[News] Military to Military - US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Dec 31 22:15:38 EST 2015


  Military to Military - US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war

Seymour M. Hersh - January 7, 2016

Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave 
office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of 
defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even 
overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the 
Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as 
the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. 
In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and 
China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both 
countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in 
and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must 
be stopped.

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a 
highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence 
Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin 
Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos 
and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was 
then happening in Libya. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs 
told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on 
information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a 
dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to 
finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups. By then, the CIA 
had been conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi 
Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow 
of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria. The new intelligence 
estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria 
policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as 
a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting 
Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an 
across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the 
opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called 
moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group 
stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was 
no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.

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,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’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 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 administration’s policy was contradictory. They 
wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So 
who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if 
you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the “anybody 
else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’ 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.

Germany, Israel and Russia were in contact with the Syrian army, and 
able to exercise some influence over Assad’s decisions – it was through 
them that US intelligence would be shared. Each had its reasons for 
co-operating with Assad: Germany feared what might happen among its own 
population of six million Muslims if Islamic State expanded; Israel was 
concerned with border security; Russia had an alliance of very long 
standing with Syria, and was worried by the threat to its only naval 
base on the Mediterranean, at Tartus. ‘We weren’t intent on deviating 
from Obama’s stated policies,’ the adviser said. ‘But sharing our 
assessments via the military-to-military relationships with other 
countries could prove productive. It was clear that Assad needed better 
tactical intelligence and operational advice. The JCS concluded that if 
those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would 
be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does 
in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’

Once the flow of US intelligence began, Germany, Israel and Russia 
started passing on information about the whereabouts and intent of 
radical jihadist groups to the Syrian army; in return, Syria provided 
information about its own capabilities and intentions. There was no 
direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the 
adviser said, ‘we provided the information – including long-range 
analyses on Syria’s future put together by contractors or one of our war 
colleges – and these countries could do with it what they chose, 
including sharing it with Assad. We were saying to the Germans and the 
others: “Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our 
interest is mutual.” End of conversation. 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. 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.’


The public history of relations between the US and Syria over the past 
few decades has been one of enmity. Assad condemned the 9/11 attacks, 
but opposed the Iraq War. George W. Bush repeatedly linked Syria to the 
three members of his ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – 
throughout his presidency. State Department cables made public by 
WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria 
and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, 
William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an 
analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed 
methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for 
destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia 
and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian 
efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni 
factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and 
uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be 
encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by 
Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose 
government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim 
Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 
million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the 
People’s Assembly; the payments were kept up even after it became clear 
that Syrian intelligence knew what was going on. A 2010 cable warned 
that funding for a London-based television network run by a Syrian 
opposition group would be viewed by the Syrian government ‘as a covert 
and hostile gesture toward the regime’.

But there is also a parallel history of shadowy co-operation between 
Syria and the US during the same period. The two countries collaborated 
against al-Qaida, their common enemy. A longtime consultant to the Joint 
Special Operations Command said that, after 9/11, ‘Bashar was, for 
years, extremely helpful to us while, in my view, we were churlish in 
return, and clumsy in our use of the gold he gave us. That quiet 
co-operation continued among some elements, even after the [Bush 
administration’s] decision to vilify him.’ In 2002 Assad authorised 
Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the 
activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany. Later that 
year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the 
headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Assad agreed 
to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant. In 
violation of this agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; 
he rejected the approach, and broke off relations with his Syrian 
handlers. Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam 
Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like America’s allies in 
Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere – tortured suspected terrorists 
for the CIA in a Damascus prison.

It was this history of co-operation that made it seem possible in 2013 
that Damascus would agree to the new indirect intelligence-sharing 
arrangement with the US. The Joint Chiefs let it be known that in return 
the US would require four things: Assad must restrain Hizbullah from 
attacking Israel; he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to 
reach a settlement on the Golan Heights; he must agree to accept Russian 
and other outside military advisers; and he must commit to holding open 
elections after the war with a wide range of factions included. ‘We had 
positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the 
idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and 
Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me. ‘The Syrians told us that Assad would 
not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his 
military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes 
and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’ A senior adviser to the 
Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after 
suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, 
Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to 
reopen the talks on the Golan Heights. The Israelis had rejected the 
offer. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. 
‘“He’s close to the end.”’ He said the Turks had told Moscow the same 
thing. By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind 
them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious 
about their offers of help.

