I have included 3 articles: the first from Kurdish YPG leader Polat Can. The Final 2 are from Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh.
The Fall of Eastern Aleppo
by Polat Can
Eastern Aleppo has fallen today (13 Dec 2016), but looking at the root causes that paved the way to that fall one realizes it was inevitable not because the Baathist forces and their allies are stronger or the Islamist factions are weaker but because the tens of factors that accompanied the first fall in 2012 lead to the second fall today.
The first fall was quick, unorganised and came early while the second fall came late, was painful and destructive, in other words; the first fall was a preface to the second.
First: We need to remember that the revolutionaries mocked the people of Aleppo for not taking part in the revolution against the Baath regime; they failed to understand that Aleppo is the city of commerce and industry which needs safety, stability and open roads.
Second: Aleppo is divided into two districts; eastern and western Aleppo which is not only a geographical division but a social and cultural one. Eastern Aleppo is home for the poor, devout and pious Sunnis, Kurds from villages, Kobani and Afrin and also Turks. All are poor and working class from construction and textile industries. On the other hand; Western Aleppo is home for the middle class government employees, the rich and the landlords who don’t care about political slogans and only look for stability in order to thrive.
Third: There are districts with Christian majority (Armenians, Assyrians, …etc.) who didn’t sympathize with the Islamists’ slogans that hijacked the revolution since mid 2011 and always felt suspicious about the revolutionaries coming from the villages.
Fourth: Districts with a Kurdish majority, especially Al Ashrafia and Boustan Al Pasha, who were the first to fight and expel the regime’s forces and its thugs “Shabeeha” in the spring of 2012 were suspicious of the extreme nationalistic and chauvinistic slogans of the opposition and its armed allies supported by the historical enemy of the Kurds…Turkey.
Fifth: The fall of eastern Aleppo in 2012 was not because of internal dynamics or self-development, it was a result of the occupation of armed villagers north of Aleppo (Andan, Hritan, Azaz and Hian)
Sixth: The Islamic factions fought and destroyed prominent families and tribes in eastern Aleppo which led many to ally with the regime.
Seventh: Once Islamic factions took control of eastern Aleppo they stole and looted everything and exported it to Turkey for very low prices leading to the destruction of the economy and employment opportunities that people rely on them for their existence.
Eighth: The armed opposition were divided into so many factions fighting each other for the spoils of looting and stealing from factories. These factions were scattered based on their ideological, political, geographical or religious background, also based on their loyalty to states, political parties or to a specific person.
Ninth: The penetration of these extremist Islamic factions into Aleppo and to the body of the armed opposition imposed a new life style on the people and on other factions. The control of “Ahrar Al Sham” and “Al Nusra” gave the Assad regime and the Russians the reason and legitimacy to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants.
As indicated at the beginning; the second fall of eastern Aleppo has much in common with the first fall. But why did Aleppo fall, despite all the support to the tens or maybe hundreds of factions with tons of weapons from Turkey and finance from Saudis and Qataris with media propaganda about establishing a common operation room from all factions accompanied by threats and promises, but again why did Aleppo fall?
First: The divisions between different factions based on who is the sponsoring state and what are their interests of these states in the fighting.
Second: The control of the extremist Islamic factions especially al Quada tarnished the image of the armed resistance globally, especially in the west.
Third: Street vendors, sheep and barley merchants became military strategists who decide military plans and leading tactical and strategic expeditions and later on became warlords and local authorities who embezzle their subjects.
Fourth: These extremist Islamic factions didn’t fight the regime instead they instigate four years’ war against the Kurdish people in “Sheikh Maksoud” (Sida Mountains) sieging hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Arabs, bombarding them with chemical and gas bombs and preventing food and medicine supplies. This in my opinion was the most important cause of the fall of the armed opposition as well as the fall of eastern Aleppo.
Fifth: The armed resistance became a de facto agent of the Turkish Intelligence Service who follow the orders from their masters and the war in Sheikh Maqsoud was a clear indication about these orders.
