Between missing airliners and Crimean War Redux, an important story is slipping through the cracks. Seymour Hersh has an article out in the London Review of Books which alleges the United States was less than two days away from unleashing a massive attack on Syria on the basis of a deliberate misinformation campaign, a false flag operation. It ties together Libya, arms smuggling, Syria, corruption, Iran, jihadists, the CIA, and a key U.S. ally. It also involves some painful blowback.
A quick search of Kos for Syria and Hersh only turned up three diaries that mentioned it: this one by Clever Handle had the most on it, while this one and this touched on it only in passing. There's as yet little mention of it in the mainstream media that I can find; the only reason I got interested was after Digby put a link to it at the end of this post commenting on the recognition of Glen Greenwald and Alan Rusbridger for their outstanding journalism in covering the revelations of Edward Snowden.
What Hersh spells out demonstrates more clearly than ever that a government that habitually operates in secret is a government inviting disaster. Important questions don't get asked. Accountability does not happen. Blunders become compounded by cover ups. This time, we got lucky and the right decisions were ultimately made - but there are still consequences from how we got to where we are now. Follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon for more.
There's no excuse not to read Hersh's entire piece, and read it several times. The assertions Hersh makes, and the implications that follow from them are disturbing for many reasons. Official spokesmen and the agencies involved are either denying, not commenting, or disputing what Hersh lays out - but given the stakes involved, that's not a surprise. What Hersh reveals makes sense of a lot of things that did not before.
Back in August of 2012, President Barack Obama was preparing to launch punitive attacks on Assad's forces in Syria, in response to crossing a Red Line over the use of Sarin nerve gas against Syrian rebel forces. At the last minute, the President chose to ask Congress for approval for the strikes. Congress balked; and then sarcastic remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry suddenly became a serious proposal and a deal was struck to remove chemical weapons stores from Syria. What happened? According to Hersh, serious preparations for war were well underway.
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.What happened to halt this was the case for action unraveled. Tests of samples taken from the areas where attacks with Sarin had taken place did find evidence of the nerve agent in at least one of them - but analysis (by England's Porton Down) indicated it did not match up with any of the known stocks Assad possessed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been reluctant to proceed on the basis of what evidence the administration had had up to this point; the test results meant that an attack on Assad could not be justified and would prove to be a huge blunder. In effect, Obama's pivot to asking for Congressional approval provided a plausible excuse for delaying action - and then negotiations over chemical weapons suddenly bore fruit.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
Hersh's work suggests there were two factors at work driving the agenda for an attack. One was frustration that the Syrian rebels weren't doing better against the regime - because the Administration had made a huge bet on them, in secret. Hersh again:
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)emphasis added
The second factor arose from this rat line, developed to transfer Libyan arms and ammo to Syria through Turkey. A whole clandestine network of contractors, financial support, and smuggling arrangements grew up, involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the CIA, MI6, Australians, and eventually jihadists among the rebels at the other end of the supply line. (Not to mention gold transfers to Iran!!!) David Petraeus at the CIA ran the operation, according to Hersh - until he was forced to resign over marital infidelities.
The main reason there was a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in Hersh's account, was to provide cover for these arms shipment arrangements. After the attack on the consulate, the U.S. pulled out of the operation - but the rat line continued to operate and the U.S. lost control over what went through it. And that's when it gets really interesting.
The rat line had become a source of huge profits for all of the middlemen along the way, fostering corruption and worse. The U.S. withdrawal left the Prime Minister of Turkey in a bit of a bind. Again, according to Hersh:
...‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’emphasis added
It should be noted Turkey has had a long and painful history involving Kurds; the last thing they would want is another disaffected group. To make a long story short, the upshot is it appears Turkey worked with jihadi groups among the Syrian rebels to develop their own capacity to make Sarin - and used it in an attempt to do so in a way that would look like Assad's forces were to blame. The U.S. would destroy Assad, Turkey would have expanded its political influence in Syria, and everybody would be happy.
In actual practice, the results are somewhat different. The Syrian situation has stalemated, with Assad apparently holding on and regaining ever more control over the country. Syria still needs massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the number of Syrian refugees continues to grow. Hersh concludes with this:
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’The wider picture is even bleaker, in light of what Hersh has spelled out. The U.S. is facing serious blowback in several ways.
• That Turkey, a NATO ally, is so compromised by this seriously weakens the alliance at a time when Russia and the Ukraine are in flux. We can not publicly confess what we were doing with Turkey, nor confront them.
• A number of weapons of disturbing types are now in the hands of people who do not have any great love for the U.S. or our allies. And Turkey's willingness to bring chemical weapons into the mix is disturbing all by itself.