In the early stages of the talks, the adviser said, the Joint Chiefs 
tried to establish what Assad needed as a sign of their good intentions. 
The answer was sent through one of Assad’s friends: ‘Bring him the head 
of Prince Bandar.’ The Joint Chiefs did not oblige. Bandar bin Sultan 
had served Saudi Arabia for decades in intelligence and national 
security affairs, and spent more than twenty years as ambassador in 
Washington. In recent years, he has been known as an advocate for 
Assad’s removal from office by any means. Reportedly in poor health, he 
resigned last year as director of the Saudi National Security Council, 
but 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, the Joint Chiefs found a more direct way of demonstrating 
to Assad how serious they were about helping him. By then the 
CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, 
via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime 
after Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011).[*] 
<http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/#fn-asterisk> The 
operation was 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, the DIA’s assessment had been circulated 
widely, but 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. Gaddafi’s stockpile had created an international arms 
bazaar, though prices were high. ‘There was no way to stop the arms 
shipments that had been authorised by the president,’ the JCS adviser 
said. ‘The solution involved an appeal to the pocketbook. The CIA was 
approached by a representative from the Joint Chiefs with a suggestion: 
there were far less costly weapons available in Turkish arsenals that 
could reach the Syrian rebels within days, and without a boat ride.’ But 
it wasn’t only the CIA that benefited. ‘We worked with Turks we trusted 
who were not loyal to Erdoğan,’ the adviser said, ‘and got them to ship 
the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, 
including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and 
lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: “We have 
the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”’

The flow of US intelligence to the Syrian army, and the downgrading of 
the quality of the arms being supplied to the rebels, came at a critical 
juncture. 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. Sporadic Syrian army 
and air-force raids continued in the area for months, with little 
success, until it was decided to withdraw from Raqqa and other hard to 
defend, lightly populated areas in the north and west and focus instead 
on consolidating the government’s hold on Damascus and the heavily 
populated areas linking the capital to Latakia in the north-east. But as 
the army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs’ support, 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. The remaining 
non-fundamentalist rebels found themselves fighting – and losing – 
pitched battles against the extremists. 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. 
‘The CIA’s training camp was in Jordan and was controlled by a Syrian 
tribal group,’ the JCS adviser said. There was a suspicion that some of 
those who signed up for training were actually Syrian army regulars 
minus their uniforms. This had happened before, at the height of the 
Iraqi war, when hundreds of Shia militia members showed up at American 
training camps for new uniforms, weapons and a few days of training, and 
then disappeared into the desert. A separate training programme, set up 
by the Pentagon in Turkey, fared no better. The Pentagon acknowledged in 
September that only ‘four or five’ of its recruits were still battling 
Islamic State; a few days later 70 of them defected to Jabhat al-Nusra 
immediately after crossing the border into Syria.

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. ‘The Saudis told us they were happy to 
listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to 
hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called 
moderates. His message was that if everyone in the region stopped 
supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, 
and the moderates would win out.’ Brennan’s message was ignored by the 
Saudis, the adviser said, who ‘went back home and 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 had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and 
was now doing the same for Islamic State. ‘We can handle the Saudis,’ 
the adviser said. ‘We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue 
that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually 
assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and 
Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdoğan’s dream. We told him 
we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing 
into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – 
and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.’


One of the constants in US affairs since the fall of the Soviet Union 
has been a military-to-military relationship with Russia. After 1991 the 
US spent billions of dollars to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons 
complex, including a highly secret joint operation to remove 
weapons-grade uranium from unsecured storage depots in Kazakhstan. Joint 
programmes to monitor the security of weapons-grade materials continued 
for the next two decades. 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. In August, a few weeks 
before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dempsey made a 
farewell visit to the headquarters of the Irish Defence Forces in Dublin 
and told his audience there that he had made a point while in office to 
keep in touch with the chief of the Russian General Staff, General 
Valery Gerasimov. ‘I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our 
careers as we began them,’ Dempsey said – one a tank commander in West 
Germany, the other in the east.

