middle East or even non-state actors in the region (now including the fear of chemical and biological weapons, of which Damascus has an enormous stockpile).

Many of these reasons for inactivity are explained by NATO and U.S. military advisors. The chances of significant outside assistance for Syria’s rebels fade as each day passes.

However, there’s one important piece of the puzzle that was missed, and for good reason: propaganda. That people are only obliquely discussing it points to its great effectiveness in the raging Syrian internecine war. Everyone seems to be focused on the imminent collapse of the al Assad regime. The rebels, say all the papers, have struck “significant blows” to the regime and are “gathering momentum”.

Indeed it was Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu who proclaimed that no-one believes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will keep his position. Davutoglu and other leaders are already preparing for the future when Syria will need a new leader. Who that might be is as yet unknown, but even the Syrian opposition cannot agree on a rightful successor. And if they cannot agree, then a smooth transition must be fanciful.

International leaders announce weekly that opposition fighters are quickly overwhelming Syrian government forces and closing off strategic routes. And yet, Damascus was able to position thousands of troops, drive tons of armour and fly squadrons of aircraft towards Aleppo a few days ago.

The logistics include a long, but direct route north through western Syria. Taking the troops through Homs, Hama, and Rastan (three towns that have seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces over the past year) should have been near impossible. Such a route would surely be overrun by opposition forces.

Yet the Syrian troops managed to move through these towns with ease and launch a siege on Aleppo within hours. Syria’s largest city is important to the rebels, but the regime needs to gain control if it is to scatter the opposition.

A casual viewer of this intense conflict would assume Syria imminent collapse. With rebels pouring out of dark alleyways throughout the country to visit death on the dwindling regime figures, al Assad must be grasping at legitimacy as his power falls away from him.

The powerful propaganda machine has encouraged this idea to the waiting world media. Remember, for many months the international media has not been officially allowed to cover the conflict from inside Syria. They instead have to rely on snippets of home-videos or camera-phone movies, smuggled out of Syria. The viewer is constantly reminded that no report can be independently verified. So exactly how the media justify replaying them is a mystery.

These videos of vicious fighting between government forces and rebel groups, some supposedly showing artillery shelling and helicopter gunship strafing, have caused uproar around the world. It is said al Assad has clearly lost control of the situation, turning his troops into death-squads and incarnations. Photos and videos of massacres where children were targeted, no, executed by government artillery have trickled out supposedly showing how monstrous the regime really is.   

Yet only recently, alongside United Nations and Arab League observers have small portions of the international media gained any access to Syria. Inside they are finding the situation less gratuitous than perhaps expected. Fighting rages and people die, but the wanton destruction and wholesale murder of Syrians by al Assad’s troops is not happening as expected.

Indeed, it is becoming clearer that many of the ‘massacres’ may not have occurred as first described. Closer inspection of infamous videos reveal killed people, not by shelling as first explained, but by close-range small-arm fire. The deaths might have happened during a fire fight between government troops and rebel fighters. But other reports indicate it opposition members who committed the atrocities against Syrian regime supporters. Government troops may not be to blame after all for the Houla massacre.

The media failed to follow up this clarification and very few people know what actually happened, it is unlikely we will ever know for sure. Yet the propaganda that al Assad is a monster was released to the world, and the damage was done.

In the same way, not every explosion captured on video is unambiguously a nasty attack from Syrian government forces. The lack of context of the shots is exacerbating the already foggy nature of the conflict. Of course, horrible things are done by both sides in war, regardless of who occupies the “good” side. War is never fought by perfect angels; there is always carnage and stray bullets.

But it is incredibly important for the opposition to employ propaganda techniques. The rebels desperately need direct foreign intervention, so they have an incentive to ratchet up future reports of massacres to make al Assad appear more grotesque and illegitimate. Even at the expense of truth the rebels will fabricate stories.
This is to be expected. Whenever intelligence agencies are involved in conflicts (and that is every time) it pays to monitor the media. While journalists love to report the truth, they can be manipulated just like any other human. For example, a “Mohammad” calls a reporter residing in Turkey or Lebanon revealing a story of a new massacre or a victorious foray into government-held territory. The reporter has no way to verify the claim, but does have a deadline fast approaching. The reporter considers the validation, and writes the story. The result is obvious.

In Syria, Western intelligence does have a goal. Removing al Assad is strategically important because it undermines Iranian hegemony in the region. They must stop short of applying kinetic force to physically oust al Assad. But they have openly claimed to covertly assist the rebels with weapons and intelligence. To spread the idea that al Assad is ready to fall, international intelligence agencies and the Syrian opposition begin to seed the media with half-truths and exaggerated stories.

Whether the Syrian regime is about to collapse or whether it will remain for some time is simply unknown. At the moment, the regime can obviously still trek from one side of their country to the other and lay siege to a city. However the constant redeployment of troops is surely taking its toll on morale.

It is true key members of the al Assad regime were killed in a recent bombing that shows some signs of foreign assistance.

And also, many high-level defections are stressing the regime and sowing discord amongst those who remain at their posts. Yet even the most high-profile defection, that being of the Tlass clan, is not as it appears. This defection supposedly heralds the demise of the al Assad family, so close was Tlass to the Syrian leader. However, the Brigadier General Manaf Tlass had apparently already fallen out of favour with al Assad during the first stages of the uprising last year, and he had lost command of his troops up to 14 months ago. Some sections of the Syrian opposition are calling him to step into leadership when al Assad falls. Yet not all the rebels agree with this. Tlass now resides in France and is not showing signs of wishing to return to his embattled country soon.

All this is pointing towards al Assad’s demise. But while he has lost important strategic pillars of the state, al Assad survives. If the Syrian leader is as threatened as the media say, why does he still maintain relative control over his armed forces? Why is he able to drive rebels out of Damascus? Why is the Syrian government still functioning, even sending officials abroad to attend meetings?

Al Assad is doing what any government does when rebels threaten the incumbent regime. He is moving quickly and violently to stamp out the insurrection. No country would find this policy alien. China used force, Israel uses force, Thailand uses force, and even the United States during their civil war used force. An armed insurrection must be broken early and hard, otherwise more people die the longer it drags on. It might hurt to say it but, any government would probably do the same. In fact, because the al Assad regime realises it is fighting a foreign-backed insurrection, its actions become more legitimate in the eyes of supporters and could be making their responses increasingly vicious.

What is bothersome is how the media seem to be vacuuming up every video or phone call from the Syrian opposition without the slightest means of verification. Sure, the government in Syria is issuing similar propaganda to international media, I can understand this. But they are using the same methods for propaganda as the media-savvy and intelligence-backed opposition forces.

