(By Paul R. Pillar and Greg Thielmann, June 27, 2017 on Defense One)
Will Trump follow the Bush playbook and start a war with Iran?
The ingredients are in place for the United States to repeat a scenario that has cost us dearly in the past: the misuse of intelligence to muster public support for an unwise war. Fifteen years ago, Bush administration officials led the nation to invade Iraq based on their own political agenda more than facts. This time the adversary would be Iran, the target of unrelenting hostility from the Trump administration.
Donald Trump’s presidency has quickly become one of the most deeply troubled and unpopular ones in American history. Although Trump led voters to believe during the campaign that he did not want a new Middle East war, foreign wars have long been a favorite way of diverting attention from domestic troubles and reviving popular support. The administration has refused to build constructively on the Iran deal in addressing other regional problems. It’s an agreement Trump says he reviles even though it significantly restricts Iran’s nuclear program. Trump officials only grudgingly have admitted that Iran is complying with that accord. More recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is speaking openly of regime change as a U.S. objective in Iran, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis long has spoken of Iran as if it were the root of all problems in the Middle East.
The enormous blunder of invading Iraq in 2003 offers valuable lessons of how intelligence is apt to be misused in such a situation. The promoters of that war portrayed their action as based on intelligence, but it was not. Iraq had been on the neoconservative hit list for years. President George W. Bush issued orders to prepare to invade Iraq, and Vice President Dick Cheney was publicly declaring that there was “no doubt” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of destruction before the intelligence community had even begun work on what would become an infamous intelligence estimate about Iraqi weapons programs. As then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz later admitted, the weapons topic was not a prime mover of the war but merely was, for bureaucratic reasons, “the one issue that everyone could agree on.”
On the other big issue that the Bush administration used in its pro-war campaign—a supposed alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda—the campaign contradicted intelligence community judgments. The administration ignored altogether what turned out to be the most important intelligence judgments about Iraq, which concerned the likely communal strife and security mess that would ensue after Saddam was ousted. It ignored as well the accumulating evidence from U.N. inspectors after their return to Iraq that the October 2002 intelligence estimate’s conclusions about WMD program reconstitution were wrong.
“Those wishing to pick a fight with Iran have no shortage of material from which to cherry-pick intelligence.”
The determination of policymakers to follow a specific course of action can subtly influence the judgments of intelligence officers who know what their customers strongly want to hear. More conspicuous is the public use by policymakers of bits of intelligence to lend authority to their case, even if a more objective and systematic use of the intelligence would not support the case. The Bush White House insisted on including in a presidential address a juicy tidbit about supposed Iraqi purchases of uranium, despite being warned by intelligence agencies not to use that report because its validity was questionable.
Most important is the unwarranted framing of a policy issue as if it were an intelligence issue. The presumed existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was falsely treated as if it constituted a case for an offensive war, even though—as the Iranian nuclear agreement demonstrates—warfare was hardly the only possible or effective policy response to such a challenge.
Those wishing to pick a fight with Iran have no shortage of material from which to cherry-pick intelligence. The intelligence reporting so highlighted might refer, for example, to Iranian material support to militias or clandestine attempts to gain influence in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. But such cherry-picking ignores important context – including Iran’s limited military capabilities relative to those of its neighbors . While Iran has a large ballistic missile program, it does not have nuclear warheads, as two of its regional neighbors do, or long-range missiles as do three other states in the region. Iran also has no modern air force, like those of its potential enemies.
When Bush was urging a doubtful Secretary of State Colin Powell to help make a public case for invading Iraq, the president said, “Are you with me on this? Time to put your uniform on.” But nobody outdoes Trump in demanding loyalty. The intelligence community is not immune to such pressure. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reportedly spends more time in the White House compound than at his community office. He and the director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers, already have defended Trump before Congress by deflecting questions in open session about the president’s demands regarding the investigation of Russian influence in U.S. elections.