• It further weakens U.S. dealings with Putin, who full well knows that it's not just U.S. hypocrisy about the Ukraine in light of what the U.S. did in Iraq. It's that the U.S. also deliberately set about weakening another client of Russia in ways that contravene U.S. laws and our own public positions. We have negative moral standing to confront Russia, whatever the specific merits of the case. Putin was ridiculed for some of the charges he made about U.S. actions in the Ukraine. In light of what Hersh has uncovered, Putin may be, to put a fine point on it, less paranoid or delusional than he's been portrayed.
• There's been some puzzlement over why President Obama has seemed so averse to reining in abuses by the intelligence community. This goes a long way towards explaining it - and actions by previous presidents as well. The temptation to use clandestine, extra- and ill- legal means to accomplish policy goals is irresistible it seems. But it can quickly become a bargain with the Devil. At best the President is an enabler; at worst a co-conspirator, vulnerable to manipulation and blackmail by the agency that is supposed to serve him. (We really, really need to be grateful to Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley. Talk about blowback!)
• Every false position we take and get caught out in limits our ability as a nation to act. Every bit of misinformation we ourselves generate limits our ability to make the right decisions and our credibility. It's attempting to build on sand, never a good idea when the tides of history are rising.
Against all of this, it's important not to lose sight of other pieces of the puzzle. Assad's regime was and is brutal; the civil war in Syria is destabilizing the region. Some kind of resolution is desirable. Ideally we'd like to see Assad gone, but we really have no way of ensuring the 'right' people take power. Supplying aid to rebels in the hopes of eventual gratitude (and client state status) is an old trick, and not one used by the U.S. alone.
While the U.S. was taking a lead role in this, it was not a unilateral one. We were not the only country investing in toppling Assad. Europe has their own concerns about what happens in the region, some of them admirable, some of them less so. Given that the Arab Spring looked like it was and is going to trigger widespread changes in the region, the national interests of the U.S. and our allies provide an understandable and not unreasonable impetus for some kind of involvement intended to move things in a direction that aligns with our interests.
There's also the very real consideration that the U.S. political system is largely incapable of rational action if it involves the U.S. Congress in any way. The Republican party has rendered the institution into a parody of talk radio, as a platform for spouting ideological blather rather than as a body with serious constitutional responsibilities. They have lost the ability to rise above partisanship when the national interest calls for it; they are obsessed with regime change at home and their radical agenda above all other things. The record of their actions when they have had the power to engage in clandestine operations does not inspire anything like confidence.
We do not live in an ideal world. There's no higher authority we can call when nations descend into civil strife. (The world does not have the equivalent of social services or the police to respond to the equivalent of domestic violence.) Acting openly in Syria to end the violence does not appear to be an option, if only because a direct intervention would call for resources (troops, aid, financial) in amounts that no one is willing to make available, or can figure out how to apply effectively. Clandestine efforts looked like a high risk but low cost strategy, with potential for high reward - and it didn't look that way to just the U.S. alone. The word for this kind of action is realpolitik. It's the kind of thing Kipling romanticized as the Great Game.
The problem with realpolitik is that it is not always pretty, is vulnerable to random events and unanticipated consequences, and it calls for compromises on ideals that can prove to be a bigger problem down the road than the one that seemingly justified that compromise. It's also tempting because it's easier on the surface to ignore the niceties in a situation to get some immediate gain and worry about the consequences later. Sometimes realpoltik is the only option, but its bad reputation is not entirely undeserved.
And, there's one more thing to remember. The attack didn't happen. In this case the system worked to get the critical information to the decision makers in time to avoid another unjustified and illegitimate war. Warning flags were not ignored, and the rush to obtain a desirable end - the downfall of Assad - was not allowed to overwhelm good sense. In that regard, the Obama administration stands in marked contrast to its predecessors.
"It could have been worse" is small comfort, but nonetheless too often true. The U.S. and the Obama administration is left in an uncomfortable (to say the least!) position by these revelations. One wonders if the Republicans are going to seize on the Benghazi connection to try to exploit it even further, not to mention the jihadi groups and involvement with Iran. One also wonders in light of these revelations if the President and the Congress will realize how dangerous our intelligence agencies have become, and how their misuse is subverting our democracy. (One can dream at least.)
It is often said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. That's too often taken as advice to distrust good intentions as a reason for action, instead of what it's really about - don't let the idea that you mean well blind you to the road you're going down. Pay attention! Mistakes have been made, but for a lot of reasons (good and bad), dealing with them publicly is problematic. If we learn anything from them, that will go some way towards gaining value from the terrible price we paid for them - and that's not entirely inconsequential.
Read Hersh's article. It's a demonstration of why a free press that does its job is so important to democracy. We really need to know what's being done in our name.
UPDATE: One other point I forgot to include while writing this up. There's a lot of trash-talking about Crimea, the Ukraine, and Russia. Before we go leaping into action there, providing aid, and picking sides, having the real picture of what did - and didn't - happen in Syria would seem to be especially relevant.