When it comes to tackling Islamic State, Russia and the US have much to 
offer each other. Many in the IS leadership and rank and file fought for 
more than a decade against Russia in the two Chechen wars that began in 
1994, and the Putin government is heavily invested in combating Islamist 
terrorism. ‘Russia knows the Isis leadership,’ the JCS adviser said, 
‘and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much 
intelligence to share.’ In return, he said, ‘we’ve got excellent 
trainers with years of experience in training foreign fighters – 
experience that Russia does not have.’ The adviser would not discuss 
what American intelligence is also believed to have: an ability to 
obtain targeting data, often by paying huge sums of cash, from sources 
within rebel militias.

A former White House adviser on Russian affairs told me that before 9/11 
Putin ‘used to say to us: “We have the same nightmares about different 
places.” He was referring to his problems with the caliphate in Chechnya 
and our early issues with al-Qaida. These days, after the Metrojet 
bombing over Sinai and the massacres in Paris and elsewhere, it’s hard 
to avoid the conclusion that we actually have the same nightmares about 
the same places.’

Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support 
of Assad. A retired senior diplomat who served at the US embassy in 
Moscow expressed sympathy for Obama’s dilemma as the leader of the 
Western coalition opposed to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: 
‘Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with 
sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused. But 
it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. 
The reality is that 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, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, 
was to say: “Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.”’ He also 
echoed a view held by some in the Pentagon when he alluded to a 
collateral factor behind Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in 
support of the Syrian army on 30 September: Putin’s desire to prevent 
Assad from suffering the same fate as Gaddafi. He had been told that 
Putin had watched a video of Gaddafi’s savage death three times, a video 
that shows him being sodomised with a bayonet. The JCS adviser also told 
me of a US intelligence assessment which concluded that Putin had been 
appalled by Gaddafi’s fate: ‘Putin blamed himself for letting Gaddafi 
go, for not playing a strong role behind the scenes’ at the UN when the 
Western coalition was lobbying to be allowed to undertake the airstrikes 
that destroyed the regime. ‘Putin believed that unless he got engaged 
Bashar would suffer the same fate – mutilated – and he’d see the 
destruction of his allies in Syria.’

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. The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East 
explained in an interview that the first round of Russian airstrikes was 
aimed at bolstering security around a Russian airbase in Latakia, an 
Alawite stronghold. The strategic goal, he said, has been to establish a 
jihadist-free corridor from Damascus to Latakia and the Russian naval 
base at Tartus and then to shift the focus of bombing gradually to the 
south and east, with a greater concentration of bombing missions over 
IS-held territory. 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. The message being 
sent to the Turkish air force, the JCS adviser said, was: ‘We’re going 
to fly our fighter planes where we want and when we want and jam your 
radar. Do not fuck with us. Putin was letting the Turks know what they 
were up against.’ Russia’s aggression led to Turkish complaints and 
Russian denials, along with more aggressive border patrolling by the 
Turkish air force. 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, 
and after they met in private on 1 December he told a press conference 
that his administration remained ‘very much committed to Turkey’s 
security and its sovereignty’. He said that as long as Russia remained 
allied with Assad, ‘a lot of Russian resources are still going to be 
targeted at opposition groups … that we support … So I don’t think we 
should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only 
Isil targets. That’s not happening now. It was never happening. It’s not 
going to be happening in the next several weeks.’

The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the 
DIA, dismisses the ‘moderates’ who have Obama’s support, seeing them as 
extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS 
(‘There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate 
and not moderate,’ Putin said in a speech on 22 October). The American 
generals see them as exhausted militias that have been forced to make an 
accommodation with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS in order to survive. At the end 
of 2014, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend 
ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the 
IS leadership ‘are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t 
take them for serious. They say: “The best arms sellers we have are the 
FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.” They didn’t take 
them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of 
course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’


