1 year, 8 months ago

Another Update on Deconfliction

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)


Related Posts

What is Deconfliction? (March 2008)
Update on Deconfliction (November 2015)
The Art of the New Deal – Trump and Intelligence (February 2017)

3 years, 26 days ago

Update on Deconfliction

The obscure word #deconfliction has started to appear in the news, referring to the coordination or lack of coordination between American and Russian operations in the Middle East, especially Syria.

The Christian Science Monitor suggests that the word “deconfliction” sounds too cooperative, and quotes the New York Times.

“Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter sharply took issue with suggestions, particularly in the Arab world, that the United States was cooperating with Russia, and he insisted that the only exchanges that the Pentagon and the Russian military could have on Syria at the moment were technical talks on how to steer clear of each other in the skies above the country.”

But that’s exactly what deconfliction is – “how to steer clear of each other” – especially in the absence of tight synchronization and strong coordination.

The Guardian quotes Gary Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, who says such jargon is meaningless and is designed to confuse the public. But I think this is unfair. The word has been used within military and other technical circles for many decades, with a fairly precise technical meaning. Obviously there is always a problem (as well as a risk of misunderstanding) when technical jargon leaks into the public sphere, especially when used by such notorious obfuscators as Donald Rumsfeld.

In the current situation, the key point is that cooperation and collaboration require something more like a dimmer switch rather than a simple on-off switch. The Americans certainly don’t want total cooperation with the Russians – either in reality or in public perception – but they don’t want zero cooperation either. Meanwhile Robbin Laird of SLD reports that the French and the Russians have established “not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting … despite differences with regard to the future of Syria”. In other words, Franco-Russian coordination going beyond mere deconfliction, but stopping short of full alignment.

Thus the word “deconfliction” actually captures the idea of minimum viable cooperation. And this isn’t just a military concept. There are many business situations where minimum viable cooperation makes a lot more sense than total synchronization. We could always call it loose coupling.


Helene Cooper, A Semantic Downgrade for U.S.-Russian Talks About Operations in Syria (New York Times, 7 October 2015)

Jonathan Marcus, Deconflicting conflict: High-stakes gamble over Syria (BBC News, 6 October 2015)

Robbin Laird, The RAF Unleashed: The UK and the Coalition Step up the Fight Against ISIS (SLD, 6 December 2015)

Ruth Walker, Feeling conflicted about deconfliction (Christian Science Monitor, 22 October 2015)

Matthew Weaver, ‘Deconflict’: buzzword to prevent risk of a US-Russian clash over Syria (Guardian 1 October 2015)

Ben Zimmer, In Conflict Over Russian Role in Syria, ‘Deconfliction’ Draws Critics (Wall Street Journal, 9 October 2015)

More posts on Deconfliction

Updated 7 December 2015 

3 years, 26 days ago

Update on Deconfliction

The obscure word #deconfliction has started to appear in the news, referring to the coordination or lack of coordination between American and Russian operations in the Middle East, especially Syria.

The Christian Science Monitor suggests that the word “deconfliction” sounds too cooperative, and quotes the New York Times.

“Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter sharply took issue with suggestions, particularly in the Arab world, that the United States was cooperating with Russia, and he insisted that the only exchanges that the Pentagon and the Russian military could have on Syria at the moment were technical talks on how to steer clear of each other in the skies above the country.”

But that’s exactly what deconfliction is – “how to steer clear of each other” – especially in the absence of tight synchronization and strong coordination.

The Guardian quotes Gary Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, who says such jargon is meaningless and is designed to confuse the public. But I think this is unfair. The word has been used within military and other technical circles for many decades, with a fairly precise technical meaning. Obviously there is always a problem (as well as a risk of misunderstanding) when technical jargon leaks into the public sphere, especially when used by such notorious obfuscators as Donald Rumsfeld.

In the current situation, the key point is that cooperation and collaboration require something more like a dimmer switch rather than a simple on-off switch. The Americans certainly don’t want total cooperation with the Russians – either in reality or in public perception – but they don’t want zero cooperation either. Meanwhile Robbin Laird of SLD reports that the French and the Russians have established “not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting … despite differences with regard to the future of Syria”. In other words, Franco-Russian coordination going beyond mere deconfliction, but stopping short of full alignment.

Thus the word “deconfliction” actually captures the idea of minimum viable cooperation. And this isn’t just a military concept. There are many business situations where minimum viable cooperation makes a lot more sense than total synchronization. We could always call it loose coupling.


Helene Cooper, A Semantic Downgrade for U.S.-Russian Talks About Operations in Syria (New York Times, 7 October 2015)

Jonathan Marcus, Deconflicting conflict: High-stakes gamble over Syria (BBC News, 6 October 2015)

Robbin Laird, The RAF Unleashed: The UK and the Coalition Step up the Fight Against ISIS (SLD, 6 December 2015)

Ruth Walker, Feeling conflicted about deconfliction (Christian Science Monitor, 22 October 2015)

Matthew Weaver, ‘Deconflict’: buzzword to prevent risk of a US-Russian clash over Syria (Guardian 1 October 2015)

Ben Zimmer, In Conflict Over Russian Role in Syria, ‘Deconfliction’ Draws Critics (Wall Street Journal, 9 October 2015)

More posts on Deconfliction

Updated 7 December 2015