13 March 2019

Candidate Trump vs US National Intelligence. 2019 Forecasts (I)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

The main US intelligence agencies presented in Congress the list of foreign and internal threats ● What has been said in the report about Iran ● American forecasts for the Middle East and North Africa: political disorders, economic fragility, civil and proxy wars ● the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman will continue to control the main power leverages of Saudi Arabia ● Iraq will have to face some increasing public complaints ● In Syria, Damascus regime will strengthen control, but violence will continue ● None of the sides are ready for a compromise in Yemen ● Libya continues to be unstable in 2019 as well.

The main US intelligence agencies presented in Congress the list of foreign and internal threats

The recent Congress hearing of representatives / chiefs of the US National Intelligence Community, beginning with the National Intelligence`s director, Dan Coats, an event periodically held at the beginning of each year, might have gone unobserved if it didn’t start with a short Twitter outburst from the president Donald Trump. The reaction followed statements made by Dan Coats during the hearing, which were also supported by other panel members, regarding the threats to the United States.

The president’s criticism towards the intelligence community did not refer to the manner in which these threats from China or Russia were forecasted, nor to their predictions regarding cyber warfare. If the president ever manifested other options, they have been silenced by the immense pressure of the public and US lawmakers. However, foreign policy dilemmas regarding Iran and North Korea are connected not only to threats, but also to the internal policy.

There are two relatively secondary files in regards to their direct level of threat to the US, but which are viewed as major when presidential measures to protect Israel or fight against terrorism need to be justified - in the case of Iran -, or to demonstrate the president’s capability to find diplomatic solutions and solve a conflict which the rest of the world considered unsolvable – in the case of North Korea. Therefore, both are extremely important electoral-wise, so that is why President Trump was irate over the fact that the US Intelligence Community’s predictions were not in line with his own expectations and might even affect the solidity of his stances on the two problems.

In 2019, the year in which electoral campaigns for the 2020 presidential election are set to begin, everything – from public statements, foreign and internal policy decisions, political wars within or with the US Congress and even Twitter posts – will be subsumed to electoral calculations.

The president’s criticism towards intelligence agencies kept the first pages in the media for several days. Of course, there was no response from those the president accused of “naivety”. It was already contained in the report presented to the Congress.

Following that, the media found other subjects of interest.

But let us return to the initial moment, the moment when the US Intelligence Community prHYPERLINK "https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf"eHYPERLINK "https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf"sented the report to Congress. The document includes forecasts of the six major agencies regarding the threats the United States might face in 2019. Based on it, American lawmakers can make decisions regarding the level and distribution of the country’s defense budget on areas of priority. Based on it, security and military policies are shaped. Based on it, even the President of the United States can shape his foreign policy agenda. If he doesn’t check, as some media sources report, on opinion polls too often.

As the Defence and Security Monitor also offered, during January, a series of forecasts regarding the various areas of interest for Romania, some of these being the same with those outlined in the US Intelligence Community report, a look into the perspective of American intelligence specialists is, I believe, not only informative but, also, necessary. After all, there are few places in the world where there is enough power to know what is happening, to intervene and change current evolutions, and Washington is the first among them.

From those two contentious problems, one refers to Middle East, specifically Iran.

What has been said in the report about Iran

The report, extremely complex, did not refer to the Iranian issue but in few paragraphs in the first chapter and a bit more in the chapter dedicated to Middle East and North Africa. These are the paragraphs that whipped up president’s reaction. In the report, it is mentioned the following:

  •  Iran is not currently undertaking activities judged as necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, the Iranian officials have threatened to give up some of the commitments from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), shortly known as the Nuclear Agreement, if Teheran will not get the expected commercial and investments benefits;
  •  In June 2018, the Iranian officials have started the arrangements, allowed by JCPOA, to enlarge the centrifuges production capabilities;
  •  Also in June 2018, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced its intent to resume producing natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and prepare the necessary infrastructure to expand its enrichment capacity within the limits of the JCPOA;
  •  Iran continues to work with other JCPOA participants - China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom - to find ways to salvage economic benefits from it. Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.

