Weekend Reading: October 9–11 Edition

October 9, 2015

If it’s Friday, it’s WOTR’s Weekend Reading.  (Trying out new taglines … please don’t sue us, NBC).

Assad, the pawn on Putin’s chessboard

Russia’s stepped-up involvement in Syria changes the war’s dynamics. But why is Vladimir Putin coming to Bashar al-Assad’s defense? At Lawfare, Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian author (and grade school classmate of Assad), argues that that’s the wrong way to look at it. Assad is just useful tool for Putin, and an oblivious one at that. “While Iran is a junior partner, Bashar Al-Assad, the erstwhile strongman of the country, has become a mere pawn, though he seems to be quite unaware of this turnaround. Assad belongs to that miserable category of so-called leaders who can see victory in the mere act of holding on to power at any and all cost.”

But why, Putin?

In a three-part series for The Interpreter (parts one, two, and three), Kyle Wilson explains Russia’s actions in Syria (and elsewhere) as a function of several factors: Putin’s strategic objectives, particular domestic conditions, and perhaps most importantly, Putin’s personality. “With a personality cult built around the image of a warrior chieftain who protects his people from their many enemies, he cannot afford to be seen conceding ground. According to some who know him well, he even avoids smiling (a show of weakness), and his humour is invariably sardonic.”

The necessity of BRAC

Base Realignment and Closure — the process by which the footprint of U.S. military facilities is shifted — has essentially been frozen for years. This is a big mistake, argues Devon Hill at The Bridge. “BRAC is a necessary response to an ever-changing and constantly challenging global security environment,” he writes. So why isn’t a new BRAC round on the horizon? Congress. “Congressional reluctance to authorize a new BRAC round stems from three main concerns: first, BRAC removes Congress from the process entirely; second, BRAC threatens jobs for constituents; and, lastly, the 2005 BRAC round proved to be costlier than envisioned.”

Wait, so defense is influenced by politics?  If only there were an email newsletter you could subscribe to to stay informed about the politics of national security.  Oh, wait!  Sign up here for WOTR’s newest weekly email service, #NatSec2016.

Defeating the Carthaginians in cyberspace

When it comes to counterintelligence ad cyber warfare, what’s most important isn’t winning every battle, but possessing the ability to reconfigure and respond after a setback. This is a lesson we can learn from Rome’s battle against Hannibal’s invasion, according to William Brooke Stallsmith in RealClearDefense. Resilience is key. “Resilience was built into the nature of the state and the character of its citizens. This fundamental trait made it possible for Rome’s Senate and other institutions to shake off their initial panic and adapt to the new situation created by Cannae. They mobilized the Republic’s manpower and other resources with a ruthless efficiency would have made Albert Speer blink.”

Women in combat units? Methodology matters

Yes, it’s a hot topic. But all debates aside, what matters is how the services make decisions about women in combat units. Over at Political Violence @ a Glance, Kyleanne Hunter takes a look at the different approaches the Army and Marine Corps have adopted. The Army used an existing institution, Ranger School, as its test of whether women can achieve standards necessary to succeed in combat units. The Marines … took a less useful approach, Hunter argues: “Unlike the Army’s pragmatic response to women being able to meet already established standards, the Marine Corps’ findings elicited great amounts of passionate discourse and speculation. This emotional response can largely be traced to faults in both the way the Marine Corps went about its study and presented the analysis.”

Responding to tragedy

For the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Kate Clark has compiled a timeline of the public statements made since last weekend’s U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan by various parties — including officials from the U.S. and Afghan governments and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which ran the hospital.

MSF has now demanded an independent investigation into the strike, which it claims might violate international humanitarian law. But who could conduct an “independent” investigation? Who has sufficient jurisdiction? And would such questions inevitably mean any findings would be criticized as illegitimate? Writing for Placing Law, Cambridge University’s Alex Jeffrey looks at the questions that arise at the intersection of law and geopolitics.

Islamic State … United Nations … Capitol Hill … Palestine

That’s the logic path Derek Davison argues you’ll end up on if you follow the Islamic State’s money. At LobeLog, he points to mechanisms in two pieces of 1990s U.S. legislation that were triggered by Palestine’s admission as a UNESCO member state. That action led he Unites States to cut off its funding of the UN agency, which, he says, has had real repercussions for the effort to stop one source of the Islamic State’s financing. “UNESCO has been actively working to hinder the trade in antiquities looted from both Syria and Iraq, or, in other words, the antiquities trade that is currently helping to finance the Islamic State. But all of UNESCO’s work in this area has suffered considerably due to the loss of the substantial portion of its annual budget that the United States once provided.”


Elena Pokalova explains why Russia’s actions in Syria must be understood in connection with its fight against Islamist militants in the Caucasus, and Nadav Pollack examines the impact of Russia’s Syrian adventure on Israel.

James Joyner and James Weirick make the case for moving prosecution of certain serious crimes from the military justice system to civilian courts. Charles Dunlap disagrees, arguing that such a move would create more problems than it solves.