To loudly proclaim the rebels as inexorably pushing back government forces is assuming that stories from the Syrian opposition are all true.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Chinese military expansion warrants close scrutiny from Pacific states

The world’s biggest military expansion is not American or European, it is Chinese.

While their growth has been advancing for some time, the trend is so slow and steady that most media outlets have opted not to report on it, instead favouring more dramatic and easier-to-explain world events.

For New Zealand, Chinese military expansion is a crucial pulse to monitor. Such a large trading partner, and one Wellington is prepared to fortify ties with in the future, is going from strength to strength and by some accounts will overtake the United States in economic output sometime in the next few decades.

Given the likelihood of future trade and cooperation between the two countries, New Zealand should be aware of how China is spending its new-found wealth.

Even now, Beijing’s defence spending grew from a modest $30 billion in 2000 to a much more respectable $120 billion in 2010 according to the research institute SIPRI. This should come as no surprise. It is natural for a growing economy to invest in an indigenous military to guarantee trade routes and protect its borders, but China’s expansion bears scrutiny. A four-fold increase in military funding over ten years betrays a restlessness in Beijing or in the very least points to China’s security at home.

Beijing’s military spending, if trends continue, is set to surpass Washington’s by 2035. American military planners have indeed noticed this, so it is hard to believe U.S. officials who proclaim their strategic pivot towards the Pacific isn’t meant to counter China’s expansion.  

It is not exactly useful to look at the motives or the ‘why’ of the Chinese build-up; ideology changes and motives alter over time. What a government says today may evolve later into something quite different. After all, it is quite clear why a country like China is injecting more funds into its military. One reason is Beijing’s calculus about its interests as a global power and how they must not be limited or restricted to local, finite, resources. Therefore spreading influence and gaining accessibility to regional or even global resources is the next logical step. Expansion is key.

A crucial rung in this expansionist ladder is of course a capable navy. China has been without a capable navy for much of its existence, focusing instead on protecting its borders and keeping the peace inland amongst a historically restive, and gargantuan, populace.

Today China has competently fortified its borders and continues to control an ethnically diverse, yet largely poor, population. Indeed, 40 percent of Chinese (or 500 million people) live in sub-Saharan poverty of below $2 per day. China’s vaunted two million-man army is not an expeditionary structure. Its existence keeps the Chinese rural inland under control and off Beijing’s strategic radar.

This explains why, for a traditionally land-based military, China has treated the high seas as a luxury. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Chinese military build-up therefore is the modernisation, and development, of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N). This has not been a cheap exercise for Beijing because navies are incredibly expensive purchases. Historically only strong countries with excess capital can usually afford them. China, with an advantage of a controlled heartland and protected borders, has entered this club and is now allocating huge funds for a modern navy and air-force.

For instance, in the next decade or so, Beijing has proposed an increase of its already sizable submarine capability from 60 to over 75. Submarines have enormous strategic value, and Chinese vessels are very capable. These indigenous Chinese submarines are reportedly extremely quiet and difficult to detect. So difficult in fact, that in 2008 a Chinese Song class submarine surfaced, undetected, within torpedo range of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Keep in mind also the speedy technology upgrade of Chinese anti-ship missiles, including the so-called “aircraft carrier-killer” and these vessels are significant additions to the Chinese navy.

While a submarine’s range isn’t likely to intimidate New Zealand, other Chinese purchases warrant closer inspection. This year the PLA-N commissioned number four of an expected eight new amphibious landing docks. Each ship boasts a capacity for 800 troops, plus armoured vehicles and helicopters. Even though current Chinese movements are relatively benign, it’s hard to see these ships being meant for purely defensive purposes.

The United States has many allies in the Pacific, New Zealand among them, largely because China has taken a mostly hands-off attitude to bilateral relations. Encroaching on Philippine territory or Malaysian waters would draw U.S. warships and China is not ready for a confrontation with the United States. It isn’t clear Beijing is looking for confrontation with America in the future at all.

Under the current government structure in Beijing, one that effectively mixes a bottom-up market economy with a top-down command ideology, military aggression shouldn’t be conducive to Chinese strategic goals. Beijing is very adept at using the “soft-power” approach.

But this is why it is important to assess capabilities, not motives. Leaders come and go, ideologies evolve and internal politics fluctuate. China is unlikely to threaten the U.S. navy in the short or medium terms, but neighbouring states are vulnerable to a policy of subtle troop deployments. A case in point: Beijing revealed plans to construct a new garrison on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea. One of many more on their strategic horizon.

Being aware of Beijing’s capabilities and monitoring their government structure closely is prudent. There is no reliable prediction for how a country as dynamic as China will look or act even ten years ahead.

The current Chinese trajectory of military expansion coupled with economic relationships seems to be working as a benign force presently. However, power projection is sometimes best achieved down the barrel of a gun, a concept that doesn’t appear to escape smart Chinese strategic planners. As energy resources become scarcer, a strong navy is useful for Beijing.

The slow but steady expansion of the Chinese navy will continue for the foreseeable future. Just how far they wish to push their influence in the South Pacific is much less predictable. Treating China as a long-term trading friend without preparing a counterweight to their growing naval power would place South Pacific nations on the back-foot when, inevitably, motives begin to change in Beijing.

As featured on the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/chinese-expansion-warrants-close-scrutiny-pacific-states-wb-124634

Monday, 23 July 2012

Connecting the dots between Syria, Iran, and the United States (updated)

Three seemingly disparate events over the past week peel back the covers of a raging cold war in the Middle East. 

The United States has bolstered its minesweeping capabilities in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy purchased dozens of the German-made vehicles, known as Sea Fox, in February, after a request by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head U.S. commander in the Middle East. The Pentagon also added four MH-53 minesweeping helicopters and four minesweeping ships – bringing its total to eight.

Further north in Syria, as the conflict is entering its end-game, an explosion in the National Security Building delivered a strategic hit to the al-Assad regime. Three of Assad’s top military men were killed in an impressive assassination. These generals were in the perfect positions to stage a palace coup. So whether their deaths are a strategic, pre-emptive manoeuvre orchestrated by Assad or whether the rebels have taken a dramatic leap forward in capability, all indications suggest the al-Assad regime is struggling.

Even further north, Bulgaria was the victim of a bus bombing that targeted Israeli tourists, killing six. The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned the attack that has been tentatively confirmed as a suicide bombing. Iran has been involved in attacks against Israel in multiple countries in the past leading Israeli officials to immediately blame Tehran for the attack.

