Just International

Empire Exposed Once Again: The Syria Intervention Case

By Farooque Chowdhury

Intervention in Syria once again exposes the Empire. Not only its imperialist policy is exposed; its inner contradictions and limitations are also revealed. As an extra output, once again, the Empire’s trustworthiness is going to be questioned by its allies, and by the broader society. Exposure by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh has done the job.

Seymour Hersh writes in London Review of Books: the US president Barack Obama’s administration, in particular the CIA, has knowingly armed militant Islamists in Syria including the Islamic State. Citing a document and a former senior adviser to the US Joint Chiefs the report “Military to Military” (LRB, vol. 38, number 1, January 7, 2016) by Seymour Hersh says: “[W]hat was started as a covert US program 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 program 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. […T]here was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.”

The journalist famous for his report on the My Lai Massacre by the US armed forces during the Vietnam War writes:

“Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] 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.’”

The report says:

“‘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.”

Hence, the Empire’s policy options/limitations, ways/limitations in executing policy or strategy or tactics, inner-contradictions, contradictions between geopolitical aim and leverage with allies, and similar aspects, all of which are critical issues for consideration, come to light. The level of democracy, scope for expressing dissent within the machine is a question as “[t]he Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’”, and one reaction to the prevailing environment is also clear as US intelligence is provided “to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army”, which is considered as enemy by the forces backed by the US and a few its allies.

The report presents further bitter facts as it says:

“American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdogan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State.”

The US finds its limit with one of its allies – Turkey – and is forced to live with the reality. It claims of fighting back the IS, but can’t/doesn’t control its ally that aids the IS. The reality of duality not only exposes the Empire, but undercuts its political position also. Moreover, it finds its other allies are distanced, which is revealed in the following incident cited in the report:

“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.”

The European approach that was reflected through Hollande touches broader area – NATO – having implication in other areas. The Libya-intervention found strong NATO-unity while it’s absent in the latter case.

An official from the US tells Seymour Hersh: “‘Turkey can disrupt the balance [in the Middle East] – which is Erdogan’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 realize the extent to which he could be successful in this.’”

Despite the assessment by a section in the Empire the main policy thrust remains unchanged. “The Joint Chiefs and the DIA”, the LRB report says, “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.” The report raises the question for not listening to the message: “Why not?” The question may appear as a riddle, but relations in interest in the Empire provide the answer. There’s a deeply divided Congress on the issue of aggression.

The Turkey conduit is quite old. The report by Seymour Hersh describes the following:

The CIA sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition via Turkey, which went on for more than a year. The arms supply began after Gaddafi’s murder. The operation was run out of a covert CIA annex in Benghazi, with State Department acquiescence. Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a Tripoli-based company, was handling the weapons shipments. Many in the US intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists; and the CIA-sponsored weapons kept going there.

The reality complicates further as the involvement of the ally expands. The report cites a Washington foreign affairs analyst who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and into Syria. Views of the analyst are routinely sought by US senior government officials. The analyst told “Erdogan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favor 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.” The conflict-reality widens as it pulls China into the conflict-scene. In real term, it narrows down the Empire’s scope for maneuver. With China’s investment and future plans for investment in Pakistan, the Turkey-ally has to follow China. Europe is not now in a position to get into conflict with China. Reports from the economic frontier indicate this.

Dissent is there in the Empire’s vital instrument. “Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office”, says the LRB report, “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.” “General Dempsey and his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff”, said the report, “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.’” For the Empire, the problem is deeper, not just Syria or Turkey. However, the immediate output was its Syria intervention as the LRB report cites the following incident:

“‘There was no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorized 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 Erdogan,’ 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 reality – diminish a presidential policy – is not helpful in an important organ of the state. The report by Seymour Hersh cites Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee:

“In an interview on CNN in October she [Tulsi Gabbard] 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 people?’

“‘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.’

“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.”

One finds a face of democracy being practiced: “speaking openly and critically can be a career-ender”. Career-ender even speaking openly and critically on an, as Tulsi Gabbard characterizes, “illegal and counterproductive war”, when “there’s so much deception about what is going on”, when “[t]he truth is not out”! Is the political environment helpful to the interests involved with waging the illegal and counterproductive war? No, because dissent helps judge reality and find out better options. Then, it appears, the political system is closing down its doors to a better path. The factors pushing to this situation is a bigger question.

But the fact is known. The LRB report says:

“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 Erdogan. Dempsey and his associates remain mystified by Obama’s continued public defense of Erdogan, 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 Erdogan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I [SH] reported in the LRB of 17 April 2014).”

The finding comes out as a department, which is vital for the state, is compliant, and there’s no alternate view; although the fact is known: “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria”. The questions are why the state is facing such a situation, what’ll be its consequence, and shall that be helpful to the state? It’s an issue of study on modern day empires equipped with intellectual capacity and modern tools of policy formulation and decision making. The intellectual capacity has grown and developed over centuries. It’s an exposure of the inner-condition/state of working mechanism of an empire.
On the other hand, there’s the exposure of imperialist intervention. The LRB report says:

“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 destabilization. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicizing ‘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’.” Another report by Seymour Hersh says: “In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarized law-enforcement organization – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said.…. The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdogan exposed politically and militarily…. Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdogan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating”. (“The Red Line and the Rat Line”, LRB, vol. 36, no. 8, April 17, 2014) Plan was hatched to market Syria-sarin lie after the Bush-Blair-Iraq-WMD lie. “Rat Line, in CIAspeak, a clandestine highway used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition is now well-known. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, a few of which were under the cover of Australian entities.

Do these incidents/acts help as a learning material? Most probably, these do. Countries facing imperialist intervention will find this pattern if a careful search is made. Does India, the biggest economy in south Asia, need to learn from this? Most probably, it needs. Does Bangladesh, a much smaller economy than India, need to learn from it? Most probably, it needs. Other south Asian countries? The same answer. Size of economy, market size, resources and geographic location are creating conditions for imperialist intervention. These are the factors that are here in south Asia for a long time. The emerging important factor is desperate condition of imperialism in the face of intensified competition. The desperate condition allures/provokes imperialism to commit military blunders under the guidance of short-sighted leadership. But peoples in more than one country pay before the military blunder finds its burial ground.

Farooque Chowdhury is Dhaka-based freelancer.

31 December, 2015