Intelligence and Truth about Syria

I promised myself at the start of 2016 that On Security would not devolve into On Syria, All the Time, but today I cannot resist the opportunity to discuss a piece by Seymour Hersh in the January 7 issue of the London Review of Books. If you are looking for a different perspective on the United States’ Syria policy, this is the article for you. If you think that Assad must go and that the United States cannot cooperate with Russia, then this is definitely the article for you, because it exposes why these and other assumptions are hindering our ability to combat IS in Syria.

The article is really about two related themes: efforts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to funnel intelligence to the Syrian Army via Germany, Israel, and Russia that would enhance its ability to fight IS and related groups in Syria; and the consequences of failing to pursue closer cooperation with both Russia and China to combat IS and related terrorist groups. The article highlights efforts by Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2012-2014, to warn the Obama administration about the consequences of its insistence that Assad must go. Hersh notes 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.” Flynn claims that these warnings “‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt they did not want to hear the truth,’” he said.

This “truth” was the fact that there was no effective “moderate” opposition on the ground in Syria and that toppling Assad would invite a takeover by extremists. It was in the wake of these assessments that the JCS decided to share intelligence about jihadist groups via other militaries that had direct contact with the Syrian forces. Hersh notes, “There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, ‘we provided the information…and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad…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.’”

In some ways, it is surprising to read that the US military was indirectly channeling intelligence to the Syrian Army, given that the public policy of the US government remains that Assad and his regime must go. It may surprise you to know, in the current climate of media coverage, that Syria actually cooperated with the United States quite a lot on anti-terror efforts after the September 11 attacks, even after George W. Bush decided to target Assad for some of his “axis of evil” rhetoric. The article does not paint a flattering picture of the CIA’s efforts to funnel arms and training to the illusory “moderate” opposition (discussed here), and it goes into too much detail to summarize succinctly here. Suffice it to say, Flynn’s tenure at DIA did not survive his truth-telling crusade. According to Patrick Lang, retired Army colonel who had served in DIA, “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.”

The rest of the article challenges the dominant narrative on Russia and the United States’ refusal to cooperate with it on Syria. To a lesser extent, it also explores the limits to US cooperation with China. All three countries, in Hersh’s view, share a similar interest in combating Islamic terrorism and extremism, and yet cooperation on these challenges remains remarkably limited—part of which he attributes to a persistent, Cold War-era “us vs. them” mentality. If transnational terrorism really is the greatest threat that the United States faces, then why are we allowing Russia’s actions in the Ukraine to stand in the way of cooperation that would likely prove greatly beneficial in the fight against IS? Is it because terrorism really isn’t that big of a deal? Or because we’re convinced that cooperating with other strong states threatens our own position atop the global hierarchy? The latter is an interesting question and one about which international relations theory has developed a variety of perspectives, but I will save those for another day.

“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.” Hersh accurately sums up the state of US policy on Syria at the start of 2016, and his article provides persuasive evidence for why all four of those elements are either counterproductive to the effort to fight IS (Assad must go, no cooperation with Russia) or simply inaccurate (Turkey as ally, moderate opposition). I am inclined to agree with this assessment, as is much of the defense intelligence community, apparently.  But what chance does the “truth” have when the people in charge don’t want to hear it?

Iran Nuclear Agreement: Diplomacy Bears Fruit

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had met all of its commitments to roll back and limit its nuclear programs under the terms of a U.S.-backed deal reached last summer. In exchange, some economic sanctions have been lifted and the West will unfreeze roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets. The lifting of these sanctions should open up new opportunities for investment in Iran’s economy, particularly in oil. The deal also included a prisoner exchange in which five Americans were freed from Iranian custody.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium, and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges used in the production of highly enriched uranium, among other initiatives. The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining how the deal limits Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon here.  It is important to note that most aspects of the American trade embargo remain in place.  This nuclear deal lifts many international sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries, which will provide the country with much-needed cash in a period of low oil prices.

