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?