Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seymour Hersh on the Obama Administration's Syria policy

Seymour Hersh has a piece at the London Review of Books on Obama's Syria policy and the criticism of it by some US military leaders.

That in itself is not new. There are always varieties of opinion and differences of evaluation within the military and intelligence agencies. And to a significant extent, both areas have systematic procedures in place to insure that various perspectives are vetted and the supporting evidence evaluated.

The criticism that Hersh reports certainly sounds like a credible scenario. It has to do with the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been an obvious focus of public commentary, as well. The Pentagon's job is to focus on military capabilities. And since Daesh/ISIS and the Assad regime are each other's most significant opponents in the Syria civil war, it's fairly obvious that without a credible alternative force in play, siding with either Assad or with Daesh/ISIS works inevitably to the short-term benefit of the other.

Hersh reports:

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups. By then, the CIA had been conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria. The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists. [my emphasis]
In this following portion, he suggests that the Pentagon was secretly aiding the Assad government and thereby circumventing Administration policy:

‘Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact,’ the former JCS adviser said. ‘The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the “anybody else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’ The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. [my emphasis]
The claim is pretty general and doesn't on the face of it imply any wrongdoing by the Pentagon.

But however realistic their evaluation may be, the Pentagon doesn't get to make foreign policy. Or at least they shouldn't. In practice, US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has become far more militarized in the sense that war and the threat of war became more and more the most prominent tools of foreign policy.

He expands on the intelligence-sharing:

Germany, Israel and Russia were in contact with the Syrian army, and able to exercise some influence over Assad’s decisions – it was through them that US intelligence would be shared. Each had its reasons for co-operating with Assad: Germany feared what might happen among its own population of six million Muslims if Islamic State expanded; Israel was concerned with border security; Russia had an alliance of very long standing with Syria, and was worried by the threat to its only naval base on the Mediterranean, at Tartus. ‘We weren’t intent on deviating from Obama’s stated policies,’ the adviser said. ‘But sharing our assessments via the military-to-military relationships with other countries could prove productive. It was clear that Assad needed better tactical intelligence and operational advice. The JCS concluded that if those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’ [my emphasis]
Later in the piece, Hersh has the adviser suggesting that the Pentagon was signaling to Assad that they could and would undermine the President's policy if it suited them:

‘We worked with Turks we trusted who were not loyal to Erdoğan,’ the adviser said, ‘and got them to ship the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: “We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”’
Reminding us of how little so many policymakers have learned about "blowback" over the decades, Hersh writes, "State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years." But he also describes various ways in which Assad's government cooperated in the US' War on Terrorism. Including, of course, a particularly infamous one, "Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like America’s allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere – tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus prison."

The United States should not be torturing people or subcontracting the job to foreign governments. But in various ways, the Assad government has cooperated with the US against terrorism in areas in which the two countries' interests overlapped. Just as Libya's Muammar Gaddafi had cooperated with the Cheney-Bush Administration in getting rid of its "weapons of mass destruction." It doesn't necessarily send the best message that the US has supported the opposition in Libya that overthrew Gaddafi and created a playground for jihadists there. Or that the US is stubbornly insisting on the ouster of Assad's regime.

But another one of our more dubious long-time friends has no reservations about wanting to overthrow the Assad regime: "Saudi Arabia continues to be a major provider of funds to the Syrian opposition, estimated by US intelligence last year at $700 million." Later he observes, "But as the [Syrian] army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs’ [intelligence-sharing] support, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey escalated their financing and arming of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which by the end of 2013 had made enormous gains on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border."

Part of what is complicating US policy now is the blowback from Obama's Libya policy:

A retired senior diplomat who served at the US embassy in Moscow expressed sympathy for Obama’s dilemma as the leader of the Western coalition opposed to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: ‘Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused. But it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. The reality is that Putin does not want to see the chaos in Syria spread to Jordan or Lebanon, as it has to Iraq, and he does not want to see Syria end up in the hands of Isis. The most counterproductive thing Obama has done, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, was to say: “Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.”’ He also echoed a view held by some in the Pentagon when he alluded to a collateral factor behind Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in support of the Syrian army on 30 September: Putin’s desire to prevent Assad from suffering the same fate as Gaddafi. He had been told that Putin had watched a video of Gaddafi’s savage death three times, a video that shows him being sodomised with a bayonet. The JCS adviser also told me of a US intelligence assessment which concluded that Putin had been appalled by Gaddafi’s fate: ‘Putin blamed himself for letting Gaddafi go, for not playing a strong role behind the scenes’ at the UN when the Western coalition was lobbying to be allowed to undertake the airstrikes that destroyed the regime. ‘Putin believed that unless he got engaged Bashar would suffer the same fate – mutilated – and he’d see the destruction of his allies in Syria.’
Hersh also talks about Chinese troops in Syria! But he's not relying on Dr. Ben as a source. What he says is that Turkey is facilitating the passage of Uighur Muslim jihadists from China into Syria to fight for Daesh/ISIS. "IHS-Jane’s Defence Weekly estimated in October that as many as five thousand Uighur would-be fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013, with perhaps two thousand moving on to Syria." When reality gets weird enough to echo Dr. Ben's fantasies, it's probably time to worry.

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