These events are not occurring without context. The United States and its allies have been ramping up pressure against Iran for many years now. The completion of the Iraq war removed thousands of Western troops and created somewhat of a vacuum in the region. Iran has viewed this as an enormous opportunity to re-establish influence throughout the Middle East and Levant.  

Iran has had some success so far. The Iranian strategic imperative of controlling its western front in Iraq was effectively attained when a strong Iraqi Shiite government came to power in 2010. However there is still much Iran needs to accomplish to achieve hegemony over the region.

Their nuclear program is a calculated method to deter larger countries, especially the United States, from interfering in Iranian expansionist plans. Whether or not Tehran eventually develops a bomb is beside the point. Right now the threat of developing a nuclear weapon is enough to deter the U.S. from becoming too arrogant.

Exactly how all this will play out is unknown. Western and Arab diplomats sit at endless meetings across from increasingly competent Iranian negotiators, and neither party appears to break ground. As a response to deadlock, sanctions are increasing; their goal being to strangle Tehran into reversing its regional trajectory and giving up its nuclear program. Some countries are participating in these sanctions but, just as with all rules, there are inevitably ways to bend or circumvent them entirely.  

Iran is not without its countermeasures against Western containment. About 20 percent of world oil supplies pass through the 21 nautical mile bottleneck called the Strait of Hormuz, although much of this energy is destined for Asian markets not European or American. Iran has threatened the strait in the past, therefore it makes sense that the international community should take measures to protect it.

Western military posturing in the Persian Gulf, a phenomenon that is not calming fidgety economic markets, has outweighed similar Iranian naval projection this year. Militaries from more than 20 nations will participate September 16-27 in a defensive exercise in the international waterways of the Middle East.

The exercise would focus on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Considering the intense public relations campaign of a few months ago, it would be difficult to believe these manoeuvres are not intended to address Iranian expansion.

Further abroad, covert Western efforts in Syria are a tactical measure to limit Iran in the Levant. Iran needs the al-Assad regime to remain in power to foment a crescent of influence stretching from Western Afghanistan through to the Eastern Mediterranean. A broken Syria in control of Sunni power would also potentially destabilise Iraq, a critical consideration for Tehran.

It does Iran no favours that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is struggling in Syria, some reports have indicated he may no longer even be in the capital Damascus. High profile members of Assad’s security council have defected recently and some elite troops are putting down their weapons and escaping to Turkey. Things are rapidly changing in Syria.

This is why the bombings in Bulgaria are important as well. Iran understands what is going on in its near-abroad and is not ready to roll over just yet. If the rumours are true and Iranian proxies did plan the bombings, Tehran is playing some of its most potent cards yet. Because creating a threat for Israel and baiting it into a military response would distract Western powers and collapse their efforts to constrict Iran.

As for the extra naval assets in the Persian Gulf, placing more minesweepers there will ensure that the strait is quickly reopened if Tehran gives the word to scatter shipping mines. But this is an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measure. Tehran knows perfectly well that the international community cannot stop it from closing the strait initially, but it can force it back open. Nevertheless, significant damage to the global market would occur and oil prices, although quickly dropping away from their high, would remain stratospheric and potentially stay there for some time. This is Iran’s most powerful countermeasure, an eventual nuclear umbrella aside.

So however the international community forces Iran to negotiate, Tehran is having trouble consolidating influential territory in the region. P 5+1 countries (those participating in the negotiations with Iran) are ensuring that any Iranian leverage in the Persian Gulf is limited, while Western intelligence agencies are undermining an Iranian strategic ally in Syria. At the same time, Iran is continuing its efforts to strike out at Israel to goad them into a military reaction.

The containment measures slowly encapsulating Iran seem to be tightening. A military buildup and a degradation of the Syrian regime are the United States way of influencing negotiations with Iran. In the same way, proxy attacks and protection of al-Assad’s regime are Iran’s way of gaining the upper hand in any future talks.

Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/closing-gaps-around-iranian-expansion-wb-124061

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Closing the gaps around Iranian expansion

The United States has bolstered its minesweeping capabilities in the Persian Gulf as the potential for U.S. led negotiations with Iran still threaten to collapse. The complete U.S. force structure in the region is unknown, for reasons of operational security, but the contingent of ships with mine countermeasures is now an intimidating and important presence.

The U.S. Navy is moving small, unmanned underwater vehicles to the Persian Gulf to help seek out and destroy sea mines. The Navy bought dozens of the German-made vehicles, known as Sea Fox, in February, after a request by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head U.S. commander in the Middle East. The Pentagon also added four MH-53 minesweeping helicopters and four minesweeping ships – bringing its total to eight.

United States warships are more or less permanently present in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. fifth fleet has leased a port from Bahrain since 1995. Since then the region has been one of the most active for U.S. foreign policy and doesn’t look like cooling down for the foreseeable future.

Today the main perceived threat comes from the rising influence of Iran made possible by (and escalated by) a drastic U.S. military drawdown in the Middle East. The completion of the Iraq war has removed thousands of Western troops and created somewhat of a vacuum in the region. Iran has viewed this as an enormous opportunity to re-establish influence throughout the Middle East.

The Iranian strategic imperative of controlling its western front in Iraq was effectively attained with a strong Iraqi Shiite government voted into power in 2010. Tehran won’t have to worry about an anti-Iran regime rising up along this border so long as Nouri al-Maliki remains in power. Gone are the days when Saddam Hussain’s Iraq intimidated and fought a brutal power struggle with Iran. However there is still much Iran needs to accomplish to achieve hegemony over the region.

Their nuclear program is a calculated method to deter larger countries, especially the United States, from interfering in their expansionist plans. Whether or not Tehran eventually develops a bomb is beside the point. Right now the threat of working on creating a nuclear weapon is enough to deter the U.S. from becoming too arrogant towards them.

Many countries around the region are worried about Iran becoming more powerful. Saudi Arabia is especially concerned as Iranian Persians are an historical enemy to the Arabs and the Emirate still has a large amount of precious oil to extract in the future. If the Saudi royal family were to have their long-time American patron withdraw even more forces from the Middle East it fears that Tehran would pressure the Kingdom. If Tehran were to develop a nuclear weapon, some sort of nuclear blackmail is not out of the question. Many of the other Arab governments feel the same way and are quietly working to limit Iranian expansion. Even Israel is making plans to interdict Iranian ambitions, playing an effective “bad-cop” to the other negotiating country’s “good cop”.

