by Seymour M. Hersh
38 No. 1 · 7 January 2016
from LondonReviewOfBooks Website
Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration's fixation on Assad's primary ally, Vladimir Putin.
In their view, Obama is captive to Cold
War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn't adjusted his stance
on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington's anxiety about
the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they
believe that Islamic State must be stopped.
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,
The assessment was bleak: there was no
viable 'moderate' opposition to Assad, and the US was arming
The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition.
Turkey wasn't doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border.
The DIA's reporting, he said, 'got enormous pushback' from the Obama administration.
The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama's policy would have,
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
Each had its reasons for co-operating with Assad:
Once the flow of US intelligence began, Germany, Israel and Russia started passing on information about the whereabouts and intent of radical jihadist groups to the Syrian army; in return, Syria provided information about its own capabilities and intentions.
There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, 'we provided the information - including long-range analyses on Syria's future put together by contractors or one of our war colleges - and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad.
We were saying to the Germans and the others:
End of conversation.
The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it - but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs' plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it.
It's because he was smart enough to use
the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.
Assad condemned the 9/11 attacks, but opposed the Iraq War. George W. Bush repeatedly linked Syria to the three members of his 'axis of evil' - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - throughout his presidency. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilize Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years.
In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the 'vulnerabilities' of the Assad government and listed methods 'that will improve the likelihood' of opportunities for destabilization.
Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People's Assembly; the payments were kept up even after it became clear that Syrian intelligence knew what was going on.
A 2010 cable warned that funding for a
London-based television network run by a Syrian opposition group
would be viewed by the Syrian government 'as a covert and hostile
gesture toward the regime'.
A longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command said that, after 9/11,
In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.
Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant. In violation of this agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach, and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.
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 Joint Chiefs let it be known that in return the US would require four things:
A senior adviser to the Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to reopen the talks on the Golan Heights.
The Israelis had rejected the offer.
He said the Turks had told Moscow the same thing.
By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious about their offers of help. In the early stages of the talks, the adviser said, the Joint Chiefs tried to establish what Assad needed as a sign of their good intentions.
The answer was sent through one of Assad's friends:
The Joint Chiefs did not oblige.
Bandar bin Sultan had served Saudi Arabia for decades in intelligence and national security affairs, and spent more than twenty years as ambassador in Washington. In recent years, he has been known as an advocate for Assad's removal from office by any means.
Reportedly in poor health, he resigned
last year as director of the Saudi National Security Council, but
Saudi Arabia continues to be a major provider of funds to the Syrian
opposition, estimated by US intelligence last year at $700 million.
By then the CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime after Gaddafi's death on 20 October 2011 - see The Red Line and the Rat Line).
The operation was largely run out of a covert CIA annex in Benghazi, with State Department acquiescence.
On 11 September 2012 the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed during an anti-American demonstration that led to the burning down of the US consulate in Benghazi; reporters for the Washington Post found copies of the ambassador's schedule in the building's ruins.
It showed that on 10 September Stevens had met with the chief of the CIA's annex operation.
The next day, shortly before he died, he
met a representative from Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a
Tripoli-based company which, the JCS adviser said, was known by the
Joint Staff to be handling the weapons shipments.
Gaddafi's stockpile had created an international arms bazaar, though prices were high.
But it wasn't only the CIA that benefited.
The flow of US intelligence to the Syrian army, and the downgrading of the quality of the arms being supplied to the rebels, came at a critical juncture.
The Syrian army had suffered heavy losses in the spring of 2013 in fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups as it failed to hold the provincial capital of Raqqa.
Sporadic Syrian army and air-force raids continued in the area for months, with little success, until it was decided to withdraw from Raqqa and other hard to defend, lightly populated areas in the north and west and focus instead on consolidating the government's hold on Damascus and the heavily populated areas linking the capital to Latakia in the north-east.
But as the army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs' 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.
The remaining non-fundamentalist rebels found themselves fighting - and losing - pitched battles against the extremists.
In January 2014, IS took complete
control of Raqqa and the tribal areas around it from al-Nusra and
established the city as its base. Assad still controlled 80 per cent
of the Syrian population, but he had lost a vast amount of
There was a suspicion that some of those who signed up for training were actually Syrian army regulars minus their uniforms.