Trump already has admitted to cherry-picking information to justify a national security decision he already had made. He used a memorandum from the deputy attorney general about Jim Comey’s handling of one case as justification for firing the FBI director. Trump later acknowledged he had already decided to fire Comey because of another case: the Russia investigation.
If a similar technique were used to rationalize publicly a war against Iran, the intelligence community could do little to stop such misuse, let alone to stop the war, no matter how well it did its job. That job would be to provide policymakers the best possible information and analysis about what Iran is doing. It is outside the bounds of the community’s proper role to favor or to oppose specific policies, and especially to do so publicly. Avoiding a repeat of the Iraq fiasco will depend instead on responsible voices of opposition in Congress and elsewhere.
Paul R. Pillar is former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
Greg Thielmann is a member of the board of directors of the Arms Control Association, a former office director in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and a former staffer of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
By Gareth Porter, June 22, 2017, posted on American Conservative
Three-term Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, has proposed legislation that would prohibit any U.S. assistance to terrorist organizations in Syria as well as to any organization working directly with them. Equally important, it would prohibit U.S. military sales and other forms of military cooperation with other countries that provide arms or financing to those terrorists and their collaborators.
Gabbard’s “Stop Arming Terrorists Act” challenges for the first time in Congress a U.S. policy toward the conflict in the Syrian civil war that should have set off alarm bells long ago: in 2012-13 the Obama administration helped its Sunni allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar provide arms to Syrian and non-Syrian armed groups to force President Bashar al-Assad out of power. And in 2013 the administration began to provide arms to what the CIA judged to be “relatively moderate” anti-Assad groups—meaning they incorporated various degrees of Islamic extremism.
That policy, ostensibly aimed at helping replace the Assad regime with a more democratic alternative, has actually helped build up al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise al Nusra Front into the dominant threat to Assad.
The supporters of this arms-supply policy believe it is necessary as pushback against Iranian influence in Syria. But that argument skirts the real issue raised by the policy’s history. The Obama administration’s Syria policy effectively sold out the U.S. interest that was supposed to be the touchstone of the “Global War on Terrorism”—the eradication of al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. The United States has instead subordinated that U.S. interest in counter-terrorism to the interests of its Sunni allies. In doing so it has helped create a new terrorist threat in the heart of the Middle East.
The policy of arming military groups committed to overthrowing the government of President Bashar al-Assad began in September 2011, when President Barack Obama was pressed by his Sunni allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—to supply heavy weapons to a military opposition to Assad they were determined to establish. Turkey and the Gulf regimes wanted the United States to provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels, according to a former Obama Administration official involved in Middle East issues.
Obama refused to provide arms to the opposition, but he agreed to provide covert U.S. logistical help in carrying out a campaign of military assistance to arm opposition groups. CIA involvement in the arming of anti-Assad forces began with arranging for the shipment of weapons from the stocks of the Gaddafi regime that had been stored in Benghazi. CIA-controlled firms shipped the weapons from the military port of Benghazi to two small ports in Syria using former U.S. military personnel to manage the logistics, as investigative reporter Sy Hersh detailed in 2014. The funding for the program came mainly from the Saudis.
A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment. Even if the CIA had organized only one shipment per month, the arms shipments would have totaled 2,750 tons of arms bound ultimately for Syria from October 2011 through August 2012. More likely it was a multiple of that figure.
The CIA’s covert arms shipments from Libya came to an abrupt halt in September 2012 when Libyan militants attacked and burned the embassy annex in Benghazi that had been used to support the operation. By then, however, a much larger channel for arming anti-government forces was opening up. The CIA put the Saudis in touch with a senior Croatian official who had offered to sell large quantities of arms left over from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. And the CIA helped them shop for weapons from arms dealers and governments in several other former Soviet bloc countries.