Exactly how all this will play out is unknown. Western and Arab diplomats continue to sit at endless meetings across from increasingly competent Iranian negotiators, and neither party appears to break ground. In response to the deadlock, other measures are being steadily built up on the side-lines. Sanctions against the Iranian regime are increasing; their goal is to strangle Tehran into reversing its trajectory and giving up its nuclear program. Some countries are participating in these sanctions but, just as with all rules, there are inevitably ways to bend or circumvent them entirely.

It has been a known potential for many years now that Iran can threaten the Strait of Hormuz. Given their proximity to the strait and the difficulty of defending the whole waterway indefinitely, this threat has to be taken seriously.

About 20 percent of world oil supplies pass through the 21 nautical mile wide bottleneck, although much of this energy is destined for Asian markets not European or American. Therefore the international community is taking important measures to protect this strait from even the threat of danger.

News from the Persian Gulf today indicate that Western and Gulf military planners are focusing intently on what they can do to limit Iranian movements. Apparently militaries from more than 20 nations will come together September 16-27 to participate in a defensive exercise in the international waterways of the Middle East, U.S. Central Command announced in a press release July 17.

Gen. James N. Mattis, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, said the exercise would focus on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. However Gen. Mattis explained that exercise activities will not extend into the Strait of Hormuz.

Considering the intense public relations campaign of a few months ago, it would be difficult to believe these manoeuvres are not intended to prepare for possible Iranian aggression. Yet it was Pentagon Press Secretary George Little that said on July 17 that the exercise is not aimed at delivering a message to Iran. He said it is aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in the international waterways of the Middle East and promoting regional stability in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

The closure of the critical strait would cripple the already weak global recovery by cutting off energy imports. Holding these exercises should give oil investors confidence that freedom of movement through the strait will be maintained regardless of military interference. However, the presence of international warships is not impressing fidgety markets. Any murmur from Iran about mining the waters or closing the strait through other means still sends oil prices moving upwards.

Placing more minesweepers in the Persian Gulf will ensure that the strait is quickly reopened if Tehran decides to give the word to scatter shipping mines. But this is an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measure. Tehran knows perfectly well that the international community cannot stop it from closing the strait initially, but it can force it back open. The way the markets are already acting, reopening the strait could be too late even if the clearance takes only a few days to widen a shipping lane enough for tankers to cruise. Significant damage to the global market would have been done and oil prices, although quickly dropping away from their high, would remain much higher than today and potentially stay there for some time.

Any mining option should be a last resort for Iran as it would negatively affect their already struggling economy as well. Iran is not well known for exports besides pistachios, carpets and crude oil. Pipelines out of Iran are poorly suited to export oil to their current Asian markets if they cannot flow to the Persian Gulf. Blocking the flow of Iranian crude to a country like China that depends more every day on imported energy is a real problem for Beijing. Needless to say, the sanction regime is not being followed by China as they’re interests with Iran are economic, not military, and any Iranian nuclear shadow would not stretch over China in the short to medium future.

However the international community forces Iran to negotiate, the build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf will be only a single variable. P 5+1 countries (those participating in the negotiations with Iran) are ensuring that any leverage Iran currently has in the Persian Gulf is limited. It will be crucial to watch for any additional minesweepers en-route to the region or the addition of larger forces. Such an increase could herald more kinetic measures being prepared.

However, the exercises planned for later this year are unlikely to be the dogs of war barking for release. They are an example of the extremely rational military forecasting minds that never leave human lives up to chance and fate. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

RIMPAC's importance for New Zealand and Australia

Hawaii is perhaps best known for its many surfers, the blonde-haired, non-threatening and docile creatures comfortably living on the waves. But this July and August larger and more deadly craft are skimming the waves around the holiday islands. The 23rd exercise of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) series is underway and the Royal New Zealand Navy is currently participating in the military exercises.

These multinational maritime manoeuvres are the world’s largest with 21 countries invited to participate this year sailing everything from conventionally powered warships to the controversial-only-in-New-Zealand nuclear-powered variants. Intriguingly, the United States plans for many of its ships to be powered by a 50/50 mixture of biofuel. The alternate energy was purchased at the hefty price of US$12 million for 1.6 million litres, making it the largest single biofuel purchase in history.

The RIMPAC exercises are particularly important for the United States as Washington cements its strategic shift toward the Pacific region. Interoperability and power projection are at the top of the agenda, with Russia making its debut entrance to the series. Exercises will include mine-clearance, disaster response, anti-submarine warfare and of course humanitarian relief.

Australia and New Zealand have been invited to previous RIMPAC gatherings and it is just as important today as it has been in the past for both South Pacific nations to participate.

This is because New Zealand and Australia rely on maritime trade to maintain their standards of living. Neither country could function if those supply lines to the world markets were broken. More than 75 percent of Australian exports and imports (by value) travel by sea. And New Zealand’s export market, especially its livestock and dairy industry, depends on the safe travel of shipping to deliver their goods to far away cities.

The two Australasian countries cannot guarantee the safety of these logistics with their own navies. The Royal New Zealand navy is small and equipped primarily to protect its territorial waters and cannot maintain long-term expeditionary missions. While the Royal Australian navy is stronger in size and capability, and looking to increase its purchases of modern warships, it is nevertheless unable to project any real maritime power.

Throughout their history the two South Pacific nations have relied on a stronger naval power to guarantee their critical supply routes. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries that patron country was Britain. British ships controlled the world’s strategic waterways and protected international shipping. However, since World War II when Britain essentially ceded control of the North Atlantic to the U.S. in return for American assistance in fighting Axis powers, the preeminent global maritime power has been the United States Navy.

The U.S. Navy patrols the world’s oceans every day of every year. Hundreds of millions of dollars are funnelled into the operation of extremely modern warships that can sail to any part of the globe within days. The U.S. Navy operates more aircraft carriers than all other countries combined and plans to build even more in the next few decades. In fact a U.S. carrier group is a centrepiece to the RIMPAC exercises this month.

There are few things more intimidating than the sight of a U.S. aircraft carrier sailing just offshore for a belligerent government. The presence of U.S. naval patrols around the world, in flashpoints such as the South China Sea or the Korean peninsula, and in the world’s most critical shipping lanes is not to be understated. Without the guarantee of international passage that U.S. warships provide the global-market could simply not exist.

Perhaps the most enduring international relations success of the past fifty years is also the most difficult to spot. U.S. warships that maintain the balance of power between nations and hold open transit lanes are an integral part of our world.

Without the United States Navy Japan, for one, would bolster its territorial navy, which is already one of the strongest in the world, to offset the growing strength of China’s increasingly capable navy.

