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April 17th 2014 print

Daryl McCann

Obama’s ‘All Thumbs’ Syria Policy

If veteran journalist Seymour Hersh is to be believed, and there seems little reason to doubt him, the infamous sarin gas attack was the work of rebels acting in concert with Turkish intelligence and supplied by an unknowing US. The US President, it seems, was played like a fish on the hook

obama baffledOn August 21, 2013, as many as 1400 Syrians died after the use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The perpetrator of this crime against humanity, according to the Obama Administration, was none other than the Syrian government. The Assad regime had crossed Obama’s “red line” by using sarin gas to eradicate targeted neighbourhoods of opposition forces. The New York Times, along with all the MSM outlets, saw no reason to question the White House’s contention that evidence indisputably linked the Syrian regime with the sarin attacks. Obama was soon readying the United States Armed Forces for a massive knockout blow that would have deprived Assad of virtually all his military assets. The Syrian rebels were already at the gates and Obama’s own version of “shock and awe”, scheduled for Monday morning, September 2, 2013, would guarantee them victory.

Seymour Hersh’s new article, “The Red Line and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books (April 2014) is a genuinely sensational take on what really happened in Eastern Ghouta. Not sensational enough, it needs to be said, for either the Washington Post or New Yorker to publish it. The essence of Hersh’s essay, which is a companion piece to his “Whose sarin?” exposé in the December, 2013, edition of LRB, is that President Obama entered into a secret alliance with Islamist Turkey, Wahhabi-esque Saudi Arabia and pro-Muslim Brotherhood Qatari in early 2012 with the express purpose of arming the Syrian opposition and bringing down Assad’s regime. One of the key elements of their scheme, discloses Hersh, involved transferring weapons from (the late) Colonel Gaddafi’s arsenal in Libya to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The plan went awry, contends Hersh when US personnel were evacuated from Benghazi as a result of the September 11, 2012, carnage. Thereafter, Obama’s point man in the region, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took responsibility for ensuring the ex-Libyan weaponry found its way to the FSA. The MIT, Erdogan’s national intelligence service, along with Turkey’s gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation, co-ordinated the day-to-day business of smuggling Libyan armaments across the porous 800-kilometre long border separating Turkey and Syria.

However, weapons mysteriously found their way not to moderate, secular rebels but, rather the al Qaeda-associated fighters of Jabhat al-Nursa. To quote one of Hersh’s anonymous sources, a former American intelligence official: “The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the Jihadists.” If Hersh is to be believed, Barack Obama’s hybrid hands-off/incompetent meddling approach to the Syrian civil war resulted in the arming of head-and-hand chopping fanatics who share the same radical ideology as the perpetrators of 9/11.

Two things were clear by the time Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan flew to Washington DC in May, 2013. First, Syria’s armed opposition was losing its war against the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime – and the chances of Erdogan obtaining a client state on his southern border and reconstituting a little piece of the old Caliphate were diminishing. Second, American intelligence had informed Obama that Erdogan was supplying the Jabhat al-Nursa with weapons. Hersh describes the moment at the White House dinner when Obama, having been admonished by Erdogan for not doing enough to assist Syria’s armed opposition, pointed an accusing finger at Hakan Fidan, head of Turkish intelligence agency MIT: “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.”

How can we be sure this interchange occurred? Hersh claims his account of the meeting originates with Tom Donilon, a national security adviser present at the small get-together and who would soon leave his job. Our indefatigable journalist got hold of a National Security Council (NSC) photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdogan, Fidan and Ahmet Davutoglu (Erdogan’s foreign minister) sharing a table that night, but as the NSC spokesman said: “I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.”

The headline-grabbing revelation in Hersh’s “The Red Line and Rat Line” is that the perpetrator of the August 21, 2013, sarin gas attack on Eastern Ghouta was not the Syrian government but al-Nursa. More shockingly, Turkish agents provided the wherewithal and technical expertise. Erdogan, frustrated that the armed opposition in Syria was struggling against Assad’s forces and that Obama had not done enough to help the cause, manufactured a situation that gave all the indications of crossing Obama’s “red line”. Erdogan’s problems in Syria would be over if an outraged USA were to demolish Assad’s military assets. His scheme very nearly worked. Planes, ships and submarines were in position to attack, writes Hersh, when the sarin analysis report from the UK’s Porton Down laboratory came through. The findings? The chemical weapons used on Eastern Ghouta were not consistent with Assad’s WMD arsenal, and the joint chiefs convinced Obama to call off the attack.