Flush with weapons acquired from both the CIA Libya program and from the Croatians, the Saudis and Qataris dramatically increased the number of flights by military cargo planes to Turkey in December 2012 and continued that intensive pace for the next two and a half months. The New York Times reported a total 160 such flights through mid-March 2013. The most common cargo plane in use in the Gulf, the Ilyushin IL-76, can carry roughly 50 tons of cargo on a flight, which would indicate that as much as 8,000 tons of weapons poured across the Turkish border into Syria just in late 2012 and in 2013.
One U.S. official called the new level of arms deliveries to Syrian rebels a “cataract of weaponry.” And a year-long investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that the Saudis were intent on building up a powerful conventional army in Syria. The “end-use certificate” for weapons purchased from an arms company in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 2013 includes 500 Soviet-designed PG-7VR rocket launchers that can penetrate even heavily-armored tanks, along with two million rounds; 50 Konkurs anti-tank missile launchers and 500 missiles, 50 anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, 10,000 fragmentation rounds for OG-7 rocket launchers capable of piercing heavy body armor; four truck-mounted BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launchers, each of which fires 40 rockets at a time with a range of 12 to 19 miles, along with 20,000 GRAD rockets.
The end user document for another Saudi order from the same Serbian company listed 300 tanks, 2,000 RPG launchers, and 16,500 other rocket launchers, one million rounds for ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns, and 315 million cartridges for various other guns.
Those two purchases were only a fraction of the totality of the arms obtained by the Saudis over the next few years from eight Balkan nations. Investigators found that the Saudis made their biggest arms deals with former Soviet bloc states in 2015, and that the weapons included many that had just come off factory production lines. Nearly 40 percent of the arms the Saudis purchased from those countries, moreover, still had not been delivered by early 2017. So the Saudis had already contracted for enough weaponry to keep a large-scale conventional war in Syria going for several more years.
By far the most consequential single Saudi arms purchase was not from the Balkans, however, but from the United States. It was the December 2013 U.S. sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis at a cost of about $1 billion—the result of Obama’s decision earlier that year to reverse his ban on lethal assistance to anti-Assad armed groups. The Saudis had agreed, moreover, that those anti-tank missiles would be doled out to Syrian groups only at U.S. discretion. The TOW missiles began to arrive in Syria in 2014 and soon had a major impact on the military balance.
This flood of weapons into Syria, along with the entry of 20,000 foreign fighters into the country—primarily through Turkey—largely defined the nature of the conflict. These armaments helped make al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al Nusra Front (now renamed Tahrir al-Sham or Levant Liberation Organization) and its close allies by far the most powerful anti-Assad forces in Syria—and gave rise to the Islamic State.
By late 2012, it became clear to U.S. officials that the largest share of the arms that began flowing into Syria early in the year were going to the rapidly growing al Qaeda presence in the country. In October 2012, U.S. officials acknowledged off the record for the first time to the New York Times that “most” of the arms that had been shipped to armed opposition groups in Syria with U.S. logistical assistance during the previous year had gone to “hardline Islamic jihadists”— obviously meaning al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al Nusra.
Al Nusra Front and its allies became the main recipients of the weapons because the Saudis, Turks, and Qataris wanted the arms to go to the military units that were most successful in attacking government targets. And by the summer of 2012, al Nusra Front, buttressed by the thousands of foreign jihadists pouring into the country across the Turkish border, was already taking the lead in attacks on the Syrian government in coordination with “Free Syrian Army” brigades.
In November and December 2012, al Nusra Front began establishing formal “joint operations rooms” with those calling themselves “Free Syrian Army” on several battlefronts, as Charles Lister chronicles in his book The Syrian Jihad. One such commander favored by Washington was Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, a former Syrian army officer who headed something called the Aleppo Revolutionary Military Council. Ambassador Robert Ford, who continued to hold that position even after he had been withdrawn from Syria, publicly visited Oqaidi in May 2013 to express U.S. support for him and the FSA.
But Oqaidi and his troops were junior partners in a coalition in Aleppo in which al Nusra was by far the strongest element. That reality is clearly reflected in a video in which Oqaidi describes his good relations with officials of the “Islamic State” and is shown joining the main jihadist commander in the Aleppo region celebrating the capture of the Syrian government’s Menagh Air Base in September 2013.
