“...there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it as many times as it takes for the naive, largely aloof American public to catch on: the quote excerpted above is the smoking gun when it comes to Washington’s ISIS “strategy.”
Note that no tin foil hats or conspiracy theories are needed. The passage shown above is from a 2012 declassified Pentagon report on the situation in Syria (you can read it in full here). What it says is that US intelligence was well aware of the possibility that Sunni extremists working to destabilize the Assad government might move to establish a proto-state in eastern Syria based around orthodox, ultra-conservative, Sunni Islam. It also says “the supporting powers to the opposition” (i.e. the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) would be delighted with such an outcome as it would “isolate” Assad on the way to dealing a strategic death blow to Iran’s Shiite crescent (i.e. Tehran’s regional ambitions). That’s the only possible interpretation of the quote shown above and it’s completely consistent with the information contained in a leaked diplomatic cable sent in 2006 by acting Deputy Chief of Mission in Syria William Roebuck which contained the following “advice” on how to go about destabilizing the Assad government:
PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.
Importantly, you don’t have to believe alien corpses are stored at Roswell to grasp what’s going on here. That is, the declassified documents and leaked diplomatic cables clearly indicate that the US planned to play on the Sunni/Shiite divide in Syria and subsequently acquiesced to the establishment of a hardline, Salafist dominion because the CIA and The Pentagon knew that such an outcome was the worst nightmare for the government in Damascus and also for Shiite Iran, whose link to Hezbollah would be cut and whose influence in Iraq would be in jeopardy if a Saudi-backed, Sunni militant group could somehow manage to take and hold large swaths of territory.
That’s it. That’s the whole ISIS story in a nutshell. There’s no need to speculate on whether the creepy guy lurking in the background of the photos John McCain took with Syrian fighters was in fact Bakr al-Baghdadi. There’s no need to suggest that CIA operatives are on the ground assisting ISIS as we speak or that the US is paradropping weapons to Islamic State in Iraq. And there’s no need to ask whether the US government directly trained and armed ISIS once it became clear who the group was and what they intended to do. That’s not to say that some or even all of those storylines aren’t compelling and/or worth pursuing. It’s just to say that you needn’t posit anything that even looks like it might be a conspiracy theory to understand that at the end of the day, the bottom line - the almost irrefutable truth - is that the US and its regional allies were all-in on the “use Sunni extremists to bring about regime change in Syria” strategy from the word “go”, and the direct result of that strategy is ISIS.
Where things get really interesting is when we start to consider how America’s strategy towards ISIS shifted once it became clear that, i) they are the most effective force when it comes to fostering instability in Syria, and ii) they are a brutal bunch and could very well end up becoming an international terror organization.
For Russia’s part, Putin, Lavrov, and Maria Zarakhova contend that the US is deliberately pursuing a policy designed not to destroy the group, but merely to contain it. In short, Moscow says the US is effectively attempting to preserve Islamic State’s ability to operate within Syria and Iraq while simultaneously attempting to keep Frankenstein from escaping the lab, so to speak. Iran takes it a step further than that, but we’ll leave that aside for now.
America’s newfound zeal for attacking ISIS oil trucks seems to validate this assessment. As we noted earlier this week, it isn’t clear why it took so long for the US to bomb Islamic State oil convoys given that crude is the group’s main source of revenue, but one explanation is that the US didn’t want to cut off Islamic State’s funding, because without money, the group couldn’t fight Assad. Now that the Russians have essentially called Washington out, the US has little choice but to go along with bombing runs against illegal crude shipments because Moscow is going to do it anyway.
Well don’t look now, but The New York Times is out claiming that according to current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, US Central Command may have been involved in a year long effort to obscure the fact that America’s strategy to combat ISIS simply was not effective (it's actually a follow up to a previous piece which you can read here). Here’s more:
When Islamic State fighters overran a string of Iraqi cities last year, analysts at United States Central Command wrote classified assessments for military intelligence officials and policy makers that documented the humiliating retreat of the Iraqi Army. But before the assessments were final, former intelligence officials said, the analysts’ superiors made significant changes.
In the revised documents, the Iraqi Army had not retreated at all. The soldiers had simply “redeployed.”