From that moment onwards, argues Hersh, Obama has never been straight with the American public. His “walk in the Rose Garden” epiphany that Congress had to be consulted before any attack was a ruse. Hersh notes, for instance, that earlier Obama had a lengthy phone conversation with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “to talk through the options”, and yet the subject of a congressional vote was broached by neither of them. The subsequent deal brokered by the Russians vis-à-vis Assad’s surrender of his chemical weapons had been around for over a year, but only now was it activated: a perfect face-saving option for the Obama Administration. Hersh insists that the White House never provided any real-time proof of the Syrian regime’s culpability in Eastern Ghouta last August; moreover, in the seven or eight months since the perpetration of this crime against humanity, the US has furnished no new evidence to corroborate Obama’s accusations against the Assad government.

In the opinion of Hersh, the recording of a government national security meeting in December, 2013, subsequently posted on YouTube, features none other than Hakan Fidan boasting to a Turkish officer that “justification” can always be created for overt Turkish military intervention in Syria. Concludes Hersh: “The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated.” Erdogan has since attempted to block his countrymen’s access to YouTube.

Hersh’s latest report raises fundamental questions about the chances of ordinary citizens getting any kind of purchase on the truth. Too many political pundits have adopted a position on Hersh’s essay that is a function of their stance on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the Linux Beach blog site, for instance, Hersh is taken to task for “spending over ten thousand words denying Assad’s responsibility for the chemical attacks without saying anything about his wholesale slaughter by other methods”. The now 77-year-old Hersh would no doubt defend himself by arguing that, as the doyen of modern investigative journalism, his brief is not the legitimacy or otherwise of the Assad regime per se but an accurate account of what occurred in Eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

Linux Beach, nevertheless, scores a palpable hit when it questions the reliability of the chemical sample provided for laboratory analysis in the UK, given that the man who made the delivery was Russian. Hersh’s informant for this part of the story, the unidentified “former intelligence official”, vouches for the nameless Russian being “a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy.” We are surely entitled to be sceptical about the reliability of this Russian courier, not to mention all the other anonymous sources Hersh quotes in his essay.

Here, of course, is one of the problems with Seymour Hersh’s brand of investigative journalism: unnamed insiders have, over the decades, been sharing every kind of secret with him, from the My Lai cover-up to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Hersh maintains that the identity of his sources must be safeguarded or his career as an investigative journalist will be finished. Equally, though, if his articles in the LRB turn out to be a part of a “false flag” operation, his reputation as an investigative journalist is toast.

What nobody questions is Seymour Hersh’s claim about the existence of “a highly classified annex” to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report in response to the September 11, 2012, attack on the American consulate in Benghazi – a report that documents “a secret agreement reached in 2012 between the Obama and Erdogan administrations.” This is the arrangement that set in train America’s – albeit unintended – arming of al-Qaeda-associated militia in Syria. Obama’s close relationship with Erdogan and tacit backing of Syria’s armed opposition has – as Middle-East expert Patrick Cockburn writes in The Independent – benefited Jihadists rather than any “secular moderate faction of committed Syrian opposition fighters”, in part because the latter “does not really exist” The consequences have been catastrophic:  

Three years after the protests started in Syria, the whole Euphrates valley to Jarabulus, on Syria’s border with Turkey, is in the hand of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria] and Jabhat al-Nusra. In the past week, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have for the first time broken through to the Mediterranean coast north of Latakia.

We now hear that Obama wants to increase US support for the armed opposition in Syria, even though al-Qaeda fighters, especially ISIS, long ago crossed the Syrian-Iraqi border and are, at this very moment, threatening Baghdad. By day US Predator-launched missiles strike al-Qaeda types in Yemen – killing “Aussie boys”, as the Australian delicately put it — and by night the CIA assists Erdogan with his nefarious scheme. Does any aspect of President Obama’s foreign policy make sense? The only way Obama might salvage something from this catastrophe would be to support the Kurdish minority valiantly defending itself from both the Assad regime and al-Qaeda. Then again, Prime Minister Erdogan may have cause to veto such a plan.  

Daryl McCann blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au