By early 2013, in fact, the “Free Syrian Army,” which had never actually been a military organization with any troops, had ceased to have any real significance in the Syria conflict. New anti-Assad armed groups had stopped using the name even as a “brand” to identify themselves, as a leading specialist on the conflict observed.
So, when weapons from Turkey arrived at the various battlefronts, it was understood by all the non-jihadist groups that they would be shared with al Nusra Front and its close allies. A report by McClatchy in early 2013, on a town in north central Syria, showed how the military arrangements between al Nusra and those brigades calling themselves “Free Syrian Army” governed the distribution of weapons. One of those units, the Victory Brigade, had participated in a “joint operations room” with al Qaeda’s most important military ally, Ahrar al Sham, in a successful attack on a strategic town a few weeks earlier. A visiting reporter watched that brigade and Ahrar al Sham show off new sophisticated weapons that included Russian-made RPG27 shoulder-fired rocket-propelled anti-tank grenades and RG6 grenade launchers.
When asked if the Victory Brigade had shared its new weapons with Ahrar al Sham, the latter’s spokesman responded, “Of course they share their weapons with us. We fight together.”
Turkey and Qatar consciously chose al Qaeda and its closest ally, Ahrar al Sham, as the recipients of weapons systems. In late 2013 and early 2014, several truckloads of arms bound for the province of Hatay, just south of the Turkish border, were intercepted by Turkish police. They had Turkish intelligence personnel on board, according to later Turkish police court testimony. The province was controlled by Ahrar al Sham. In fact Turkey soon began to treat Ahrar al Sham as its primary client in Syria, according to Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
A Qatari intelligence operative who had been involved in shipping arms to extremist groups in Libya was a key figure in directing the flow of arms from Turkey into Syria. An Arab intelligence source familiar with the discussions among the external suppliers near the Syrian border in Turkey during those years told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that when one of the participants warned that the outside powers were building up the jihadists while the non-Islamist groups were withering away, the Qatari operative responded, “I will send weapons to al Qaeda if it will help.”
The Qataris did funnel arms to both al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham, according to a Middle Eastern diplomatic source. The Obama administration’s National Security Council staff proposed in 2013 that the United States signal U.S. displeasure with Qatar over its arming of extremists in both Syria and Libya by withdrawing a squadron of fighter planes from the U.S. airbase at al-Udeid, Qatar. The Pentagon vetoed that mild form of pressure, however, to protect its access to its base in Qatar.
President Obama himself confronted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his government’s support for the jihadists at a private White House dinner in May 2013, as recounted by Hersh. “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria,” he quotes Obama as saying to Erdogan.
The administration addressed Turkey’s cooperation with the al Nusra publicly, however, only fleetingly in late 2014. Shortly after leaving Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2011 through mid-2014, told The Daily Telegraph of London that Turkey had “worked with groups, frankly, for a period, including al Nusra.”
The closest Washington came to a public reprimand of its allies over the arming of terrorists in Syria was when Vice President Joe Biden criticized their role in October 2014. In impromptu remarks at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Biden complained that “our biggest problem is our allies.” The forces they had supplied with arms, he said, were “al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Biden quickly apologized for the remarks, explaining that he didn’t mean that U.S. allies had deliberately helped the jihadists. But Ambassador Ford confirmed his complaint, telling BBC, “What Biden said about the allies aggravating the problem of extremism is true.”
In June 2013 Obama approved the first direct U.S. lethal military aid to rebel brigades that had been vetted by the CIA. By spring 2014, the U.S.-made BGM-71E anti-tank missiles from the 15,000 transferred to the Saudis began to appear in the hands of selected anti-Assad groups. But the CIA imposed the condition that the group receiving them would not cooperate with the al Nusra Front or its allies.