Such changes are at the heart of an expanding internal Pentagon investigation of Centcom, as Central Command is known, where analysts say that supervisors revised conclusions to mask some of the American military’s failures in training Iraqi troops and beating back the Islamic State. The analysts say supervisors were particularly eager to paint a more optimistic picture of America’s role in the conflict than was warranted.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon inspector general seized a large trove of emails and documents from military servers as it examines the claims, and has added more investigators to the inquiry.
The exact content of those documents is unclear and may not become public because so much of the information is classified. But military officials have told Congress that some of those emails and documents may have been deleted before they had to be turned over to investigators, according to a senior congressional official, who requested anonymity to speak about the ongoing inquiry. Current and former officials have separately made similar claims, on condition of anonymity, to The New York Times.
The insurrection inside Centcom is an important chapter in the story of how the United States responded to the growing threat from the Islamic State. This past summer, a group of Centcom analysts took concerns about their superiors to the inspector general, saying they had evidence that senior officials had changed intelligence assessments to overstate the progress of American airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Now why, you might ask, would "senior officials" at Centcom be determined to "overstate the progress of American airstrikes against ISIS"? Were they all scared for their jobs? Were they embarrassed that the group's rise "caught them off guard?" We certainly doubt it, given the bevy of leaked documents which pretty clearly indicate that both The Pentagon and CIA were well aware of what was going on years before the fall of Mosul put the group on the map.
The more likely explanation is that Centcom, probably in conjunction with other intelligence officials, wanted to avoid a scenario whereby The White House and Congress would press for a more aggressive, more conventional military campaign against the group. Not only would that have meant stepped up airstrikes and the possibility that Islamic State's capabilities could be degraded in Syria, but it could also have resulted in a scaling back of the CIA's covert efforts to overthrow Assad. In short, it looks as though the military, in conjunction with the CIA might have been intentionally keeping the President and lawmakers in the dark. As The Times puts it, "at the least, the prospect that senior officials intentionally skewed intelligence conclusions has raised questions about how much Mr. Obama, Congress and the public can believe the military’s assessments."
For his part, Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is concerned and is now "planning to send a letter to the inspector general on Monday asking if emails and documents relevant to the investigation have indeed been deleted" and if so, Nunes wants to know if investigators might be able to retrieve them from Centcom servers.
Amusingly, the Pentagon is pulling a Janet Yellen by citing the ongoing internal investigation (which conveniently is taking longer than expected) on the way to denying Nunes' committee an opportunity to interview officials, including the two most senior intelligence officers at Centcom, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman.
In September, The Guardian suggested that the tendency for Centcom to provide upbeat assessments of the fight against ISIS may have been influenced by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Clapper "is said to talk nearly every day with Grove – 'which is highly, highly unusual', according to a former intelligence official," The Guardian reported, adding that "such a situation could place inherent pressure on a subordinate." The "subordinate" in this situation would be Grove. Here's a bit more:
But one former intelligence official said Clapper “has to be careful of the Cheney effect, going over to the CIA and how does that affect people” – a reference to pressure felt by CIA analysts before the 2003 Iraq invasion to portray Saddam Hussein as posing a more dire threat than he actually did, following then Vice-President Dick Cheney’s direct interaction with far more junior analysts and officials.
“He can be manipulative,” a former senior defense official said of Clapper. For Clapper as a senior US intelligence officer with access to assessments across the 16 US intelligence agencies to query Grove, the Central Command intelligence chief, the ex-official said, “something’s wrong”.
Clapper’s calls, knowledgeable sources speaking on condition of anonymity said, placed Grove in a difficult bureaucratic position: between the nominal leader of the entire US intelligence apparatus and his lower-level analysts, several of whom consider the year-long war against Isis to be in dire straits.
So you decide. Is this the administration pressuring Centcom into telling Obama what he wants to hear, or is this Centcom deliberately obscuring the situation on the ground in order to pursue an agenda being pushed by intelligence officials hell bent on bringing about regime change in Syria even it means keeping ISIS operational?
Hopefully, we'll get something in the way of answers over the next six or so months, but we're not holding our breath.