Sixth: The opposition factions started fighting each other and committed atrocities against civilians, against each other and against Kurds and Christians similar to what ISIS did. They slaughter and execute civilians on the streets, kidnapping and destroying churches and targeting Kurds.
Seventh: Because of the infighting between these armed factions the regime was able to reach “Al Nobel” and “Zahraa” and disconnect Aleppo from “Azzaz” and the northern and eastern villages and as a result from Turkey.
Eighth: Many armed resistance factions left their positions to the regime after a Russian-Turkish memorandum of understanding, thus the regime was able to siege and fight in eastern Aleppo.
Ninth: Turkey and the Syrian opposition in Turkey bluffed the armed resistance telling them lies like unconditional Turkish support against the regime and the support in the negotiation with the regime that will achieve victory. Unfortunately the armed resistance believed these lies and stayed under the hysterical bombardment of the Russians and the regime without any gains on the ground.
Tenth: Turkish intelligence used the armed resistance for their own gains and supporting them to take over the military academy, “Ramosa” and Damascus Road before Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Russia so he can be in a strong position to negotiate with Putin, but after the meeting Erdogan ordered the ceasing of military operations in Aleppo.
Eleventh: At the time when the armed opposition was gaining ground in western Aleppo cutting the roads to Damascus, Erdogan ordered them to leave Aleppo and head towards Jerablus. This move was the last straw that broke the ‘camel’s back’ and lead to their defeat and the victory of the regime.
Twelfth: Instead of heading towards Damascus to bring the Assad regime down, thousands of armed resistance fighters headed to Sheikh Maksoud, Afrin, Jerablus and Al Bab to fight with the Free Syrian Army against the Kurds, following their Turkish master’s order.
Thirteenth: A couple of years ago, a meeting was held between tens of factions and as a result they left their battle fields and headed towards Kurdish cities to occupy them, but the result was their defeat in Sere Kaniye, Rimelan, Qamishlo, Gire Spi and Afrin.
Not only did Eastern Aleppo fall, it was completely destroyed. The economy of the biggest economic centre of the middle east and one of the oldest in the world was destroyed. The fall of eastern Aleppo is also the fall of the armed resistance project and their supporters in Turkey, it is the fall of the political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood and the agents of the Turkish state and its mercenaries and the fall of any forces who fight the Kurdish people. I said it before and say it again “no one will succeed in antagonizing and fighting the Kurdish people”.
At last, the only viable project is the secular and real patriotic project of the Kurdish people, the project of the democratic Syrian forces and the people’s protection units. It is the federal and democratic project that can stand against ISIS and the regime and all the dictators and will also guarantee a free Kurdistan and free Syria.
*Polat Can is one of the founding members and commander in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Rojava-Northern Syria Federation.
The Red Line and the Rat Line
Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels
London Review of Books, April 2014
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.＊ Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.
For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.
The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.
At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’
Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.
The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.
Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’
Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)
But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’
Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’
Military to Military
Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war
London Review of Books, January 2016
Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. 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.
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.
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. 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. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’
‘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.
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.’
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: “Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our interest is mutual.” 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.’
The public history of relations between the US and Syria over the past few decades has been one of enmity. 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 destabilise 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 destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. 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’.But there is also a parallel history of shadowy co-operation between Syria and the US during the same period. The two countries collaborated against al-Qaida, their common enemy. A longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command said that, after 9/11, ‘Bashar was, for years, extremely helpful to us while, in my view, we were churlish in return, and clumsy in our use of the gold he gave us. That quiet co-operation continued among some elements, even after the [Bush administration’s] decision to vilify him.’ In 2002 Assad authorised 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.
It was this history of co-operation that made it seem possible in 2013 that Damascus would agree to the new indirect intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US. The Joint Chiefs let it be known that in return the US would require four things: Assad must restrain Hizbullah from attacking Israel; he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to reach a settlement on the Golan Heights; he must agree to accept Russian and other outside military advisers; and he must commit to holding open elections after the war with a wide range of factions included. ‘We had positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me. ‘The Syrians told us that Assad would not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’ 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. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. ‘“He’s close to the end.”’ 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: ‘Bring him the head of Prince Bandar.’ 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.