If U.S. ships did not patrol the Arabian Peninsula many of those nations would take their security into their own hands to counter the threat posed by a rising Iran.

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea is already heating up; removing the presence of U.S. Navy patrols would only accelerate fractures in the region.

The United States Navy’s global maritime pre-eminence prevents conflicts between states just as surely as it can conclude them. U.S. warships in Hawaii this month are part of a system that is just as humanitarian as the largest aid package. The 21 nations attending RIMPAC display the global dependence on U.S. naval power and how incredibly important each country considers training with the American military.

Australia and New Zealand are participating in the RIMPAC exercises to ensure they can operate alongside the United States Navy. It is extremely important for isolated nations such as these to maintain good relations with the current global maritime power. In a world that tends toward disorder, the future is always uncertain. RIMPAC exercises are an important staple of New Zealand/Australia/United States military relations and likely will be long into the future.

Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/node/123544

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Rising tensions over energy resources in the South China Sea

There are few places in the world more contested than the South China Sea. The English name for the waterway subtly belies the territorial disputes that have raged over the archipelago and straits for years. It is a patchwork of maritime claims and a volatile flashpoint for international aggression, and it is flaring up again.

The region’s importance largely stems from the huge amount of cargo shipping that passes through each year on its way from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Around a third of the world’s containers transit an area only 3 million square kilometres.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all dispute sole sovereignty over the largely uninhabited island chains of the South China Sea. The Spratly and Paracel archipelago are called many names, in many different languages, but it is not the lexicon that is escalating tensions it is the abundant natural resources found there.

While fishing rights have in the past been the main cause of conflict, there are reportedly large deposits of crude oil and natural gas beneath the islands. Each of the surrounding countries is looking to tap these reserves to bring economic benefits to their nations. However the volatility of the region is keeping any one country from attaining hegemony over the area.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual conference is meeting this week and the South China Sea disputes seem to be highly important. Given the recent tensions between the Philippines and China over perceived fishing rights violations in the Spratly islands, and Vietnam’s contested intention to organise international energy companies to begin drilling in the South China Sea, intense side-line negotiations at the ASEAN conference are expected.

There is wildly varying estimates of resources in the South China Sea. The higher reported numbers find a ceiling at 213 billion barrels of oil. Such an impressive figure, if correct, could seriously alter the energy landscape in Southeast Asia.

One of China’s top newspapers criticised US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments in which she called for China to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes. Although Clinton emphasised that the United States does not have territorial claims and does not take sides in the disputes, the U.S. is committed to maintaining freedom of passage and stability in the region.

China’s long term strategy is to gain control over the South China Sea because the waterway brings international shipping, and therefore outside militaries, very close to its core territorial waters. Therefore China is suspicious of the recent U.S. military reorientation towards the Pacific, seeing the strategy as a direct response to China’s increasing naval capability and the continuation of an implicit “containment” policy.

In response to both territorial tensions and perceived U.S. interference, Beijing is increasing its offshore energy exploration efforts as a way to substantiate its claims to the disputed sea. Those efforts are being somewhat half-heartedly portrayed by Beijing as a regional, cooperative action.

Vietnam and the Philippines, two other major players, are being left behind as China increases its grip on those abundant energy resources. Indeed, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed recently that it is unlawful for any country or company to explore oil and gas resources in the Sea and pressed home China’s indisputable sovereignty.

As the prices of energy continue to rise, energy companies are increasing their interest in the South China Sea and exacerbating tensions rather than cooling them. China has in recent times made threatening actions and statements to international energy firms exploring the region for energy reserves.

So while the surrounding countries try to encourage international energy firms, Chinese actions could be driving them off. After all, it is not in the financial interest of companies to get between belligerent nations fighting over territorial waters.

On top of this, the potential for India, Japan or the United States to become involved in the disputes to ensure the waterway remains open for international transit increases if tensions continue to rise. Beijing would like to avoid the potential for the South China Sea disputes to become a multilateral problem.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement does not so much threaten China as remind it that the United States is committed to maintaining free navigation trough the troubled waters regardless of which country threatens its closure.

The increased tensions over the South China Sea can also be viewed as a symptom of regional distrust towards the increasing power of the Chinese navy. The countries surrounding the South China Sea are looking to balance their relationship with both the United States and China.  The Philippines are especially wary and have recently conducted military exercises in the sea alongside U.S. warships.

Ironically, the suspicion of China is perhaps the only factor that aligns the other nations around the region. And should the United States wish to resolve any territorial dispute the smaller ASEAN countries will have to cooperate to counter the Chinese regional heavyweight.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Supply route resolution reveals geopolitical realities in Central Asia

After more than seven months, ISAF supply trucks are finally moving through Pakistan. Intense talks over the past few weeks have encouraged a significant mending of U.S – Pakistan relations. Both governments were nursing bruised egos but the realities of geopolitics have forced a deal to reopen the Pakistan supply routes.

U.S.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced July 3 that ground supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan are reopening again. Clinton expressed regrets for the incident in Salalah, Pakistan, in November of 2011 that resulted in the deaths of Pakistani soldiers, and said the United States is committed to working with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

The reopening of the Pakistan transit routes is certainly good news for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Thousands of supply trucks have been marooned on Pakistani roads, in places blocking them completely, as they wait for the borders to open again. In the past, these stationary vehicles have been a tempting target for militants, so being on the move again will please their drivers.

The extraordinary length of time between the closure and the reopening has been filled with high-level talks. These discussions were being hindered by two main issues: Pakistan’s position on the per-container charges of shipping supplies across the border and the U.S. refusal to issue an apology for the November incident. Both of these appear to have been resolved.

While both governments have been antagonistic since before the end of last year, and the supply route had been temporarily closed before, the November closure was the lowest diplomatic point in years. There has been some resolved tension over transit fees, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar assured Hillary Clinton that the transit fees would be waived in the interest of peace and security in the region. This is being touted as a sign that the two countries are finding common goals once again and relations are improving.

Yet it was only on June 21 that U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said in a speech that past displays of regret over the November incident were enough and that the time for apologies was over. At the time, Panetta’s words were a rare overt signal that U.S. patience with Pakistan was wearing thin. The official talks were going nowhere and U.S. and ISAF forces were using longer and far more expensive options for logistics.

This is what makes Washington’s handing of the situation so intriguing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s outright apology on Tuesday, a complete reversal on their previous position, indicates just how important flexibility in negotiation has become for both governments. Flexibility in Central Asia was very much a one way street for almost a decade. The United States, caught in an unprepared position after 9/11, needed Pakistan to bend to almost every political and military request it made. Pakistan spent over ten years essentially being a middle-man for U.S. logistics. A certain amount of frustration boiled over in November when Islamabad showed Washington just how strong its hand really is, forcing the war effort to drastically rearrange their logistics and adding zeroes to their monthly bill.