Putin’s bombing campaign provoked a series of anti-Russia articles in 
the American press. On 25 October, the /New York Times/ reported, citing 
Obama administration officials, that Russian submarines and spy ships 
were ‘aggressively’ operating near the undersea cables that carry much 
of the world’s internet traffic – although, as the article went on to 
acknowledge, there was ‘no evidence yet’ of any Russian attempt actually 
to interfere with that traffic. Ten days earlier the /Times/ published a 
summary of Russian intrusions into its former Soviet satellite 
republics, and 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. An October op-ed in the same paper by Michael McFaul, Obama’s 
ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, declared that the Russian 
air campaign was attacking ‘everyone except the Islamic State’. The 
anti-Russia stories did not abate after the Metrojet disaster, for which 
Islamic State claimed credit. Few in the US government and media 
questioned why IS would target a Russian airliner, along with its 224 
passengers and crew, if Moscow’s air force was attacking only the Syrian 

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 the Treasury’s actions ‘emphasise an argument that the 
administration has increasingly been making about Mr Assad as it seeks 
to press Russia to abandon its backing for him: that although he 
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. The Paris attacks on 13 November that killed 130 people 
did not change the White House’s public stance, 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. On 24 November, Hollande flew to Washington to 
discuss how France and the US could collaborate more closely in the 
fight against Islamic State. At a joint press conference at the White 
House, Obama said he and Hollande had agreed that ‘Russia’s strikes 
against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose 
brutality has helped to fuel the rise’ of IS. Hollande didn’t go that 
far but he said that the diplomatic process in Vienna would ‘lead to 
Bashar al-Assad’s departure … a government of unity is required.’ The 
press conference failed to deal with the far more urgent impasse between 
the two men on the matter of Erdoğan. Obama defended Turkey’s right to 
defend its borders; Hollande said it was ‘a matter of urgency’ for 
Turkey to take action against terrorists. The JCS adviser told me that 
one of Hollande’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.

Assad, naturally, doesn’t accept that a group of foreign leaders should 
be deciding on his future. Imad Moustapha, now Syria’s ambassador to 
China, was dean of the IT faculty at the University of Damascus, and a 
close aide of Assad’s, when he was appointed in 2004 as the Syrian 
ambassador to the US, a post he held for seven years. Moustapha is known 
still to be close to Assad, and can be trusted to reflect what he 
thinks. He told me that for Assad to surrender power would mean 
capitulating to ‘armed terrorist groups’ and that ministers in a 
national unity government – such as was being proposed by the Europeans 
– would be seen to be beholden to the foreign powers that appointed 
them. These powers could remind the new president ‘that they could 
easily replace him as they did before to the predecessor … Assad owes it 
to his people: he could not leave because the historic enemies of Syria 
are demanding his departure.’


Moustapha also brought up 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. ‘China regards the Syrian 
crisis from three perspectives,’ he said: international law and 
legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist 
Uighurs, from Xinjiang province in China’s far west. Xinjiang borders 
eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, 
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a 
funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. 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 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,’ Moustapha said. ‘China is concerned 
that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be 
extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are 
already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information 
regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on 
travelling into Syria.’

Moustapha’s concerns were echoed by a Washington foreign affairs analyst 
who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and 
into Syria. The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior 
government officials, told me that ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uighurs 
into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating 
in favour of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim 
terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and 
are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’ He added that there 
was also what amounted to another ‘rat line’ that was funnelling Uighurs 
– estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands over the years – 
from China into Kazakhstan for eventual relay to Turkey, and then to IS 
territory in Syria. ‘US intelligence,’ he said, ‘is not getting good 
information about these activities because those insiders who are 
unhappy with the policy are not talking to them.’ He also said it was 
‘not clear’ that the officials responsible for Syrian policy in the 
State Department and White House ‘get it’. /IHS-Jane’s Defence Weekly/ 
estimated in October that as many as five thousand Uighur would-be 
fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013, with perhaps two thousand 
moving on to Syria. Moustapha said he has information that ‘up to 860 
Uighur fighters are currently in Syria.’