In July 2013, the Joint Chiefs found a more direct way of demonstrating to Assad how serious they were about helping him. 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).＊ 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 Postfound 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.
By the late summer of 2013, the DIA’s assessment had been circulated widely, but although many in the American intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists the CIA-sponsored weapons kept coming, presenting a continuing problem for Assad’s army. Gaddafi’s stockpile had created an international arms bazaar, though prices were high. ‘There was no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorised by the president,’ the JCS adviser said. ‘The solution involved an appeal to the pocketbook. The CIA was approached by a representative from the Joint Chiefs with a suggestion: there were far less costly weapons available in Turkish arsenals that could reach the Syrian rebels within days, and without a boat ride.’ But it wasn’t only the CIA that benefited. ‘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.”’
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 territory.
CIA efforts to train the moderate rebel forces were also failing badly. ‘The CIA’s training camp was in Jordan and was controlled by a Syrian tribal group,’ the JCS adviser said. 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 programme, 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.
In January 2014, despairing at the lack of progress, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, summoned American and Sunni Arab intelligence chiefs from throughout the Middle East to a secret meeting in Washington, with the aim of persuading Saudi Arabia to stop supporting extremist fighters in Syria. ‘The Saudis told us they were happy to listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called moderates. His message was that if everyone in the region stopped supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, and the moderates would win out.’ Brennan’s message was ignored by the Saudis, the adviser said, who ‘went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists.’
But the Saudis were far from the only problem: American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdoğan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State. ‘We can handle the Saudis,’ the adviser said. ‘We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdoğan’s dream. We told him we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.’
One of the constants in US affairs since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a military-to-military relationship with Russia. 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 programmes to monitor the security of weapons-grade materials continued for the next two decades. During the American war on Afghanistan, Russia provided overflight 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, 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. ‘I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our careers as we began them,’ Dempsey said – one a tank commander in West Germany, the other in the east.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. ‘Russia knows the Isis leadership,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much intelligence to share.’ In return, he said, ‘we’ve got excellent trainers with years of experience in training foreign fighters – experience that Russia does not have.’ 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.
A former White House adviser on Russian affairs told me that before 9/11 Putin ‘used to say to us: “We have the same nightmares about different places.” He was referring to his problems with the caliphate in Chechnya and our early issues with al-Qaida. These days, after the Metrojet bombing over Sinai and the massacres in Paris and elsewhere, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we actually have the same nightmares about the same places.’
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: ‘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.’
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.
Russian incursions into Turkish airspace began soon after Putin authorised the bombings, and the Russian air force deployed electronic jamming systems that interfered with Turkish radar. The message being sent to the Turkish air force, the JCS adviser said, was: ‘We’re going to fly our fighter planes where we want and when we want and jam your radar. Do not fuck with us. Putin was letting the Turks know what they were up against.’ 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 ‘very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty’. He said that as long as Russia remained allied with Assad, ‘a lot of Russian resources are still going to be targeted at opposition groups … that we support … So I don’t think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only Isil targets. That’s not happening now. It was never happening. It’s not going to be happening in the next several weeks.’
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 ‘are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: “The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.” They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’
Putin’s bombing campaign provoked a series of anti-Russia articles in the American press. 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 ‘in some respects a return to the ambitious military moves of the Soviet past’. 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’.Economic sanctions, meanwhile, are still in effect against Russia for what a large number of Americans consider Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, as are US Treasury Department sanctions against Syria and against those Americans who do business there. The New York Times, in a report on sanctions in late November, revived an old and groundless assertion, saying that the Treasury’s actions ‘emphasise an argument that the administration has increasingly been making about Mr Assad as it seeks to press Russia to abandon its backing for him: that although he professes to be at war with Islamist terrorists, he has a symbiotic relationship with the Islamic State that has allowed it to thrive while he has clung to power.’
The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today: an insistence that Assad must go; that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible; that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support. 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 ‘Russia’s strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise’ of IS. Hollande didn’t go that far but he said that the diplomatic process in Vienna would ‘lead to Bashar al-Assad’s departure … a government of unity is required.’ 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. ‘Turkey is the problem,’ the JCS adviser said.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 ‘that they could easily replace him as they did before to the predecessor … Assad owes it to his people: he could not leave because the historic enemies of Syria are demanding his departure.’
