A “grain of salt” warning must accompany reports from Seymour Hersh, who has made some fantastic claims during his career. With that in mind, his latest post in the London Review of Books alleges the U.S. military is sharing intelligence with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for the purpose of helping Assad’s military take down Islamic State and al-Qaeda rebels.
Hersh portrays this as something of a low-intensity military coup against President Obama’s policies, although he also quotes an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisting military commanders were not “intent on deviating from Obama’s stated policies.”
It is tough to see how giving the Assad regime intelligence that would help it defeat the most powerful (and evil) elements of the Syrian rebellion would not significantly “deviate” from President Obama’s stated policy of regime change after Assad crossed the infamous “chemical weapons red line.” One might, however, try making the case that ending the civil war with the defeat of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the rest of the scurvy jihad crew could lead to one of those much-discussed “diplomatic resolutions” that eases Assad out of power. Such thinking holds that Assad, and his Russian and Iranian patrons, will never stand for the appearance he was ousted after a “terrorist” assault on Syria’s legitimate government, but if the civil war is decisively ended, perhaps a more gradual and dignified exit for the dictator could be arranged.
At any rate, Hersh has senior officers of the Joint Chiefs criticizing “what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin,” which is a relic of “Cold War thinking about Russia and China” that does not reflect the shared interest of those old adversaries in helping the United States battle Islamist terrorism.
Also on the military mind was a 2013 Defense Intelligence Agency analysis which predicted “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.”
This assessment also blasted Turkey for co-opting the CIA’s plan to arm the fabled “moderate Syrian rebels” against Assad, turning it into “an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.” In fact, the intel community suspects Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of dreaming that he can blow up the entire balance of power in the Middle East and using the resulting chaos to rebuild the Ottoman Empire.
This left no viable “moderate” opposition to Assad – an assessment borne out by the ensuring years of embarrassing Administration failure to train up the white-hat Syrian force it claimed would be able to thump Assad, ISIS, and al-Qaeda.
Frustrated by their inability to get civilian leaders in the Administration to understand that Turkey could not be trusted, the “moderate Syrian rebels” were a comforting political illusion, and Assad was likely to be replaced by a fundamentalist jihadi nightmare, the JCS 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.”
Hersh says this intel made its way into Assad’s hands through Germany, Israel, and Russia, each of which had its reasons for cooperating with the regime.
According to Hersh’s source, the Joint Chiefs knew their intel would end up reaching the Syrian military and would help Syrian forces more effectively target Islamist rebel groups … but “Obama didn’t know” what they were up to because “Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.”
The source offered a rather tortured rationale for denying that the Joint Chiefs were, in effect, going behind President Obama’s back and propping up the Syrian regime: they were giving good intelligence to allies like Germany, and if those allies decided to pass it along to the gas-spewing monster of Damascus, well…
“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,” explained the adviser who talked to Hersh. “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.”
Hersh puts this in context with the “parallel history of shadowy cooperation between Syria and the U.S.” against mutual jihadi adversaries, such as al-Qaeda. Hersh quotes a “longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command” who describes Syria’s post-9/11 behind-the-scenes cooperation with the Bush administration as “extremely helpful to us,” although he says “we were churlish in return, and clumsy in our use of the gold he gave us.” Hersh also charges the CIA with quietly subcontracting the abuse of suspected terrorists to the torture chambers of Damascus.
Not to be outdone for churlishness, the Syrian regime supposedly responded to the Joint Chiefs’ quiet overtures on intelligence-sharing by demanding the head of outspoken Assad critic Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, as proof of good faith. He had to settle for the JCS cleverly choking off the flow of top-shelf weapons from Libya to the Syrian opposition (the pipeline Ambassador Chris Stevens was supposedly managing when he was murdered in Benghazi) and replacing it with obsolete junk from Turkish stockpiles.
“It was a message Assad could understand: ‘We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks,'” said Hersh’s source.
Hersh wraps up his story by saying the Joint Chiefs’ quiet rebellion against Obama’s Syria policy effectively ended with the retirement of General Martin Dempsey in September, replaced by General Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Dunford stresses Russia as the “existential threat” against the United States, speaks of working with “Turkish partners” to secure Syria’s northern border, and urges a resumed search for “vetted Syrian opposition forces” who can defeat the many evils haunting that war-torn land.
“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,” Hersh concludes.