The rest of the report, including the most consistent part dedicated to Middle East, refers to Teheran’s already known terrorist capabilities, the support for terrorist groups in the region and not only, the development of the ballistic missiles program, the threat against the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. President Trump wanted for the most relevant aspect of Iran’s offensive capabilities, the nuclear one, to be presented in line with the presidential statements and perceptions. Thee were really close to yhose of Israeli prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not miss a chance to publicly warn about the danger the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel’s security is not just a local foreign political option, but also a US internal stance, as the American conservative electorate, the majoritarian voter of the current republican administration, is very attached to the Holy Places and Jewish state’s existence issue. President Trump called the six intelligence directors “passive” and “naïve”, which means that he was really bothered. Probably, the truth is somewhere in between. Those who made the report thought it will be analyzed and appreciated by president Trump. In fact, candidate Trump was the one who read it first.

American forecasts for the Middle East and North Africa: political disorders, economic fragility, civil and proxy wars

The report states that 2019 will be the year Middle East and North Africa will settle the regional power balance, the relations between governments, political groups and populations.

Iran’s regional ambitions and the increased military capabilities will threaten US’s interests, accelerated by the increased hostility perception Teheran has against US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also by the insecurity of its borders and the Islamists’ conservatories pressure. As for Iran, in the report there were made the following forecasts for 2019:

  • Teheran will attempt to translate battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria into long-term political, security, social, and economic influence while continuing to press Saudi Arabia and the UAE by supporting the Houthis in Yemen;
  • Popular Mobilization Committees (affiliated Shiite militias, controlled by Iran) remains the primary threat to US personnel dislocated in Iraq, targeting the American interests in general;
  • There is still a warring perspective of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, as a consequence of the support this group has from Iran;
  • Teheran’s forceful response, after the 2018 September attack from the military parade in Ahvaz, was a determination message, but also one to show their increased military capabilities, among them the simultaneous use of ballistic missile launches and the ability to project force;
  • Iran will continue to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria and probably wants to maintain a network of foreign fighters. A major conflict with Israel it is not to Teheran’s advantage, but a conventional response to Israeli forces’ strikes over the Iranian targets in Syria cannot be excluded, as it actually happened during 2018 after the Israeli attack over the Air Base from Tiyas;
  • Iran’s support for the Houthis, including supplying ballistic missiles, risks escalating the conflict and poses a serious threat to US partners and interests in the region;
  • Regime hardliners will be more emboldened to challenge rival centrists, but also president Hasan Ruhani, even after he adopted nationalist stances against US and its allies;
  • Nationwide protests will, probably, continue uncoordinated and lacking of central leadership or broad support from major ethnic and political groups. Teheran is prepared to take more aggressive security measures, however will not use lethal force;
  • Ruhani’s ability to reform the economy remains limited, given pervasive corruption, a weak banking sector, and a business climate that discourages foreign investment and trade;
  • On a military perspective, Teheran will continue to develop a range of capabilities that enable it to target US and allied military assets in the region;
  • Its objective being to target US and its military allies dislocated in the region, Iran will develop ballistic missiles, unmanned explosive boats, naval mines, submarines and advanced torpedoes, drones and cruise missiles. Iran already has the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East and can strike targets as far as 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders;
  • Incidents involving Iranian and US military ships, which have been less frequent during the past year, could resume this year if Iran will want to respond to US pressures, even economic ones, as the Iranian officials have stated regarding the possibility to close the Hormuz Strait if the Iranian oil export will be threatened by US’s sanctions.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman will continue to control the key leverages of power in Saudi Arabia, but his simultaneous push for economic and social reform creates potential flashpoints for internal opposition. On Riyadh’s possible evolutions, the report lists the following:

  • The Saudi public support for the royal family will remain the same, even in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi Government will not have significant problems dealing with small-scale protests and discontents; it preemptively arrested or forcibly detained clerics, business leaders, and civil society activists who could be nodes for discontent;
  • The Kingdom will seek to make progress on its Vision 2030 plan of structural reforms, spearheaded by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and aimed at reducing dependence on oil revenues. Some of these reforms have aggravated segments of the Saudi public, including government workers religious conservatives;

Iraq will have to face an increasing disenchanted public, as consequence of the persistence of those factors which led to ISIS’s rise and which are getting worse by entrenching in the Iraqi state structures of Shiite militias. The report details these possible evolutions:

  • The Iraqi Government will confront a high level of social discontent, institutional weakness, and deep-seated divisions, as well as protests over a lack of services, high unemployment, and political corruption. Baghdad lacks the resources or institutional capacity to address longstanding economic development and basic services challenges. Also, it will have to ensure the reconstruction costs in the aftermath of the counter-ISIS campaign, estimated by the World Bank at $88 billion. Iraq’s Kurdistan region is still dealing with political discontent over economic and territorial losses to Baghdad last year;
  • ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin;
  • Iraqi Shia militants, which have conducted several attacks against US diplomatic facilities, during 2018, will use the new power political platform they have in Bagdad to reduce the US military presence in the country or even to force the American forces’ pullout. They might also compete with the Iraqi security forces for states’ resources.

In Syria, the Damascus regime will consolidate control, but violence will continue, given that it will try to take control of the remaining rebel-held territory from North and East of the country, to consolidate its presence in these regions, rebuild the regime held - local areas. These actions will take place along with the comeback of some foreign diplomatic missions to Damascus, meanwhile attempting to avoid conflictual situations with Israel and Turkey. Russia and Iran probably will attempt to further entrench themselves in Syria. Report’s forecasts for Syria in 2019 are the following:

  • The regime’s momentum, combined with continued support from Russia and Iran, almost certainly has given Syrian President Bashar al-Asad incentive to make anything more than token concessions to the opposition or to adhere to UN resolutions on constitutional changes that Asad perceives would hurt his regime;
  • Opposition groups, which rely on Turkey for continued support, probably are not capable of repelling a regime military operation to retake Idlib Province but may retain enough resources to foment a low-level insurgency in areas the regime recaptures in the current year;
  • The regime probably will focus increasingly on reasserting control over Kurdish-held areas. Damascus probably will seek to exploit any security vacuum and Turkish pressure on the Kurds in order to strike a favorable deal with the Kurds while also seeking to limit Turkey’s presence and influence in Syria and reclaim territory in northwestern Syria held by Turkey;
  • The regime is unlikely to immediately focus on clearing ISIS from remote areas that do not threaten key military, economic, and transportation infrastructure;
  • Damage to the Syrian economy and its infrastructure has reached almost $400 billion, according to UN estimates, and reconstruction could take at least a decade to complete. The effects of the Syrian civil war will continue to be felt by its neighbors, with approximately 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries as of October 2018. Russia and Iran will try to secure rights to postwar contracts to rebuild Syria’s battered infrastructure and industry in exchange for sustained military and economic support.

None of the sides is ready for a compromise in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement remaining far apart in the negotiations to end a civil conflict. This suggests, tragically, that the humanitarian crisis will continue. The NIC forecasts are the following:

  • The coalition, buoyed by military gains in the past year, seems fixed on a Houthi withdrawal from Sanaa and significant Houthi disarmament. These terms remain unacceptable to the Houthis, who believe they can use external attacks to threaten Saudi Arabia and the UAE, undercut Saudi and UAE public support for the conflict, and draw international condemnation of the coalition’s intervention in Yemen;
  • The humanitarian impacts of the conflict in Yemen will be acute in 2019 and could easily worsen if the coalition cuts key supply lines to Sanaa. The fighting has left more than 22 million people, or approximately 75 percent of the population, in need of assistance and the numbers are likely to rise.

Libya is poised to remain unstable in 2019, with poor prospects for reconciliation between competing factions and ongoing threats from ISIS-Libya. The NIC report states the following:

  • Militias aligned with Libya’s key political factions fight intermittently for influence and control of resources, resulting in a high-risk security environment that threatens both rival governments and Western interests;
  • The UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern-based House of Representatives (House), headquartered in Benghazi, remain unable to agree on key posts and government structure;
  • ISIS local affiliated group has been degraded, but it is still capable of conducting attacks on local and Western targets in Libya and possibly elsewhere in the region.

In the second part of this analysis, made by the Defence and Security Monitor, we will be identifying president Trump’s disenchant reasons for how the US National Intelligence Community speculates the evolutions in North Korea. Notice that there is a direct meeting coming, between the Washington and Pyongyang leaders, in the following days, in Vietnam. In this analysis, we will be presenting US’s analysts forecasts for the China, Russia, Eurasia evolutions in 2019.