Earlier this week, we recounted Seymour Hersh’s latest investigative report in which we learn that apparently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff worked to undermine the efforts of the White House and the CIA in Syria.
According to Hersh, the Joint Chiefs passed intelligence to Bashar al-Assad through a network of intermediaries starting in 2013 in an effort to assist the Syrian leader in the fight against extremists backed by Washington’s regional allies in Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha. Hersh even goes so far as to contend that the CIA was tricked into providing inferior weapons to jihadists after the Joints Chiefs suggested that shipping arms from Turkey would be cheaper than going through Libya.
If Hersh’s story is even partially accurate, it suggests that not everyone in Washington was (or is) on board with a “strategy” that involves isolating the Assad regime and implicitly (or, in a worst case scenario, “explicitly”) supporting terrorists.
Hersh’s report came on the heels of a story from Bild which claims that German intelligence has begun networking with Assad in an effort to open lines of communication ahead of the deployment of Tornado surveillance aircraft.
Taken together, all of this means the simple narrative which suggests the West is staunchly opposed to working with the Assad government in any capacity is patently false. In fact, what Hersh’s story suggests is that there are many officials in the US who think the idea of arming terrorists in an effort to bring about regime change in the Mid-East is ludicrous. They’re apparently so convinced of this that they’re willing to resort to outright treason to subvert what they view as a dangerous policy of fomenting discord by aiding and abetting Sunni extremists.
Well, just as the White House was forced to respond to Hersh’s last exposé in which the official, Zero Dark Thirty narrative of the bin Laden assassination was exposed as a lie, it now appears Washington is looking to tell its side of the story with regard to covert communication with the Assad government. As WSJ reports, more than two dozen “US and Arab officials” now say Washington communicated with Assad “for years” and also sought to orchestrate a military coup in Syria.
“The Obama administration pursued secret communications with elements of Syria’s regime over several years in a failed attempt to limit violence and get President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, according to U.S. and Arab officials,” The Journal begins, adding that “early on, the U.S. looked for cracks in the regime it could exploit to encourage a military coup, but found few.”
As in Hersh’s account, The Journal says messages were relayed through intermediaries such as Russia and Iran:
U.S. officials said communications with the regime came in fits and starts and were focused on specific issues. At times, senior officials spoke directly to each other and at others, they sent messages through intermediaries such as Mr. Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran.
Initially, the idea was to look for traitors within the government:
U.S. intelligence officials identified officers from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect who potentially could lead a regime change, according to former U.S. officials and current European officials.
“The White House’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad,” a former senior administration official said.
When that didn’t work, the US resorted to arming militants or “rebels” as the Western media calls them:
By the summer of 2012, the White House strategy of orchestrating regime change had failed. The U.S. moved to support the rebels, but the effort ramped up too slowly.
Then we get the sarin story again (remember, opposition lawmakers in Turkey have suggested that it was in fact terrorists who used sarin gas in Syria):
In the summer of 2012, the administration sent warnings, through Russian and Iranian officials, to Mr. Assad not to use chemical weapons on a large scale, U.S. officials have said.
U.S. officials also talked to Syrian counterparts directly. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who retired last year, made two phone calls to Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem to relay the warnings, U.S. officials said.
Fearing Mr. Assad would still escalate, Mr. Obama drew a public red line on chemical weapons in August 2012. Despite the warnings, sarin attacks in August 2013 killed an estimated 1,400 people.
Next, we’re told that one “Khaled Ahmad” served as a go-between with the Obama administration reaching out to Assad in an effort to convince him to step down. Assad countered by suggesting that Washington focus on the terrorists the West and its regional allies had armed:
The Obama administration later shifted gears back to diplomacy to get the Syrian government to the negotiating table.
At the center of that effort was a businessman and confidante of Mr. Assad, Khaled Ahmad, who has served as the Syrian leader’s main interlocutor in recent years with Western officials, including U.S. diplomats. Mr. Ahmad didn’t respond to questions sent by The Wall Street Journal.
“Assad was looking for ways to talk to the White House,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma. Mr. Ahmad, a businessman from Homs province, was his point man.
In late 2013, the former ambassador to Damascus Mr. Ford—then a special administration envoy on Syria—met Mr.
Ahmad in Geneva ahead of planned peace talks there. Mr. Ford told Mr. Ahmad the U.S. was still seeking a political transition away from Mr. Assad’s rule.
Mr. Ahmad countered that the U.S. and the West should help the Syrian government fight terrorism.
When the US opted for direct intervention via airstrikes and the placement of SpecOps, Washington established a communications channel that inadvertently legitimized the government in Damascus:
By 2014, when the U.S. expanded airstrikes against the militants from Iraq to Syria, State Department officials were making phone calls to their counterparts at the Syrian foreign ministry to make sure Damascus steered clear of U.S. jets in Syrian skies, U.S. officials and others familiar the communications said.
Today, when Washington wants to notify Damascus where it is deploying U.S.-trained Syrian fighters to battle Islamic State so the fighters aren’t mistaken for rebels, Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., dispatches a deputy to talk to the Syrian envoy, Bashar Jaafari, these people said.
The White House says the notifications are not collaboration with the regime. But Mr. Assad has used them to his advantage.
“The regime was re-legitimized,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist who until 2013 ran the Damascus bureau for Al Hayat, a major pan-Arab newspaper. “Any communication with the U.S.—even the perception of it—gives them the upper hand.”
Finally, The Journal says Ahmad set up a meeting between Assad and a former senior White House official named Steve Simon:
Mr. Simon, who left the White House in 2014, had met Mr. Ahmad at least twice before the Damascus trip, which he portrayed to former colleagues and others as an individual initiative, not made on behalf of the government, according to several people familiar with the meetings.
He notified former colleagues at the White House and State Department officials of his plans to meet the Syrian leader, these people said.
Mr. Simon outlined steps the regime could immediately take to generate goodwill with the international community: stop dropping barrel bombs; do more to fight Islamic State rather than antigovernment rebels; and cooperate with a United Nations-led effort for local cease-fires.
Mr. Assad responded with familiar talking points, focusing on his fight against terrorism.
So that, apparently, is the story the White House is going with. There are a couple of things to note here.
First, it's amusing how The Journal says Assad "responded with familiar talking points focusing on his fight against terrorism." That comes across as a bit derisive, as though there's something different about "his" fight against terrorism and Washignton's fight against terrorism. Basically what the Journal says is that Simon asked Assad to step up the fight against ISIS and Assad responded by asking the US to do the exact same thing. Yet somehow, Assad's fight against terror isn't legitimate while Washington's is. Of course in reality, it's the other way around: Assad has every incentive to eradicate terrorism in Syria. If he doesn't, he'll end up exiled or drug out of a drain pipe and executed like Gaddafi. The US on the other hand, has every reason not to fight terror in Syria until Assad is gone. If Assad falls to terrorists, Washington and its allies can then swoop in and "liberate" the country on the way to installing a puppet government.
Next, note that the US initially tried to orchestrate a military coup in Syria. That's just further evidence of the lengths Washington is willing to go to in order to achieve America's geopolitical goals. Encouraging the military to overthrow a government doesn't exactly count as "support for a democratic transition."
In any event, we'll leave it to readers to parse The Journal's piece, compare and contrast it with what Hersh wrote and everything we know about the conflict on the way to deciding which account sounds more plausible.
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