Debate Magazine

Pentagon Had Sent Support to Syria’s Assad Govt, in Defiance of Obama

By Eowyn @DrEowyn

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 [...] 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 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. [...] Obama didn't know , but Obama doesn't know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that's true of all presidents.' [...]

There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military [...] it was [...] 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.' [...]

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 [...] t he CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey , had been underway for more than a year [...] 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.

By the late summer of 2013 [...] 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. [...] 'There was no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorised by the president ,' the JCS adviser said. [...]

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. [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] Brennan's message was ignored by [...] who [...] 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 [of Turkey] had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State. [...]Erdoğan's dream [...] of restoring the Ottoman Empire [...]

One of the constants in US affairs since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a military-to-military relationship with Russia. [...] 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. [...]

When it comes to tackling Islamic State, Russia and the US have much to offer each other. [...] 'Russia knows the Isis leadership,' the JCS adviser said, 'and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much intelligence to share.' [...]

Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support of Assad. [...] 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 [...] was to say: "Assad must go as a premise for negotiation [on Ukraine]."' [...]

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. [...] 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. [...] 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 [...]

Putin's bombing campaign provoked a series of anti-Russia articles in the American press [...] [...] 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. [...]

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 [...] although he [Putin] 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 [...] 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. [...] The JCS adviser told me that one of '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.

[...] 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. [...] 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 [China's] 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 [...]

Christina Lin, a scholar who dealt with Chinese issues a decade ago while serving in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld [...] '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. [...] today China and Russia both want to co-operate on terrorism issues with the United States.' [...]

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 [...] He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn't shut up.' [...] 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. [...] Get real.'

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