That condition implied that Washington was supplying military groups that were strong enough to maintain their independence from al Nusra Front. But the groups on the CIA’s list of vetted “relatively moderate” armed groups were all highly vulnerable to takeover by the al Qaeda affiliate. In November 2014, al Nusra Front troops struck the two strongest CIA-supported armed groups, Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front on successive days and seized their heavy weapons, including both TOW anti-tank missiles and GRAD rockets.
In early March 2015, the Harakat Hazm Aleppo branch dissolved itself, and al Nusra Front promptly showed off photos of the TOW missiles and other equipment they had captured from it. And in March 2016, al Nusra Front troops attacked the headquarters of the 13th Division in northwestern Idlib province and seized all of its TOW missiles. Later that month, al Nusra Front released a video of its troops using the TOW missiles it had captured.
But that wasn’t the only way for al Nusra Front to benefit from the CIA’s largesse. Along with its close ally Ahrar al Sham, the terrorist organization began planning for a campaign to take complete control of Idlib province in the winter of 2014-15. Abandoning any pretense of distance from al Qaeda, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar worked with al Nusra on the creation of a new military formation for Idlib called the “Army of Conquest,” consisting of the al Qaeda affiliate and its closest allies. Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided more weapons for the campaign, while Turkey facilitated their passage. On March 28, just four days after launching the campaign, the Army of Conquest successfully gained control of Idlib City.
The non-jihadist armed groups getting advanced weapons from the CIA assistance were not part of the initial assault on Idlib City. After the capture of Idlib the U.S.-led operations room for Syria in southern Turkey signaled to the CIA-supported groups in Idlib that they could now participate in the campaign to consolidate control over the rest of the province. According to Lister, the British researcher on jihadists in Syria who maintains contacts with both jihadist and other armed groups, recipients of CIA weapons, such as the Fursan al haq brigade and Division 13, did join the Idlib campaign alongside al Nusra Front without any move by the CIA to cut them off.
As the Idlib offensive began, the CIA-supported groups were getting TOW missiles in larger numbers, and they now used them with great effectiveness against the Syrian army tanks. That was the beginning of a new phase of the war, in which U.S. policy was to support an alliance between “relatively moderate” groups and the al Nusra Front.
The new alliance was carried over to Aleppo, where jihadist groups close to Nusra Front formed a new command called Fateh Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”) with nine armed groups in Aleppo province which were getting CIA assistance. The CIA-supported groups could claim that they weren’t cooperating with al Nusra Front because the al Qaeda franchise was not officially on the list of participants in the command. But as the report on the new command clearly implied, this was merely a way of allowing the CIA to continue providing weapons to its clients, despite their de facto alliance with al Qaeda.
The significance of all this is clear: by helping its Sunni allies provide weapons to al Nusra Front and its allies and by funneling into the war zone sophisticated weapons that were bound to fall into al Nusra hands or strengthen their overall military position, U.S. policy has been largely responsible for having extended al Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory. The CIA and the Pentagon appear to be ready to tolerate such a betrayal of America’s stated counter-terrorism mission. Unless either Congress or the White House confronts that betrayal explicitly, as Tulsi Gabbard’s legislation would force them to do, U.S. policy will continue to be complicit in the consolidation of power by al Qaeda in Syria, even if the Islamic State is defeated there.
Gareth Porter is an independent journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of numerous books, including Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014).
(Monday, May 08, 2017, by Dahr Jamail, originally published on Truthout | News Analysis)
While Donald Trump delighted in launching 59 cruise missiles toward Syria while eating chocolate cake at one of his resorts, Syrians, as they have for years of living under conditions of extreme violence, feared the worst.
The devastatingly bloody conflict in Syria, which the US has already been involved in for years, has left nearly 500,000 dead and nearly 2 million injured. That means that more than 1 out of every 10 Syrians has been killed or wounded, and more than 85 percent of the country is living in poverty. According to the UN, more than 6 million Syrians are displaced within their own country, and nearly 5 million have fled the country altogether and are now refugees.
As the Trump administration appears poised to become increasingly involved in Syria and the greater Middle East, what is life like under the bombs?
