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Seeing the Syrian Crisis Through Russian Eyes: a Presidential Daily Briefing for Putin

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” as Sir Winston Churchill put it at a White House luncheon on June 1954. The aphorism applies in spades today as the U.S., Russia and other key countries involved in troubles in Syria decide whether to jaw or to war.

Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria could open up new possibilities for those working for a negotiated solution – or not. There does seem to be considerable overlap in U.S. and Russian interests and objectives.

For instance, both sides say they want to suppress terrorism, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh) and Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Nusra Front, and both the U.S. the Russia talk about the need for political reconciliation among Syria’s disparate religious and ethnic groups. The chief disagreement is over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whether he “must go,” as U.S. officials insist, or whether that issue should be left to the ballots of the Syrian people, the view favored by Russia.

Yet, what happens in the next week or so – whether it turns out to be a belated “jaw-jaw” or an escalated “war-war” – will have a significant effect on bilateral U.S.-Russian relations, as well as developments in Syria, Iraq and the whole neighborhood, which now includes Europe because of the destabilizing flow of refugees.

So, I think it makes sense for me to undertake what we did at some of the best moments inside the CIA’s analytical branch: view a crisis from where the other side stood and thus project how an adversary (or a friend) might react to a U.S. initiative. A common trap in intelligence analysis is mirror-imaging – assuming that others, whether adversaries or friends, look at facts and intentions the same way we do.

It can be helpful to step into the other side’s shoes and consider how its leaders are likely to see us. I make a stab at that below.

In what follows, I imagine myself working within Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR, Russia’s CIA equivalent) in the analysis office responsible for preparing The President’s Daily Brief for President Vladimir Putin. I further imagine that his daily brief resembles what the U.S. Intelligence Community prepares for the U.S. President. So, I pattern the item below after the (now declassified) PDB for President George W. Bush that – on Aug. 6, 2001 – famously warned him, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” (In my paper, intelligence assessments are presented in italics.)

The President’s Daily Brief

Oct. 28, 2015

Re Syria: Obama Trying to Fend Off US Hawks

President Obama is under severe pressure from senior military and intelligence officials and Congress to raise the ante in Syria.

Yesterday’s Washington Post lead story, sourced to unnamed U.S. officials, reported that Obama is considering Pentagon proposals to “put U.S. troops closer to front lines” in Iraq and Syria.

Diplomats at our embassy in Washington note that this kind of story often reflects decisions already made and about to be formally announced. In this particular case, however, the embassy thinks it at least equally likely that the Post is being used by officials who favor more aggressive military action, in order to put pressure on the President. During Obama’s first year in office, senior military leaders used the media to make it extremely difficult for Obama to turn down leaked Pentagon proposals to “surge” troops into Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Sen. John McCain, the Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, used a Senate hearing to ridicule administration policy on Syria and grill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on the policy’s embarrassing failings. Carter said attacks against ISIL in Syria and Iraq would increase, including “direct action on the ground.” But Dunford admitted, “The balance of forces now are in Assad’s advantage.”

Facing heavy criticism for indecisiveness, Obama still seems reluctant to put many more U.S. Army or “moderate rebel” boots into the “quagmire” that he warned us against when we began our airstrikes. He would also wish to avoid the kind of destructive attacks that would pour still more Syrian refugees into Europe.

We do not think occasional “direct action on the ground” will change much. Indeed, a White House spokesman reiterated yesterday that the administration has “no intention of long-term ground combat.”

As for the “no-fly zone” advocated by McCain and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Secretary Carter said, “We have not made that recommendation to the President,” adding the obligatory caveat, “He hasn’t taken it off the table.” Dunford added, “From a military perspective, we can impose a no-fly zone.”

Diplomacy

We continue to believe that Obama prefers to regard this past month’s events in Syria as an opportunity to bring the main players to the negotiating table rather than the battlefield.

Defense Secretary Carter called attention to talks later this week in Vienna, in which Secretary of State John Kerry will be engaged, that are “precisely aimed at the contours of [a] political settlement.” The big news here is that Kerry has dropped the U.S. objection to having Iran, a supporter of the Assad regime, participate.

As for Kerry, unlike his behavior in late summer 2013 and in early 2014, he seems to be following the President’s instructions to negotiate an end to the conflict and to the misery in Syria. 

Emerging on Friday from contentious talks with the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers, as well as Foreign Minister Lavrov, Kerry sounded a hopeful note: “Diplomacy has a way of working through very difficult issues that seem to be absolutely contradictory … but if we can get into a political process, then sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves.”

At the Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Carter called for an early political transition in Syria, but was careful to add, “The structures of the Syrian state are going to be important to the future, and we don’t want them to dissolve entirely. … The U.S. approach to removing Assad has been mostly a political effort.”

At which point, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a close ally of Sen. McCain, complained bitterly, “Assad is as secure as the day is long,” adding, “you have turned Syria over to Russia and Iran.”

The vitriol of McCain and Graham is no surprise. We want to make sure you know something about a relatively new player, JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford, who chose at his confirmation hearing on July 9, 2015, to let the world know that he is an unreconstructed Cold Warrior:

“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.” Dunford added that he thought it reasonable to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Dunford took up his new duties at an inauspicious moment – the day after we began launching air strikes against terrorist targets in Syria. Suffice it to say that, for the U.S. military and CIA, October has been one of the most humiliating months since the inglorious U.S. departure from Vietnam. It is important to bear that in mind.

We think this serves to double the pressure on President Obama to let loose the military on Syria and Iraq, as pushed by most of the corporate media that are attacking Obama for weakness and indecision. You will recall that he faced the same challenge in August 2013, when he came very close to letting himself be mouse-trapped into a major attack on Syria with U.S. forces.

A Special Danger

This time there is a new, quite delicate element of which you need to be aware – the so-called “moderate” rebels whom the U.S. (primarily the CIA) trained, equipped, and inserted into Syria.  This issue came up at the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting yesterday, when Chairman McCain expressed particular concern for pro-U.S. Syrian rebels he said are now being bombed by Russia and Syria.

Defense Secretary Carter replied that “no rebel group directly supported by the Defense Department under the law had been attacked.” Casting a look of incredulity, McCain replied, “I promise you they have.”

This is a particularly sore spot for McCain and his CIA friends. Ten days into our air-strike campaign, another Washington Post lead story with the headline, “Early signs of Russian intent … Strikes seemed to catch White House flat-footed,” claimed that Russian aircraft “pounded” CIA-sponsored “moderate rebel groups … who appeared to get no warning that they were in Russian jets’ crosshairs.”

“U.S. officials” told the Post, “CIA Director John Brennan has voiced frustration with U.S. inaction as fighters trained and armed by the agency at camps in Jordan over the past two years face a Russia assault.”

CIA officials do not like to be seen as leaving their own in the lurch – whether in the mountains of Syria or on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Many serious scholars who have investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy conclude that Allen Dulles, who was fired by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, led a cabal that killed him – and then sat on the Warren Commission to cover it all up.

We doubt that John Brennan is up to playing that kind of role, or that Dunford, for example, could be persuaded to do what a Marine predecessor, Gen. Smedley Butler, refused to do, join a coup against the sitting U.S. President (in Butler’s case he rejected a right-wing scheme to remove President Franklin Roosevelt from office).But there is reason to think that Obama believes he has more to fear than the fate of his policies. One report alleges that he privately told friends of his fear of ending up like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In sum, Obama has ample reason to be afraid that powerful people in Establishment Washington, convinced they know better than he how to protect the country, might succeed in pinning on his back a “too-soft-on-the-Russians” bulls-eye.

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Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com. A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.  

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