This had happened before, at the height of the Iraqi war, when hundreds of Shia militia members showed up at American training camps for new uniforms, weapons and a few days of training, and then disappeared into the desert. A separate training program, set up by the Pentagon in Turkey, fared no better.
The Pentagon acknowledged in September
that only 'four or five' of its recruits were still battling Islamic
State; a few days later 70 of them defected to Jabhat al-Nusra
immediately after crossing the border into Syria.
Brennan's message was ignored by the Saudis, the adviser said, who,
But the Saudis were far from the only problem:
After 1991 the US spent billions of dollars to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons complex, including a highly secret joint operation to remove weapons-grade uranium from unsecured storage depots in Kazakhstan.
Joint programs to monitor the security of weapons-grade materials continued for the next two decades.
During the American war on Afghanistan, Russia provided over-flight rights for US cargo carriers and tankers, as well as access for the flow of weapons, ammunition, food and water the US war machine needed daily.
Russia's military provided intelligence on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts and helped the US negotiate rights to use an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
The Joint Chiefs have been in communication with their Russian counterparts throughout the Syrian war, and the ties between the two militaries start at the top.
In August, a few weeks before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey made a farewell visit to the headquarters of the Irish Defence Forces in Dublin and told his audience there that he had made a point while in office to keep in touch with the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov.
When it comes to tackling Islamic State, Russia and the US have much to offer each other.
Many in the IS leadership and rank and file fought for more than a decade against Russia in the two Chechen wars that began in 1994, and the Putin government is heavily invested in combating Islamist terrorism.
In return, he said,
The adviser would not discuss what
American intelligence is also believed to have: an ability to obtain
targeting data, often by paying huge sums of cash, from sources
within rebel militias.
Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support of Assad.
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:
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:
He had been told that Putin had watched a video of Gaddafi's savage death three times, a video that shows him being sodomized 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:
In a speech on 22 November, Obama declared that the 'principal targets' of the Russian airstrikes 'have been the moderate opposition'.
It's a line that the administration - along with most of the mainstream American media - has rarely strayed from. The Russians insist that they are targeting all rebel groups that threaten Syria's stability - including Islamic State.
The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East explained in an interview that the first round of Russian airstrikes was aimed at bolstering security around a Russian airbase in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold.
The strategic goal, he said, has been to establish a jihadist-free corridor from Damascus to Latakia and the Russian naval base at Tartus and then to shift the focus of bombing gradually to the south and east, with a greater concentration of bombing missions over IS-held territory.
Russian strikes on IS targets in and
near Raqqa were reported as early as the beginning of October; in
November there were further strikes on IS positions near the
historic city of Palmyra and in Idlib province, a bitterly contested
stronghold on the Turkish border.
The message being sent to the Turkish air force, the JCS adviser said, was:
Russia's aggression led to Turkish complaints and Russian denials, along with more aggressive border patrolling by the Turkish air force.
There were no significant incidents until 24 November, when two Turkish F-16 fighters, apparently acting under more aggressive rules of engagement, shot down a Russian Su-24M jet that had crossed into Turkish airspace for no more than 17 seconds.
In the days after the fighter was shot down, Obama expressed support for Erdoğan, and after they met in private on 1 December he told a press conference that his administration remained,
He said that as long as Russia remained allied with Assad,
The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the DIA, dismisses the 'moderates' who have Obama's support, seeing them as extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS ('There's no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate,' Putin said in a speech on 22 October).
The American generals see them as exhausted militias that have been forced to make an accommodation with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS in order to survive.
At the end of 2014, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the IS leadership,
On 25 October, the New York Times reported, citing Obama administration officials, that Russian submarines and spy ships were 'aggressively' operating near the undersea cables that carry much of the world's internet traffic - although, as the article went on to acknowledge, there was 'no evidence yet' of any Russian attempt actually to interfere with that traffic.
Ten days earlier the Times published a summary of Russian intrusions into its former Soviet satellite republics, and described the Russian bombing in Syria as being,
The report did not note that the Assad administration had invited Russia to intervene, nor did it mention the US bombing raids inside Syria that had been underway since the previous September, without Syria's approval.
