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Putin’s Syria Intervention Decisionmaking in Light of New Revelations

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by Gordon M. Hahn

In September I wrote that Russian President had several reasons for intervening in Syria militarily: (1) protecting the interests of its Syrian ally in the form of Presidant Bashad Assad either by keeping his regime in place or shaping a transition; (2) preserving Russia’s  influence in the Levant, especially in light of Russia’s historical ties to Orthodox Christian communities there; (3) defeating the global jihadi revolutionary movement and its North Caucasus allies fighting in the Levant and at home; and (4) demonstrating Russia’s status not just as a regional power but as a global one as well (

Recently, a series of revelations have revealed that Putin’s decision was also influenced by the fecklessness of the Barack Obama administration’s destructive policy in the fight against the global jihad and the Islamic State. I will disclose other details and a more broad analysis soon, but for now I will discuss the implications of revelations contained in Seymour Hersh’s recent article in the London Review of Books.

Hersh reveals from a Pentagon source that “overt opposition” among “some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff” to Obama’s policy of supplying weapons to Syria’s ‘moderate’ rebels. Their opposition, even subversion of Obama’s policy is “focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin.”

The military’s “resistance” dated back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified all-source assessment, prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), concluded that the Assad regime’s fall would lead to chaos and a potential takeover of Syria by jihadi extremists. It criticized “the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups” and the CIA’s “conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria.” In addition, Turkey was acting as “a major impediment” to Obama’s policy and had “co-opted” a covert US programme to “arm and support” the “moderate rebels,” fighting Assad, transforming the programme “into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.” Thus, the “moderates had evaporated,” “the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey” and, as a result, “the US was arming extremists.” The assessment and other DIA reporting received enormous pushback from the Obama administration.” The JCS understood “that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success,’” according to Hersh’s source, and so in the autumn of 2013 it decided to move against the extremists in Syria without the administration’s approval and funnel US intelligence on Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS to the militaries of other states, including “Germany, Israel and Russia,”  which were in contact with Assad’s army (Seymour M. Hersh, “Military to Military: US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war,” London Review of Books,

If Hersh’s source is reporting accurately, then it is very likely that the U.S. military contact with Moscow, the evidence of grave dissent within the administration that this interaction represented, and the nature of the intel provided to the Russian military influenced Putin’s decision to intervene in several ways. First, these factors would have definitively confirmed for Putin the fecklessness of the Obama administration in general, given its full alienation of, and its inability to control the military. Second, they would have shown Moscow that little could be expected from U.S. efforts to contain IS and the other jihadists in Syria and elsewhere along the southern Eurasian arc of Islamic states stretching along Russia’s south. Third, they demonstrated to the Kremlin that there would be elements within the Obama administration that might eventually force it to come to terms to any Russian military intervention in Syria. Fourth, these factors as well as the specific nature of the intelligence itself must have suggested to Putin that Russian operations and intelligence subsequently received during operations could be used to expose the pathetic nature of the U.S. administration and its policies, further undermining American hegemony and allowing Russia to seize the mantle or some of the status as the global power fighting the global jihadi revolutionary movement effectively. One might recall that after Moscow began its military intervention, the Russians requested and Putin reiterated the request in a television interview, that the U.S. provide it intelligence so it could hit IS targets, which the Obama administration and the Defense Department were saying Russian warplanes were not attacking. This would have been a rather clever gambit, given that the Pentagon had already been doing this, either to acquire more intelligence or to rub Pentagon’s face in its hapless position under Obama’s rule.

AS I will demonstrate shortly, Hersh’s reporting largely coincides with the contents of recently released DIA documents, and the Obama administration’s insistence on arming Muslim rebels, provoking Putin in Ukraine, and refusing to join forces with Moscow in the fight against the global jihad correlate nicely with the friends from the Muslim world that the Obama administration keeps.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Adjunct Professor and Senior Researcher, Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct,; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. 


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