If Hersh is right, White House policy towards Syria was unforgivable. Clever skulduggery in pursuit of sensible (and potentially attainable) goals can arguably be acceptable; stupidity, compounded by incompetent knavery, is always beyond the pale.
According to Hersh, the administration was quickly informed the sarin gas attack in August 2013 probably wasn’t carried out by the Syrian government. Analysis of samples by Porton Downs (in the UK) showed none of them matched the known profiles of official Syrian stockpiles. These doubts, as we all know, were entirely absent from official communications.
Fair enough, perhaps; in matters of state you can’t always play your cards face up. Well, what if we add another factor? Again according to Hersh, the attacks were carried out by Jihadist groups in Syria (not a new contention; quite a few observers thought that was the case from day one) with critical support from Turkey. And, what’s more, the initial pipeline into Syria through Turkey was a joint CIA/Turkish operation running armaments out of Libya which the US only withdrew from after the Benghazi consulate attack.
Faced with this unpleasant reality, what did the White House do? Ramped up the punitive attack plans, it seems.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
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 White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ 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. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. [ . . .] The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. 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.
Happily, common sense intervened. First, the British Parliament voted down UK government plans to take part in the attack. This fed existing concerns in Congress and it quickly became apparent Obama’s request for authorisation would fail. Faced with a humiliating defeat, he grabbed the out provided by Russia: no attacks in return for the rapid dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.
The good news is the US military establishment, together with some of the intelligence community, remained in touch with reality throughout. Equally, the UK defence establishment behaved much as one would hope.
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: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, apparently also played a critical role in pulling the administration back from the brink.
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 carried out.
If true (and Hersh’s revelations fit pretty well with sober views I’ve read elsewhere), we’re left with the vivid image of an astonishingly incompetent administration. One willing to risk disaster in pursuit of fundamentally misconceived strategic goals and only brought to heel by the most serendipitous sequence of interventions.