Seymour Hersh has just published a long article in The London Review of Books in which he claims to reveal some aspects of a major disagreement between various Washington players concerning US strategy in Syria. In the article Hersh claims that the leadership of the military - the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), under its former Chairman, Martin Dempsey - had a very different idea from the Obama administration on strategy in the war. In this they were supported by the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn.
Obama from the outset has said that for the war to end Bashar al-Assad must first step down. The US blocked peace negotiations earlier in the war, saying negotiations should not take place, until al-Assad relinquished his presidency. By making this a pre-condition the US was in effect backing continued warfare and saying that the US would support Assad's opponents until victory was achieved. Clearly Obama believed that Assad was on the ropes and would eventually be defeated. But it should have been obvious that there was no way Assad would yield power short of military defeat. If he were to do so he would soon find himself either dead like Moamar Qadaffi, or on trial in his own country under a new government, like Saddam Hussein, or on a one-way journey to The Hague to face trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal.
The Obama administration seemed to believe that there was a 'moderate opposition' which could take over government if and when Assad was defeated. The DIA under Michael Flynn and Dempsey's JCS who had a lot of intelligence on what was happening on the ground knew that this was wishful thinking. What was actually happening on the ground was that the opposition to Assad consisted almost entirely of jihadi groups such as Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra and The Army of Conquest. All of these are extremist Salafi fighters frequently using terrorist tactics and happily murdering others (Muslim or non-Muslim) who don't share their extreme ideology. The Free Syrian Army, the supposedly moderate group opposed to Assad, had been absorbed into one or other of the various jihadi groups. Al-Nusrah and IS regarded them as a joke - but also a source of modern weaponry freely supplied by the CIA.
The DIA and JCS were extremely worried about what would happen if Assad's Syrian Arab Army were defeated. They feared a situation, which at best would be one of chaos, like that prevailing in Libya, or much worse the take-over of Syria by extreme murderous jihadis, who would gladly slaughter, by the the thousands, those who did not share their extreme views - Alawites, Christians, secular Sunnis etc.
The DIA passed on their intelligence and concerns to the White House and State Department but got no response. General Dempsey and the JCS chose a different way of dealing with the head-in-the-sand approach of the Administration. According to Hersh's informant, rather than challenge the policy head on, they chose to surreptitiously pass intelligence to al-Assad's military intelligence. They did this by sharing intelligence they had gathered on the jihadi militias with other intelligence services (Germany, Russia and Israel) they knew or strongly suspected would pass the information onto Assad. Apparently they passed intelligence on the whereabouts, strength and aims of the various jihadi militias.
Russia's entry into the war complicated matters for the Obama administration. To the JCS it appeared obvious that US policy should be to ally with Russia to combat IS. But the Obama Administration took a different view and regarded Russia as an enemy. Right from the start of Russia's involvement, the US (and the mainstream media) accused them of bombing not IS, but other combatants of Assad, who the US claimed were 'moderates' (see my earlier blog post Foul. Your bombing our jihadis!). This didn't change even when IS claimed responsibility for downing the Russian civilian airliner in the Sinai. In fact there seemed to be an element of gloating in the US media's response to this terrorist action. There was no attempt to explain why IS would retaliate against Russia if the Administration claim that Russia was not targeting IS were true.
Another aspect of the war, which the DIA reported to the Obama administration, was the duplicitous behaviour of supposed NATO ally Turkey, which was allowing arms and recruits to freely cross its border with Syria to supply and support IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact we now know it was going much further in supporting IS by allowing convoys of tankers of stolen oil to enter Turkey where it was sold on the black market. Obama is well aware of Turkey's behaviour and yet continues to publicly support its president, Erdogan, as was evident in his condemnation of Russia after Turkey had shot down a Russian plane.
For some reason Obama is reluctant to challenge Turkey even though the US is well aware of Turkey's duplicity. He is reported to have told Erdoğan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House "We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria". Nonetheless he is apparently not prepared to do more.
So why is Obama persisting in his apparently wrong-headed policy? There seems to be a little movement on the demand that Assad must step down before peace talks. Secretary of State John Kerry after his recent meetings in Moscow has allowed that peace talks should begin, even while Assad remains in power. But on US hostility to Russia and support for Turkey, nothing seems to have changed. Similarly the claims of a so-called 'moderate opposition' continue. British Prime Minister Cameron, who faithfully follows the US line, recently claimed seventy to eighty thousand such fighters.
The former head of JCS, Martin Dempsey, has retired and in his place Obama appointed General Joseph Dunford, who is reliably anti-Russian. In October Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, telling the Senate Armed Forces 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.
So who is giving the advice to Obama? The role of the CIA is unclear. They have certainly played a big part in moving arms to anti-Assad groups. But I suspect that besides the CIA the usual suspects are shaping policy. By the usual suspects I mean the neocons, who have been responsible for so much bad policy in the Middle East. In an earlier blog I quoted Andrew Sullivan
The closer you examine it, the clearer it is that neoconservatism, in large part, is simply about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel and sustaining a permanent war against anyone or any country who disagrees with the Israeli right. That's the conclusion I've been forced to these last few years. And to insist that America adopt exactly the same constant-war-as-survival that Israelis have been slowly forced into... But America is not Israel. And once that distinction is made, much of the neoconservative ideology collapses.
One has to ask, in whose interest is continuing warfare in Syria? It is certainly not in the interest of the European countries, who are being flooded with desperate refugees and threatened by terrorism. Nor is it the interest of Russia. But to those states who are implacably opposed to Iran, ongoing conflict is just the ticket. A 'rational' though evil policy for them is to keep Iran's allies, Assad and Hezbollah, tied up in fighting, and bleed them to the maximum extent. So Israel and Saudi Arabia were no doubt quite happy with the way things were going, before Russia intervened. Turkey under the megalomaniac Erdogan seems to be more motivated by the prospect of gaining territory in northern Syria, and at the same time preventing Kurdish forces from doing the same.
But is it really in the interests of the US to keep the fighting going? General Dempsey and the former JCS and Michael Flynn and the DIA didn't think so. But they have been ousted and others are now in control. Whose interests are they serving?