by Seymour M. Hersh
Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014
from LRB Website
Seymour M. Hersh on
Obama, Erdogan and the Syrian rebels
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress.
Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the 'red line' he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.
Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention.
The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad's offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia.
Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya?
The answer lies in a clash between those in the
administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military
leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially
British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn't match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army's chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn't hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff.
The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria's infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East.
As a consequence the American officers delivered
a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led
to his cancelling the attack.
Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups.
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration's public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons.
On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page 'talking points' briefing for the DIA's deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its program, the paper said, was,
The DIA paper went on:
The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies:
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin.
In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention.
The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels.
In a news conference last summer, Aydin
Sezgin, Turkey's ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed
to reporters that the recovered 'sarin' was merely 'anti-freeze'.
Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided,
Abd-al-Ghani's plan was for two associates to,
The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the,
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria.
A person with close knowledge of the United Nations' activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo.
In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured.
It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN's activities said:
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons.
But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff.
The decision to restrict distribution was made
as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible
ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of
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 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.
The new target list was meant to,
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.
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.
So it was a surprise to many when during a
speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the
attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a
Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analyzed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down.
(A spokesperson for Porton Down said: 'Many of
the samples analyzed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.'
MI6 said that it doesn't comment on intelligence matters.)
After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies,
The process hadn't worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence,
By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on,
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said:
By then the attack was a few days away and
American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence.
Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria.
Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that,
Dempsey's initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria - under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack - would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said.
The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course.
The official White House explanation for the turnabout - the story the press corps told - was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he'd been in conflict for years.
The former Defense Department official told me
that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the
civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because
there was intelligence 'that the Middle East would go up in smoke' if it was
The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress.
In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, 'to talk through the options'.
She later told colleagues, according to the
Journal, that she hadn't asked the president to put the bombing to a
At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said.
At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention:
But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said:
As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012.
Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn't change its public assessment of the justification for going to war.
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, authorized 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.')
The report's criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up.
A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line.
By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi's arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn't always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping.
The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognized exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a 'finding', submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.)
Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress - the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees.
This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at
oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise
questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
Washington abruptly ended the CIA's role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going.
Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels.
On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter.
Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels.
There was no indication that the rebels'
possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US
program that was no longer under US control.
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.
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House.
At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad 'needs to go'. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added,
The red line was still intact.
Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT.
Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan,
and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in
When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said:
Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said:
At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said,
Obama then pointed at Fidan and said:
(Donilon, who joined the
Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn't respond to
questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn't respond to
questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council
confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing
Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdogan, Fidan and Davutoglu sitting at a table.
'Beyond that,' she said, 'I'm not going to read out the details of their
Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country.
In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country's ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a 'golden loophole': gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue.
Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and
gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments
in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used
to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the
value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012
and July 2013.
The illicit skimming flared into a public 'gas for gold' scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign.
The chief executive of a Turkish
state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that
more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search
of his home was for charitable donations.
They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear program, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war.
The delay permitted Iran to,
Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said,
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described,
The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed,
By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide.
In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August,
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions.
Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Erdoğan's problems in Syria would soon be over:
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House.
Turkey's willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of Erdoğan and his associates, was posted to YouTube.
It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria.
The operation centered on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule.
One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it.
According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan's spoke of creating a provocation:
The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated.
The government subsequently blocked public
access to YouTube.