There are, of course, no guarantees that this agreement will permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The long-term success of the agreement depends on the IAEA’s ability to access and monitor sites in Iran to verify continued compliance. This proved to be a major stumbling block in US-Iraq relations in the 1990s, but it should be noted that the Iraqis never did succeed in restarting a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon during all those years of fighting about IAEA inspections. (More on this in my forthcoming book, Cheap Threats, which I will be discussing on the blog in the coming weeks.)

As I argued this fall and as the Obama administration has consistently asserted, this agreement is the best available means for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The administration should see the successful implementation of this agreement as a major foreign policy achievement—one that took years of painstaking negotiations without the instant gratification of bombing or other short-term military instruments. Critics assert that the deal leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable, that it does not do enough to disarm the “rogue” Iranian regime, that negotiating makes the United States look weak…there is no shortage of articles (or Presidential candidates) criticizing it. Are there reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies? Absolutely—but the same can and should be said about its rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s compliance with the agreement also dovetails nicely with last week’s discussion of North Korea and the concept of rationality. Critics have long alleged that Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation with crazy leaders bent on hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. This deal demonstrates that it is possible to negotiate with regimes that we do not necessarily understand and that do not necessarily share our own views of the international system. Of course, comparing Iran and North Korea is a little like comparing apples and oranges, and North Korea has successfully manipulated international negotiations to its own benefit on several occasions. We can, however, take this agreement as evidence of the promise of diplomacy in a world that CNN would like us to believe is teetering on the brink of meltdown.

North Korea’s Latest Provocation

North Korea claimed on January 6 that it had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. If this claim is true, it would mean that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced beyond the production of the more basic atomic weapons it has tested in the past. At this point, scientists are still collecting data to try to determine what actually happened. Most seem to dispute the claim that North Korea successfully tested a true hydrogen bomb, although they may have succeeded in testing a “boosted” atomic weapon, which is far less advanced and far less destructive than an H-bomb. Experts currently estimate North Korea’s test had a yield of roughly 6 kilotons; a Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in 1961 produced a blast of 50,000 kilotons. (A yield of 1 kiloton is equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 tons of TNT. “Real” hydrogen bombs produce a staggeringly large explosion.) The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining the basic science behind the different types of weapons here.

Interestingly, North Korea also released footage last week claiming to show the recent successful launch of an SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts now claim that the video has been doctored with images from 2014, and that the heavy manipulation of the footage was an attempt to obscure the fact that the test seems to have been a failure.

These tests coincided with the January 8 birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It is not unusual for North Korea to launch provocative military displays around key calendar dates or for its leader to use such displays to try to shore up his own power. What is somewhat unusual about this latest provocation is the fact that China has joined the international community in condemning the nuclear test. China has also indicated that it would support punitive action by the UN Security Council—presumably, additional sanctions. China has been reluctant to break ties with North Korea in the past and tends not to be thrilled about Security Council sanctions in general, so this may be a significant development in the international campaign to contain the North Korean regime.

I am always struck by the extent to which news coverage and commentary on North Korea refers to the country and its leader as delusional, insane, or irrational. We have a history in the United States of labeling certain leaders of other countries as crazy and treating them as such—Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are two obvious examples. This has the unfortunate consequence of leading us to believe that such leaders do not respond to international pressure (convenient if you are trying to drum up support for a regime-change campaign), and to both over- and underestimate their competence. That is, we view such leaders as both possessed of the ability to wreak unparalleled destruction in the international community and incapable of responding to the basic strategic realities of international politics.

Since 2001, the United States has invaded or overthrown the regimes of several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—none of which possessed nuclear weapons. It has, however, refrained from invading North Korea, which has both one of the worst human rights records of any state on earth (far worse than that of Libya, which everyone was so eager to liberate in 2011), and (as of 2006, i.e., after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I certainly don’t think North Korea views it as one, either.  We may have a hard time viewing Kim’s behavior as “rational” in terms that fit with our own worldview, but it is a dangerous oversimplification to view him as a deranged clown and doing so can distort our long-term strategy for managing North Korea.