An October op-ed in the same paper by Michael McFaul, Obama's ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, declared that the Russian air campaign was attacking 'everyone except the Islamic State'.
The anti-Russia stories did not abate after the Metrojet disaster, for which Islamic State claimed credit.
Few in the US government and media
questioned why IS would target a Russian airliner, along with its
224 passengers and crew, if Moscow's air force was attacking only
the Syrian 'moderates'.
The New York Times, in a report on sanctions in late November, revived an old and groundless assertion, saying that the Treasury's actions,
The Paris attacks on 13 November that killed 130 people did not change the White House's public stance, although many European leaders, including François Hollande, advocated greater co-operation with Russia and agreed to co-ordinate more closely with its air force; there was also talk of the need to be more flexible about the timing of Assad's exit from power.
On 24 November, Hollande flew to Washington to discuss how France and the US could collaborate more closely in the fight against Islamic State.
At a joint press conference at the White House, Obama said he and Hollande had agreed that,
The press conference failed to deal with the far more urgent impasse between the two men on the matter of Erdoğan.
Obama defended Turkey's right to defend its borders; Hollande said it was 'a matter of urgency' for Turkey to take action against terrorists. The JCS adviser told me that one of Hollande's main goals in flying to Washington had been to try to persuade Obama to join the EU in a mutual declaration of war against Islamic State. Obama said no.
The Europeans had pointedly not gone to NATO, to which Turkey belongs, for such a declaration.
Assad, naturally, doesn't accept that a group of foreign leaders should be deciding on his future.
Imad Moustapha, now Syria's ambassador to China, was dean of the IT faculty at the University of Damascus, and a close aide of Assad's, when he was appointed in 2004 as the Syrian ambassador to the US, a post he held for seven years.
Moustapha is known still to be close to Assad, and can be trusted to reflect what he thinks.
He told me that for Assad to surrender power would mean capitulating to 'armed terrorist groups' and that ministers in a national unity government - such as was being proposed by the Europeans - would be seen to be beholden to the foreign powers that appointed them.
These powers could remind the new president,
China, too, is worried about Islamic State.
Moustapha's concerns were echoed by a Washington foreign affairs analyst who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and into Syria.
The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior government officials, told me that,
He added that there was also what amounted to another 'rat line' that was funneling Uighurs - estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands over the years - from China into Kazakhstan for eventual relay to Turkey, and then to IS territory in Syria.
He also said it was 'not clear' that the officials responsible for Syrian policy in the State Department and White House 'get it'.
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.
Moustapha said he has information that,
China's growing concern about the Uighur problem and its link to Syria and Islamic State have preoccupied Christina Lin, a scholar who dealt with Chinese issues a decade ago while serving in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld.
A few weeks earlier, she said, China and India, Cold War enemies that,
As China sees it, Lin suggests, Uighur militants who have made their way to Syria are being trained by Islamic State in survival techniques intended to aid them on covert return trips to the Chinese mainland, for future terrorist attacks there.
General Michael Flynn did not.
Flynn told me his problems went beyond Syria.
In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Flynn was blunt about Russia's entry into the Syrian war:
Few in the US Congress share this view.
One exception is Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee who, as a major in the Army National Guard, served two tours in the Middle East.
In an interview on CNN in October she said:
Gabbard later told me that many of her colleagues in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have thanked her privately for speaking out.
It's unusual for a politician to challenge her party's foreign policy directly and on the record.
For someone on the inside, with access to the most secret intelligence, speaking openly and critically can be a career-ender. Informed dissent can be transmitted by means of a trust relationship between a reporter and those on the inside, but it almost invariably includes no signature. The dissent exists, however.
The longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command could not hide his contempt when I asked him for his view of the US's Syria policy.
The military's indirect pathway to Assad disappeared with Dempsey's retirement in September.
His replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, two months before assuming office.
In October, as chairman, Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, telling the same committee that Russia 'is not fighting' IS.
He added that America must 'work with
Turkish partners to secure the northern border of Syria' and 'do all
we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces' - i.e. the
'moderates' - to fight the extremists.
There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan.
Dempsey and his associates remain mystified by Obama's continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the American intelligence community's strong case against him - and the evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case.
The Joint Chiefs and the DIA were constantly telling Washington's leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey's support for it.
The message was never listened to. Why