Moustapha also brought up China, an ally of Assad that has allegedly committed more than $30 billion to postwar reconstruction in Syria. China, too, is worried about Islamic State. ‘China regards the Syrian crisis from three perspectives,’ he said: international law and legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist Uighurs, from Xinjiang province in China’s far west. Xinjiang borders eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. Many Uighur fighters now in Syria are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an often violent separatist organisation that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang. ‘The fact that they have been aided by Turkish intelligence to move from China into Syria through Turkey has caused a tremendous amount of tension between the Chinese and Turkish intelligence,’ Moustapha said. ‘China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.’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 ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favour of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’ He added that there was also what amounted to another ‘rat line’ that was funnelling 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. ‘US intelligence,’ he said, ‘is not getting good information about these activities because those insiders who are unhappy with the policy are not talking to them.’ He also said it was ‘not clear’ that the officials responsible for Syrian policy in the State Department and White House ‘get it’. Anthony Davis of 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 ‘up to 860 Uighur fighters are currently in Syria.’
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. ‘I grew up in Taiwan and came to the Pentagon as a critic of China,’ Lin told me. ‘I used to demonise the Chinese as ideologues, and they are not perfect. But over the years as I see them opening up and evolving, I have begun to change my perspective. I see China as a potential partner for various global challenges especially in the Middle East. There are many places – Syria for one – where the United States and China must co-operate in regional security and counterterrorism.’ A few weeks earlier, she said, China and India, Cold War enemies that ‘hated each other more than China and the United States hated each other, conducted a series of joint counterterrorism exercises. And today China and Russia both want to co-operate on terrorism issues with the United States.’ 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. ‘If Assad fails,’ Lin wrote in a paper published in September, ‘jihadi fighters from Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang and India’s Kashmir will then turn their eyes towards the home front to continue jihad, supported by a new and well-sourced Syrian operating base in the heart of the Middle East.’
General Dempsey and his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept their dissent out of bureaucratic channels, and survived in office. General Michael Flynn did not. ‘Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria,’ said Patrick Lang, a retired army colonel who served for nearly a decade as the chief Middle East civilian intelligence officer for the DIA. ‘He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn’t shut up.’ Flynn told me his problems went beyond Syria. ‘I was shaking things up at the DIA – and not just moving deckchairs on the Titanic. It was radical reform. I felt that the civilian leadership did not want to hear the truth. I suffered for it, but I’m OK with that.’ In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Flynn was blunt about Russia’s entry into the Syrian war: ‘We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad; they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.’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: ‘The US and the CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against … the Islamic extremist groups.’
‘Does it not concern you,’ the interviewer asked, ‘that Assad’s regime has been brutal, killing at least 200,000 and maybe 300,000 of his own people?’
‘The things that are being said about Assad right now,’ Gabbard responded, ‘are the same that were said about Gaddafi, they are the same things that were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating for the US to … overthrow those regimes … If it happens here in Syria … we will end up in a situation with far greater suffering, with far greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and our enemy will be far stronger.’
‘So what you are saying,’ the interviewer asked, ‘is that the Russian military involvement in the air and on-the-ground Iranian involvement – they are actually doing the US a favour?’
‘They are working toward defeating our common enemy,’ Gabbard replied.
Gabbard later told me that many of her colleagues in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have thanked her privately for speaking out. ‘There are a lot of people in the general public, and even in the Congress, who need to have things clearly explained to them,’ Gabbard said. ‘But it’s hard when there’s so much deception about what is going on. The truth is not 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 solution in Syria is right before our nose,’ he said. ‘Our primary threat is Isis and all of us – the United States, Russia and China – need to work together. Bashar will remain in office and, after the country is stabilised there will be an election. There is no other option.’
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. ‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,’ Dunford said. ‘If you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.’ 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.
Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. 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. ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria,’ the president told Erdoğan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I reported in the LRB of 17 April 2014). 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 not?
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