“It is a day-to-day kind of life where nothing is guaranteed and everything is unexpected,” Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, who lives in Homs, told Truthout, emphasizing that securing day-to-day amenities is a struggle. “There is little room for anything normal.”
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has been ravaged by war. Al-Sabouni has described her city as basically not having “a cityscape anymore” since more than 60 percent of it has been razed. Her architecture study has long since been flattened by bombs.
As that conflict continues with no end in sight, in yet another direct contradiction to his campaign promises to avoid involvement in Middle East conflicts, Trump is now on the brink of plunging the US deeper into the morass of blood, destruction and suffering across the Middle East and beyond.
Several former intelligence officials spoke with Truthout about the Trump administration’s military escalations, and what his mistakes could mean for the world’s future.
Syria as a Distraction
The former officials pointed to Trump’s escalation of US attacks on Syria as a distraction from investigations into his administration.
“I think it’s clear that Donald Trump found it expedient to fire the 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base on April 7 as a way to quell the media frenzy surrounding ‘Russiagate’ that was causing his approval ratings to tank,” Elizabeth Murray, who was formerly the deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council, told Truthout. Murray retired in 2010 after a 27-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where she served as a media and political analyst on Middle Eastern issues.
Murray believes Trump seized the opportunity to blame the Syrian government for the April 4 chemical weapon incident so that he could use it as a pretext to bomb.
“By giving his generals the green light to launch the missiles, he was able to silence media criticism, appease pro-war neoconservative elements and shore up his flagging image,” Murray explained. “The neocon-controlled US mainstream media are now referring to Trump as ‘presidential,’ and at least one mainstream TV anchor described the launched missiles as ‘beautiful,’ so in that sense, it worked.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA operations officer who worked on counter-terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, told Truthout he also believes the Trump administration is using military machinations in Syria as a distraction from the ongoing investigations into Russian election tampering, as well as the public’s misgivings about the new administration’s domestic policies.
“Trump is demonstrating to the public that he can be tough with America’s ‘enemies’ and that he is also not afraid to offend the Russians,” Giraldi explained. “He has been accused of being a de facto Russian agent so it is particularly important that he demonstrate that he is not.”
Giraldi, who is currently executive director of the Council for the National Interest, a think tank focused on Middle East policy, sees the Russia situation becoming increasingly embarrassing for President Trump.
“Trump is particularly thin skinned and he reacts to protect his image, in this case doing something quite stupid in Syria to make a point about himself and his administration,” Giraldi said. He added that the escalation in Syria “has inflicted major damage on Washington’s ability to deal effectively overseas.”
Ray McGovern, a former Army officer and CIA analyst who prepared the president’s daily intelligence brief under the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, pointed out how much popularity ratings matter to Trump. Of course, his ratings are currently in the pits.
“So he’s looking for ways to ease the pressure he’s feeling from the media, which is being stoked by the CIA, and Brennon, and Susan Rice, who were leaking that stuff to the press,” he said. “Totally illegal, but it worked.”
McGovern questions the chemical attack in Syria that was used as the pretext for launching the cruise missile attack; he sees it as “fixing the intel” to justify the policy after the fact.
“They came up with this embarrassing three and a half pages about the event that don’t hold water, and we have the MIT professor totally debunk it,” he added. “And now all that is on the record.”
When asked about the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, McGovern replied that he does not believe such a policy exists. He sees Trump as being “completely at the mercy” of the generals with whom he has surrounded himself.
“The cruise missile attack is a visceral reaction to show he is not a tool of Putin, and show he’s a tough guy and can react immediately,” McGovern added.
Murray believes the Trump missile attack violated international law and set a dangerous “shoot-from-the-hip” tone for US foreign policy under the new administration.
“There’s little mention of the 13 Syrian civilians who were killed by the US missiles, including four children, which is a clear war crime,” she said.
Murray pointed out how the US bombing also took place in the absence of actual evidence of Syrian government involvement in the preceding attacks, and that, if anything, there are indications that the US-backed al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels may be responsible.