China’s growing concern about the Uighur problem and its link to Syria 
and Islamic State have preoccupied Christina Lin, a scholar who dealt 
with Chinese issues a decade ago while serving in the Pentagon under 
Donald Rumsfeld. ‘I grew up in Taiwan and came to the Pentagon as a 
critic of China,’ Lin told me. ‘I used to demonise the Chinese as 
ideologues, and they are not perfect. But over the years as I see them 
opening up and evolving, I have begun to change my perspective. 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.’ A few weeks earlier, she said, China and India, Cold 
War enemies that ‘hated each other more than China and the United States 
hated each other, conducted a series of joint counterterrorism 
exercises. And today China and Russia both want to co-operate on 
terrorism issues with the United States.’ As China sees it, Lin 
suggests, Uighur militants who have made their way to Syria are being 
trained by Islamic State in survival techniques intended to aid them on 
covert return trips to the Chinese mainland, for future terrorist 
attacks there. ‘If Assad fails,’ Lin wrote in a paper published in 
September, ‘jihadi fighters from Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang and 
India’s Kashmir will then turn their eyes towards the home front to 
continue jihad, supported by a new and well-sourced Syrian operating 
base in the heart of the Middle East.’


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,’ said Patrick Lang, 
a retired army colonel who served for nearly a decade as the chief 
Middle East civilian intelligence officer for the DIA. ‘He thought truth 
was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn’t shut up.’ Flynn 
told me his problems went beyond Syria. ‘I was shaking things up at the 
DIA – and not just moving deckchairs on the /Titanic/. It was radical 
reform. I felt that the civilian leadership did not want to hear the 
truth. I suffered for it, but I’m OK with that.’ 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. Whether we like it or 
not, Russia made a decision to be there and to act militarily. They are 
there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say 
Russia is bad; they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.’

Few in the US Congress share this view. One exception is Tulsi Gabbard, 
a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee 
who, as a major in the Army National Guard, served two tours in the 
Middle East. In an interview on CNN in October she said: ‘The US and the 
CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the 
Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against … 
the Islamic extremist groups.’

‘Does it not concern you,’ the interviewer asked, ‘that Assad’s regime 
has been brutal, killing at least 200,000 and maybe 300,000 of his own 

‘The things that are being said about Assad right now,’ Gabbard 
responded, ‘are the same that were said about Gaddafi, they are the same 
things that were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating 
for the US to … overthrow those regimes … If it happens here in Syria … 
we will end up in a situation with far greater suffering, with far 
greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and 
our enemy will be far stronger.’

‘So what you are saying,’ the interviewer asked, ‘is that the Russian 
military involvement in the air and on-the-ground Iranian involvement – 
they are actually doing the US a favour?’

‘They are working toward defeating our common enemy,’ Gabbard replied.

Gabbard later told me that many of her colleagues in Congress, Democrats 
and Republicans, have thanked her privately for speaking out. ‘There are 
a lot of people in the general public, and even in the Congress, who 
need to have things clearly explained to them,’ Gabbard said. ‘But it’s 
hard when there’s so much deception about what is going on. The truth is 
not out.’ It’s unusual for a politician to challenge her party’s foreign 
policy directly and on the record. For someone on the inside, with 
access to the most secret intelligence, speaking openly and critically 
can be a career-ender. Informed dissent can be transmitted by means of a 
trust relationship between a reporter and those on the inside, but it 
almost invariably includes no signature. The dissent exists, however. 
The longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command could 
not hide his contempt when I asked him for his view of the US’s Syria 
policy. ‘The solution in Syria is right before our nose,’ he said. ‘Our 
primary threat is Isis and all of us – the United States, Russia and 
China – need to work together. Bashar will remain in office and, after 
the country is stabilised there will be an election. There is no other 

The military’s indirect pathway to Assad disappeared with Dempsey’s 
retirement in September. His replacement as chairman of the Joint 
Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, testified before the Senate Armed 
Services Committee in July, two months before assuming office. ‘If you 
want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the 
United States, I’d have to point to Russia,’ Dunford said. ‘If you look 
at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.’ In October, as 
chairman, Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, 
telling the same 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.

Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect 
challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for 
Assad and support for Erdoğan. Dempsey and his associates remain 
mystified by Obama’s continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the 
American intelligence community’s strong case against him – and the 
evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case. ‘We know what you’re 
doing with the radicals in Syria,’ the president told Erdoğan’s 
intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I reported 
in the /LRB/ of 17 April 2014 
The Joint Chiefs and the DIA were constantly telling Washington’s 
leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey’s support for 
it. The message was never listened to. Why not?

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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