The deaths at the Pakistani checkpoint were something of a final-straw for Islamabad. NATO aircraft strafed the compound killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. And in response, Islamabad moved to close the transit route and demanded that the United States cease operations from the Shamsi Air Base, which the United States has used to launch covert unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes. Via skilful diplomatic manoeuvring the UAV strikes have continued and Pakistan is still begrudgingly allowing tarmac space for those machines, but it has only increased the tension between the countries.

UAV missions are a precise and cheap method of hunting militants in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Northern provinces. U.S. President Barack Obama has ramped up the use of drones in the international fight against Islamic militants, drawing the anger from the local Pakistani villagers and, by extension, Islamabad. While those drones are a sufficient option for U.S. forces to target militants, no amount of accuracy can totally discount the inclusion of innocent people in missile strikes.

This is because militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan commonly travel between villages with non-combatants either as learned safety against expected strikes or as part of traditional custom. The escalating deaths of these innocent Pakistanis have made U.S. combat operations extremely unpopular with Islamabad. And as the government in Pakistan is now democratically elected, the officials needed to respond adequately to display their control over the situation. Closing the transit routes was a drastic but necessary response to what they deem as the unforgivable and escalating spill-over of battle into Pakistan from Afghanistan. 

Washington made it clear to Pakistan that U.S. military operations were going to continue inside their country as long as Islamabad was unable (or unwilling) to plug the border and stem the flow of militants to Afghanistan.  Obama has called for Islamabad to recognise that there is only one, not two, types of Taliban militants.

Pakistan understands that once Western forces depart Afghanistan in 2014, it will be left with the consequences in its backyard. Therefore Islamabad is strategically fostering tight relationships with elements of what it calls the “good” Taliban (militants that originate in Pakistan that fight in Afghanistan) but is conducting military operations against the “bad” Taliban (those militants launching attacks on Pakistan). Understandably, given the nature of the Afghan war, the U.S. doesn’t agree with this differentiation and would prefer if Islamabad dealt militarily with both. This is the fundamental base of distrust between Washington and Islamabad today.

The geopolitical situation in Central Asia will be critical to control once Western troops leave. Not for the United States though. From Washington’s perspective it doesn’t matter what type of government is in Kabul or Islamabad, so long as those countries do not breed more international terrorists. Instead, it is Pakistan that must deal with the long-term condition of Afghanistan. Islamabad needs the U.S. to finish their operations in Afghanistan because the sooner they are gone, the sooner they can subsume Kabul into their orbit once more and the sooner Afghanistan will hopefully cease to be a problem.

As for the supply routes, while the Pakistan ground supply routes were closed, ISAF and U.S. forces were receiving their everyday supplies via an overland path known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). 

The NDN has various courses, though the main artery travels through Russia down into Central Asia. The length of this route makes it unstable. Traveling through former Soviet States such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Russia itself introduces complex political considerations, any one of which could jeopardise the entire network. It is a true example of diplomacy indeed just how long this supply route has managed to stay open.

The NDN was adding an extra US$100 million per month to the Afghanistan war budget. The extraordinary costs of bringing supplies to Afghanistan were a huge boost for the Former Soviet Union countries, and the U.S has developed some lasting ties in those nations as a result. Many of the Central Asian states are becoming more important geopolitically and good relations in the present will assist the United States in the future.

Reopening the Pakistani route will drop the costs of waging war in Afghanistan, and facilitate a faster exit for international forces. But it wasn’t really the logistical and budgetary concerns that made this particular diplomatic deal happen this week. Islamabad needs assurances from Washington that its proposed timeline for withdrawal is still on track. Islamabad would not have made any deal if it were not convinced of a conducive ISAF schedule. More importantly, Pakistan wants to ensure their political influence is maintained over Afghanistan once the United States leave. Whether that means the Taliban eventually hold power in Kabul needs to be a Pakistani decision, not one controlled by Washington.

The decade-long U.S. adventure in Central Asia is brought one step closer this week now that ISAF supply trucks are moving along the dusty Pakistani roads once again. Geopolitical realities will keep Washington and Islamabad cooperating in the short term, but ultimately their goals diverge.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The case against military intervention in Syria

Tensions appear to have cooled in the Levant after Syrian President Bashar al Assad gave an interview July 3 stating regret about the downing of a Turkish fighter jet June 22. Al Assad rejected Turkish accusations that the incident was intentional, saying that the F-4 jet, which was conducting a training mission over the Mediterranean, was flying at a low altitude in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli air force.

Right now, neither country has indicated any desire to chase this incident further. At the moment Turkey is simply not in a position to launch any effective kinetic retaliatory strike without the assistance of the United States. And the U.S. has made it quite clear that it has no appetite for opening up a new front in the Middle East, especially in an election year.

However the international community continues to issue calls for intervention in the Syrian conflict after more reports of helicopters and warplanes bombing insurgent positions appear in the press. The call is for western nations and in particular the U.S., to intervene in Syria as they did in Libya. The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria is drawing international aid workers and journalists to the embattled country and their reports are painting a dark picture of the interior.

One of the perceived positive consequences of intervening in Syria is to forcibly stop Bashar al Assad’s regime from conducting any more violence towards the Syrian rebels. An intervention would remove Assad from power and bring stability to the country. Once Assad is gone the opposition could then nominate a replacement leader, hopefully through a democratic process. Future atrocities will be avoided and recent victims of atrocities will find retribution when Assad is dragged before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Because the outcome of intervention is uncertain, the international community will continue to covertly assist the opposition but fall short of contributing conventional forces to exact a regime change.

The parallel being made between Libya and Syria is not entirely accurate. Libya at the time of NATO intervention was a country split from its east to west. The opposition controlled around half of eastern Libya centred on the city of Benghazi. By the time Gadhafi began to use aircraft to bomb rebel positions, triggering the NATO-led war, the rebellion had total control of a clear territory. This made it simple for the NATO planes to find enemy targets. Those targets turned out to be almost anything military in the west of Libya where Gadhafi remained in control. A split in the Libyan military also significantly assisted the rebels.