Like McGovern, she pointed towards MIT professor Ted Postol’s analysis of the event that contradicts the “assessment” issued by the White House.
“What’s especially troubling is that there’s been no independent investigation,” she said. “In fact, the US is currently obstructing efforts initiated by Russia, China, Iran and Syria to bring in an independent international fact-finding commission to investigate the incident.”
Murray also found it strange that Trump did not commission a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the April 4 chemical incident at Khan Shaykhun.
“A National Intelligence Estimate, as you may know, is a consensus paper that brings together the expertise of all 16 US intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, State Department, NSA and others,” she said. “It is the most authoritative and credible document that the Intelligence Community (IC) can issue. Instead, the White House issued a four-page paper that offers nothing in the way of substantive evidence. The lack of an NIE suggests to me that there was likely serious disagreement among Intelligence Community analysts with the White House version of events.”
McGovern expressed grave concerns about where Trump’s actions could lead.
“To the degree Trump keeps having all these problems, he’s irascible and unpredictable, and it’s hard to know what he’s going to do,” McGovern said. “But my fear is [what will happen in the case of] either a real event — say in the Ukraine — or something provoked, by people who want to see an outbreak of hostilities between NATO and Russia. The Russians will have their defenses way up on high alert, and we better be careful they don’t misinterpret what we are doing as an attack on their homeland.”
McGovern warned that saber-rattling in Russia’s direction should not be dismissed.
“If Putin’s generals believe that our generals think we can pull off a first strike taking out their ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], that raises a lot of stakes,” McGovern said.
From Bad to Worse
According to Murray, in terms of the trajectory of developments in Syria and Iraq, it’s very difficult to be optimistic in the near term.
“What’s really disturbing is that US citizens are being prevented from knowing what is really going on with regard to US involvement in those countries,” she said. “The Trump administration has announced that the public will no longer be informed of new troop deployments to Iraq and Syria, while this was routinely disclosed under the previous administration.”
She sees that as an indication that US military activity in both countries is being ramped up in a clandestine manner; and since deploying ground troops to these countries is wildly unpopular, the Trump administration has decided to keep the American people in the dark.
McGovern agreed with Murray that a lack of transparency and trustworthy information — and, therefore, a less informed populace — is a big part of the problem.
“The fourth estate is dead,” he said, citing the failings of the media. “The transcendent problem is that Americans don’t know what is going on in the world.”
Murray felt similarly, pointing to the silence around the US attacks on Mosul.
“It disturbs me that so little is reported about what is taking place in Mosul, Iraq, where thousands of innocent people are dying from US-led coalition airstrikes — one report said more than 2,000 Iraqi civilians died in the month of March alone. But the American people are simply told that Mosul is being ‘liberated,'” she said.
Given that the US military does not report numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is impossible for Americans to hold their so-called leaders accountable when they are prevented from knowing what is even occurring.
“These kinds of policies will leave us dependent on journalists and whistleblowers willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to tell the truth,” Murray added. “Meanwhile, weapons manufacturers and Washington, DC-based ‘beltway bandits’ [the cottage industry of think tanks and contractors servicing the Defense Department and intelligence agencies] will continue to thrive under a foreign policy of endless wars.”
Murray had been optimistic about Trump’s early statements about seeking a modus vivendi with Russia, cooperating with Moscow to counter ISIS in Syria, and not seeking a Syrian regime change.
“But these were just words,” she said. “As with nearly every other US president, Trump has caved to the pressures brought by neoconservative elements within the government and the military-corporate complex, otherwise known as the Deep State.”
Murray predicts that this “caving” will serve Trump well in the ratings polls: He will continue to be rewarded for ramping up attacks.
“I believe that Trump will now proceed according to the dictates of these powerful groups, which means more wars to support the military machine and the interests of Israel, which wants the overthrow of governments in Iran and Syria,” Murray explained. “In return, he will see far less media criticism and even receive accolades as with the ‘presidential’ missile strikes on Syria.”
