As the situation in Syria goes from worse to worser, the word “deconfliction” has reappeared in the press. On Friday, following a chemical attack on the Syrian population apparently by the Syrian government, the USA bombed a Syrian government airbase.
“Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. US military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield,” said a Pentagon spokesperson.
A few hours later, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced it was suspending the deconfliction agreement, accusing the Americans of “a gross, obvious and unwarranted violation of international law”.
The normal purpose of deconfliction is to avoid so-called “friendly fire”. But in the case of the deconfliction line in Syria, a more practical objective would be to avoid minor incidents that might escalate into major war. (Anne McElvoy quotes a senior former British commander in Iraq talking about the jeopardy of the next crucial months in Syria: “powers tripping over each other – or America hitting the Russians by accident”.) We might fondly imagine that the Pentagon and the Russian Foreign Ministry still share this objective, and will continue to share a limited amount of tactical information for that purpose, despite public disavowals of coordination. Deconfliction as minimum viable coordination.
Much less serious, and therefore more entertaining, is the “friendly fire” that has meanwhile broken out within the White House. Gun metaphors abound (cross-hairs, opened fire). Successful businessmen understand the need to establish clear division of responsibilities and loose coupling between different executives – otherwise everyone needs to consider everything, and nothing gets done. But this is not a simple matter – excessive division of responsibilities results in organizational silos. Large organizations need just enough coordination – in other words, deconfliction. It is not yet clear whether President Trump understands this, or whether he thinks he can follow President Roosevelt’s approach to “creative tension”.
Bethan McKernan, Syria air strikes: US ‘warned Russia ahead of airbase missile bombardment’ (Independent, 7 April 2017 11:42)
May Bulman, US air strikes in Syria: Russia suspends agreement preventing direct conflict with American forces (Independent, 7 April 2017 15:39)
Matt Gertz, Breitbart takes on Jared Kushner: Steve Bannon is shielded as Trump’s son-in-law is in the crosshairs (Salon, 6 April 2017)
Matt Gertz, To Defend Bannon, Breitbart Has Opened Fire On The President’s Son-In-Law (Media Matters, 6 April 2017)
Anne McElvoy, Washington is confused by Trump’s act. What became of America First? (Guardian, 9 April 2017)
Reuters, Kushner and Bannon agree to ‘bury the hatchet’ after White House peace talks (Guardian, 9 April 2017)