As for the no-fly zone, Libyan air defence systems had been critically weak for years and were unlikely to be at full operating capacity. Finding and destroying these batteries was not difficult as the surface-to-air missile system was neither overlapping nor redundant giving anything but full protection for Libyan positions. The fixed sites were also well known to NATO intelligence.
Finally, apart from inserting western Special Forces into Libya to coordinate rebel forces (as shown by the almost overnight advance on Tripoli, a feat the rebels had not been able to accomplish by themselves) and to also direct airstrikes, no NATO ground troops were committed to the war. The task of securing Libya was left to the rebel factions as NATO departed. There was no occupation force.

Syria on the other hand is not experiencing an insurrection where clear rebel positions are delineated. The rebellion is broken up all over Syria and even in cities such as Homs, where the uprising has been very active, there are suburbs still housing supporters of Assad’s regime.

While Libya at the time of western intervention contained competing rebel factions, they were able to coalesce into a unified, legitimately recognisable group that facilitated western political support. Syrian opposition is not unified, and their goals are not identical. Therefore the uprising cannot lend a singular international voice to the movement when it addresses international councils. This makes it very difficult for outside countries to offer assistance when helping one faction may hinder another and ultimately may not even achieve the goal of bringing Assad down.

Syrian air defence is easily one of the most robust, if slightly aging, systems in the Middle East. It is redundant, overlapping, and is accompanied by a strong early-warning network. Enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria would require a concerted effort by an extremely competent air force. Currently the only country that possesses such an anti-air defence capability is the United States. But breaking the network of the Syrian SAM sites would take weeks to months, cost millions of dollars in munitions and lost aircraft, and probably cut short the lives of many American pilots.

The current political will of the American voting public is simply not conducive to such a campaign. An election is planned for November 2012 and President Barack Obama’s second-term election prospects would be severely lowered if an intervention in Syria becomes unexpectedly complicated.

This is not to mention the political will and military capabilities of other NATO countries. The advocates of military intervention suggest NATO would shoulder the burden but there is deep division among European countries over what should be done and when.

As the Libyan war displayed, NATO was unable to function without U.S. logistical and military assistance. Germany did not participate; France quickly ran out of munitions; Italy could not bring enough aircraft into theatre; Denmark did not allow its pilots to fire on Libyan units, and the United Kingdom could not field anywhere near enough jets to enforce the no-fly zone. The United States, which have implicitly underwritten the military costs of NATO since its inception, were needed just to continue the initial momentum of the first series of strikes.

European militaries in the 1990’s were not as degraded and limited as they perhaps are today. During the Kosovo war, a campaign fought in Europe’s back-yard, the continent’s major powers could not maintain the no-fly zone. U.S. air power was needed to enforce the no-fly zone over Kosovo and yet the atrocities continued to occur until UN peacekeepers were allowed in. Even then, the humanitarian crisis was only contained, not resolved. All this occurred just 1,200 kilometres from Berlin and 1,500km from Paris.

Controlling Syria would take more than just enforcing a Libya-style no-fly zone. A country so divided and so large is predicted to require the insertion of ground troops to set up safe zones for the rebels. Those troops would need protection, implying the inclusion of armour and close air-support. To carry out this function, those tanks and aircraft would need access to military bases in neighbouring countries. Politically, those nations would need to agree to house thousands of foreign troops and open logistical routes, a difficult sell for any government let alone a Middle Eastern government.

One has to remember that the situation inside Syria is not as black-and-white as first appears. The Syrian opposition does seem to have a fair amount of local support, but just how much covert foreign assistance they are receiving from foreign intelligence services is unknown. In a country of 22 million people, the uprising has included only a small fraction of that number so far. This indicates that the Assad regime still has a significant support base.

That would make sense. A regime like Assad’s does not live in a vacuum. Just like Gadhafi in Libya, the ruling government has learned how to play the various tribes and factions of their countries. After all, a regime that does not know how to do this is doomed from the start. The western narrative of an entire country gripped by hatred for its despotic leader fails to account for the small fraction of opposition participants in the population.

Assad is a representative of the minority Alawite sect, a fact that explains why he is receiving such a depth of support.

Removing Assad will endanger the Syrian Alawite population. The Alawite branch of the Shi’a Islamic faith has historically been persecuted in both Lebanon and Syria. Together with the other Shiite Muslims living in Syria and the minority Christian sects, Assad’s regime represents protection. While there certainly is discontent towards Assad from the Syrian Sunni, the minority Alawite and Shia Muslims owe their relative safety to Assad’s rule. It also goes some way in explaining why the military and security apparatus has not turned on Assad yet. Almost all of the top positions, sometimes down to individual officer levels, are filled by Alawites who are deeply loyal to the regime.

Therefore, losing the regime through western intervention could precipitate the unintended consequence of even greater atrocities for Syria’s minorities. In the attempt to limit the humanitarian crisis in Syria militarily, the international community could be ushering in an equally great harm of immediate political chaos while awakening deep historical grievances.

Just as in Egypt where the military somewhat protected the minority Orthodox Christians, the Copts, the Alawites look to Assad for security. After last week’s election of an Islamic government in Egypt, the Christian sects are understandably worried their persecution will begin again. The unpredictability of the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is an outcome that should be anticipated as countries exiting the “Arab Spring” begin to dance with democracy. Syria, if Assad falls, will have to contend with the possibility of an Islamic government replacing him and all that entails. As will Syria’s neighbours.

Intervening in Syria may also have the unintended consequence of a temporary drop in security over heavy weapons that already fill the country. Remember that when the Libyan guards deserted their packed weapons depots Tuareg mercenaries who fought for Gadhafi apprehended those arms. They promptly took those weapons home to Mali, using them to stage an uprising of their own. Now the sub-Saharan country is divided and the Tuareg-led rebellion now controls half the state.

NATO did not directly instigate this outcome but their intervention collapsed the Libyan state. The resultant lapse in security gave the Tuareg mercenaries an opportunity to take weapons that potentially include portable surface-to-air missiles. These weapons may still fall into the hands of militant such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Nigerian Boko Haram group.

Syria is at much greater danger of weapon proliferation than Libya if the regime fails. Where Syrian arms would end up is anyone’s guess, but militants in the Middle East are likely clamouring to get their hands on them. If Syria falls via a hasty and ill-prepared western intervention, militant factions of the region would directly benefit.

Ultimately there are still some good reasons to intervene in Syria. The humanitarian crisis is morally impossible to ignore and international calls for action will become louder as it intensifies. However, the unintended consequences of an intervention are potentially so disastrous for Syria and the region that western countries will remain unwilling to commit to military intervention.

Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/opinion-syrian-intervention-fraught-danger-wb-123026 

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Turkey alters rules of engagment in response to downed aircraft

The Syrian government has gathered around 170 tanks north of Aleppo, near the Turkish border, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, an association of defected Syrian generals, said June 29. There was no independent confirmation. Al-Sheikh said the tanks are at the infantry school in Musalmieh and are ready to move against a Turkish deployment or attack towns around Aleppo's north.

This report from Damascus follows the release late last week of a Turkish video purportedly showing military vehicles loaded with antiaircraft weaponry moving south to the Turkey-Syria border.

Russian state television noted the event and pointed out that the military repositioning possibly included Special Forces from Saudi Arabia, although this too is unconfirmed. The Turkish troops are reportedly setting up multiple rocket launchers across the border with Syria. If this is true it would indicate fresh, and dangerous, sabre-rattling between the two Mediterranean countries.

Tensions rose over the past week when a Turkish reconnaissance RF-4E warplane was shot down 13 kilometres west of the Syrian town of Latakia June 22. Initially the details were incomplete, and a joint Syrian-Turkish rescue mission was conducted to collect the pilots, but Ankara eventually confirmed the aircraft was shot down. Damascus responded by saying it felt “deep regret” over the incident.

Turkey and Syria are no strangers to conflict over borders. The two countries have presided over a porous and instable border region for decades. Border skirmishes are common and both governments tend to issue sharp rhetoric about impending retaliation whenever they occur. However, generally nothing is actually done about these apart from diplomats setting up meetings to smooth over whatever current squabbles arise.

However, the shooting down of a military jet is a different matter as there have been many reconnaissance flights conducted by Turkey in the past few months, especially as the violence in Syria escalates.

Syrian refugees are escaping to southern Turkey in their hundreds, perhaps even thousands, and Ankara has a strategic need to gather intelligence over its southern regions and monitor the movements of Syrian people escaping the fighting. Patrols of the kind that resulted in the June 22 shoot-down are probably not uncommon.

Turkey’s response has so far been measured but a conventional military reply is still not completely out of the question. Syria is repositioning troops along the border with Turkey in case the reaction to the shoot-down becomes hot. Regardless of how Ankara responds Turkey will have a tough time breaking Syrian air defences.

Syria has a very large and redundant anti-air network that consists mainly of short to medium-range surface to air missiles and more extended-range SA-5s with a 300km engagement envelope. Their early-warning (EW) systems are robust and probably very informative for ground-based defences. It is the case however that most of these systems are outdated Soviet-era missiles that are unlikely to foil a modern aircraft’s countermeasures. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to dissect the exact countermeasures that the Turkish fighter employed, but reports from Damascus indicate the aircraft was flying well within the range of its missiles. Turkey maintains that its downed fighter jet was conducting patrols in international waters but Damascus has placed the aircraft on an approach to the Syrian coast. The final position of the crashed jet is well within the engagement envelope of at least one SA-2 battery on the Syrian coast.

Turkish aircraft are mostly modern designs, but they field a broad range running from aging frames like the F-4E Phantom II that entered service in the 1960s to the US-designed F-16 variant all the way to the extremely modern IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicle purchased controversially from Israel in 2011.

The flight systems on Turkish aircraft are unlikely to struggle with simple navigation, and their pilots are probably very experienced and knowledgeable of their surroundings. While a pilot navigational error or a system malfunction could explain the final position and approach path of the Turkish jet, it does not discount the possibility that the aircraft was conducting a premeditated penetrating flight through Syrian airspace at command of Turkish officers.

Given the amount of activity in the Syrian-Turkish skies recently, an over adjustment or a misread flight-plan always carried the potential for a Syrian anti-air defence response. The downing of the Turkish jet therefore, while tragic, had a reasonably high probability of occurring. The airspace between Syria and Turkey is probably extremely crowded these days as the two countries deal to their internal problems and surveil their borders.

What must also be taken into account is that Ankara has complained through diplomatic channels to Damascus about Syrian helicopters violating Turkish airspace, five instances of which occurring just in the month of June.

On top of this, the crisis in Syria is reportedly now including Syrian aircraft in the military strikes on rebel targets, although that can’t yet be verified. Whether the Syrian anti-aircraft action was premeditated, reactionary or simply a mistake is now beside the point.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement June 26 that outlined a change in its rules of engagement toward Syria. Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that “every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target."

Syrian officials have indicated that the anti-aircraft battery responsible for the shoot-down may have mistaken the Turkish jet for an Israeli one. Both Israel and Turkey use U.S. designed warplanes so there is some feasibility to this reasoning.

There is also no reason to discount an independent decision from the Syrian missile battery to engage without central command approval. Such things have happened in the past, and an unexpected manoeuvre or change in direction from the Turkish aircraft could have spooked the Syrian gunners into responding with deadly force.

All this aside, the two countries are in somewhat of a limbo as a resolution is sought over the incident. Ultimately it will not be Syria that dictates when and how the present conflict will be resolved. Turkey is not a  superpower but it is part of NATO and that brings with it some serious options for dealing with the crisis.

An exchange of fire between Syrian and Turkish troops at a border post is not serious, but the downing of a warplane could be legitimate enough to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter. The only time this article has been activated was after 9/11, where “an attack on one member” (the United States) was considered an attack on all NATO members. The resultant Afghanistan war was precipitated by this invocation. Turkey has not yet moved to rally its NATO allies but Ankara does have reason to consider it.

Turkey’s southern neighbour is in a state of flux, and has been for the better part of a year. Syria is experiencing something between an internally instigated rebellion and a foreign-funded proxy way. There are more players involved in Syria than one would at first expect, and the desired outcome of the internecine battles is different depending on which regional power is in question.

Turkey is interested in seeing the Assad regime collapse because the alternative is a Persian dominated Levant. Syria is a strong ally of Iranian politics, a position that threatens Turkish regional influence. Bringing down Assad is therefore in Turkish geopolitical interests because it weakens the inexorable spread of Iranian power.

But Turkey has no intention of going to war in response to its F-4 jet being shot down by Syria on June 22, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said June 25. Arinc added that whatever Turkey's response, it would be within the framework of international law. Turkish officials are reassuring the international community that the military build-up is purely defensive. Given the gravity of the recent shoot-down, any careless move by Syria or Turkey has the potential for escalation.  

It is unknown just how close Syrian forces must be to Turkish borders to incur a military response from Turkish positions. The new rules of engagement outlined by Erdogan are relatively vague and leave a large window of interpretation. However, both sides of the border will need to monitor their aircraft and airspace in the future to avoid any unwanted flashpoint in an already tense region of the Middle East. Neither are particularly looking to instigate an upgraded conflict that could have unintended consequences for the whole area.