Even if the US and the other players in the region manage to finish off ISIS, Giraldi sees the role of the other actors, like Turkey and the Kurds, further complicating the aftermath — which is complicated even further by what he sees as the US lacking any real policy for the war-torn region.
“The US increasingly does not actually have a coherent policy in the region and is acting largely reactively,” he said. “If it insists on removing Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for any final settlement it will make any peace agreement unlikely.”
Giraldi was blunt in his assessment of Trump’s handling of the US’s relationship with Russia, which has obvious global implications.
“I fear that Washington’s Syria policy has effectively destroyed any possibility for a good working arrangement with Moscow,” he said. “The Russian-US relationship is the most important in the world given the fact that failure to recognize that reality can have dire consequences. Since that is so, the cavalier attitude regarding Russian national interests is a huge mistake on the part of Trump and his advisers.”
McGovern agreed, and pointed to Trump’s unpredictability as another worrisome factor in that equation.
“He lashes out viciously at the slightest slight, real or imagined, and we see that in this missile attack,” he said.
According to McGovern, it’s exceedingly dangerous for someone so unpredictable — who lashes out for political benefit in a violent way — to be dealing with Russia.
“[Trump’s] generals show no respect for the other major nuclear power, and if I’m Putin, I say we’d better go to heightened alert because this guy is unpredictable, and work out a firm relationship with China so Trump doesn’t play us off against each other, but so we can beat him on a united front,” he said.
McGovern explains that recently, a major geopolitical strategy change has been taking place. Increasingly, he says, Trump’s presidency is turning Russia and China (and possibly North Korea) into “virtually allies” against the US.
“If there is a dustup with Russia or China, then what?” he asked.
Giraldi’s statements on the matter serve as an equally dire warning.
“In spite of his campaign promises regarding both Russia and the Middle East, Trump has made a 180-degree turn … and using military intervention as his preferred response to situations that he does not seem to understand,” he said. “If he continues to be aggressive with North Korea, and there is every sign that he will, it could be catastrophic for the entire northeast Asian region.”
And for the Middle East, Giraldi had an equally worrisome outlook.
“Trump is also clearly edging ever closer to Israel, and an Israel-centric policy will inevitably lead to conflict with Iran, which would be a terrible outcome for an administration that in effect promised no more wars in the Middle East,” Giraldi said.
Murray thinks face-to-face talks with North Korean leadership are required to de-escalate tensions, which Trump has gone out of his way to ratchet up. Additionally, she says Washington should scale back the ongoing hostile rhetoric and major military maneuvers it has been conducting in the region.
“If one reads the terrible history of US military intervention in North Korea, it’s easy to understand why Pyongyang is jittery and testing its ballistic missiles,” Murray said. She noted that a similar process of de-escalation should be employed with regard to Syria and Russia, adding that Iran should be included in these negotiations.
Murray hopes that the real threat of nuclear war will prompt moves toward restoring normalcy and diplomacy to US foreign policy.
“If that doesn’t take place,” she concluded, “then all bets are off.”
Meanwhile, the US military continues to wreak bloodshed and suffering abroad. In Syria, Al-Sabouni continues to hope for a chance to begin rebuilding her country — to help Syria return “from the sad state of degradation it is suffering from” and “to find an alternative option other than the usual self-glorification and self-flagellation” in which it has been embroiled.
She also believes it is possible to build a country where people can appreciate their shared spaces, where they can collectively appreciate what their hands can produce and how their lands can thrive.
She outlined her vision for the country: “A place that is not occupied by companies nor neglected by individuals. A place where morals are embodied in stones as well as in every day acts. A place that we can all call home.”
But before the quest for that future country can begin, the conflict that the US continues to bolster must end. With a Trump administration now calling the shots, the forecast looks bleak.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last 10 years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.
His third book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon.
Dahr Jamail is the author of the book, The End of Ice, forthcoming from The New Press. He lives and works in Washington State.