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When US policymakers go wrong

Dec 31,2015 - Last updated at Dec 31,2015

US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh dropped a seasonal bombshell in the London Review of Books when he wrote that the Pentagon had indirectly shared intelligence with the Syrian military via the German, Russian and Israeli agencies.

Hersh began by arguing that senior US officers took such action because they were fed up with the Obama administration’s insistence on the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the existence of “moderate” armed groups capable of doing the job. (I take issue with his including of Israel in the group of intermediaries as Israel has been backing Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Al Nusra against the Syrian army in the Kuneitra-Golan area).

President Barack Obama announced on August 18, 2011, that Assad had to go and took steps to support the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), established under Turkey’s patronage, on July 29 by seven or eight defecting middle-ranking Syrian army officers without troops.

At that time, the Syrian regular army was engaged in intermittent clashes with armed groups formed by local gang leaders whose aim was to oust the government. Since many of these groups were largely armed (and later paid) by expatriate Syrian businessmen, they had a reputation of being “moderate”, that is, not identified as Sunni fundamentalist.

Other groups, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and militant salafists, were not seen as a taqfiri threat, that is, also “moderate”. 

Some claimed identification with the FSA to secure US and Turkish largesse. (It is significant that the expatriate opposition “Syrian National Council” (SNC), modelled on the Iraqi National Council that partnered the US during the Bush era, was set up in August 2011, again by Ankara). 

However, the FSA did not topple Assad and intermittent battles became a war for the existence of Syria.

Hersh reminds us that during the summer of 2013, a “highly classified document” drafted by the US Defence Intelligence Agency and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by General Martin Dempsey who had served in Iraq during 2003-04, predicted that if Assad were to fall, there would be chaos in Syria that could be exploited by taqfiri groups determined to seize territory.

The result would be a situation similar to that in Libya, where Western airpower helped rebels topple the Qadhafi regime without ensuring a line of succession.

By the summer of 2013, the US Central Intelligence Agency, Turkey and allied regional powers had, for some time, been transferring arms to alleged “moderates” who were selling them or defecting to Al Nusra, which had entered the conflict in early 2012, and Daesh, which joined in 2013.

The Obama administration was repeatedly warned by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, about what Hersh called “the dire” consequences of toppling Assad.

“The jihadists were in control of the opposition,” Flynn told Hersh.

“If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic. We understood Isis’s [Daesh’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 [Daesh] inside Syria.” 

Flynn said the administration “did not want to hear the truth”.

Hersh’s article appeared after Dempsey’s retirement, in September; he, like former army chief, General Eric Shinseki, warned an administration against a wrong-headed policy.

At the time, Shinseki warned the George W. Bush administration against invading and occupying Iraq without deploying the hundreds of thousands of boots-on-the-ground needed to provide security for a country of Iraq’s size and population.

He also retired at a key moment in the Iraq debacle: June 11, 2003. In November 2006, when it was clear that Iraq adventure was a disaster.

Central Command head General John Abizaid testified before Congress that Shinseki had been correct.

Too little, too late.

Unfortunately, Dempsey was succeeded by General Joseph Dunford who claimed that the greatest threat to the US comes from Russia and dismissed Russia’s intervention in Syria as “not fighting [Daesh]”.

He commanded Marines in the invasion of Iraq, served 22 months there [as Al Qaeda took root in the country] and should know better than to cite Russia as the main “existential threat” to the US.

He is, clearly, the Obama administration’s choice for the top job as he plays ball with its side.

Ever since August 18, 2011, when he called on Assad to step aside, Obama has failed to spell out how control over Syria was to be exercised.

The FSA has always been “non-existent” as a force, consisting of thousands of troops with command-and-control, and the SNC (and its successor the Syrian National Coalition) have no support inside Syria.

Obama has no intention of sending troops and administrators to occupy and rule Syria, as Bush did Iraq, providing the breeding ground for Al Qaeda and Daesh.

The Obama administration has also ignored or soft pedalled connections between immoderate fundamentalist Ahrar Al Sham and Nusra, in Idlib province, as well as between groups claiming to be FSA and Daesh, notably in the southern Damascus suburbs of Yarmouk and Hajar Al Aswad.

It is interesting to note that Hersh’s article was not picked up by the New York Times or Washington Post, the two most read newspapers in the White House.

Democracy Now carried an interview with Hersh and Russia Today an in-depth article, while United Press International and other outlets had reports on the article. 

Presumably Hersh’s accusations against the Obama administration did get through to Obama himself.


The problem with Hersh, for US policymakers, is that he normally turns out to be right and they wrong.

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