by Gordon M. Hahn
CYA means ‘cover your ass.’ Given the scale and audacity of the Defense Department’s and overall U.S. government’s strategic communications (stratcomm) distortions of every Russian action, including in Syria, Washington’s CYA moment was bound to come. As I have written about numerous times, with their shills in the media, academia, and DC think tanks, the Barack Obama administration had built such a facade of impossible distortions of reality—with albeit, some subtlety—that it was bound to come to the need for major CYA operations to cover their stratcomm ops at some point. That time appears to have come. Slowly but surely the Pentagon’s statements hint at the truth behind the Russian air campaign and overall Syria intervention, while insinuating caveats and other qualifications and uncertainties to muddy the waters of what it reports, thinks, and says it knows.
Thus, in Wednesday’s (20 April 2016) Defense Department press briefing, Col. Steven Warren continued the stratcomm operation which intentionally conflates the small non-jihadist, non-Islamist opposition forces and the non-Islamic State jihadists who predominate within the overall opposition fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army by as much as 75 percent or even more of the overall non-IS forces (www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/739157/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-warren-via-teleconference-from-bagh). With the Islamic State (IS) forces included, the overall rebel forces fighting Assad comprise 85-90 percent jihadist (Jabhat al-Nusra, etc.) and Islamist (Muslim Brotherhood, etc.).
Excerpt from U.S. Defense Department press briefing (www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/739157/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-warren-via-teleconference-from-bagh):
Q: Hey, Steve. Quick question on Russian movements and actions inside of Syria. What percentage of — I mean, can you give us a sense of what kind of activity they’re — they’re up to right now? How much of it is targeted at Islamic State or, you know, Nusra? And — yeah, and then give us a sense of what is their kind of fire power in the country I don’t know how many weeks after they’re supposed to withdrawal.
COL. WARREN: Well, you know, when the Russians first came in, they claimed that they wanted to fight ISIL, and in reality, only a small fraction of their strikes were against ISIL. About 80 percent of their strikes were against the opposition.
Since the cessation of hostilities was declared, we have seen that shift. At one point, the Russians really have — they primarily had been striking ISIL. At one point, I think, in the last, I don’t know, week or so, the Russians we estimated — really more than 70 percent of their strikes were against ISIL.
So I don’t have today’s figure and we don’t track it, you know, that closely. But the Russian have been striking either ISIL or, in many cases, Nusra. That said, we have seen an uptick — a general uptick in the number of cease-fire or cessation of hostilities violations. We have seen an uptick in the violence, primarily regime elements coming into contact with other forces.
So this is a concern to us and, you know, we’ve called on the Russians several times to use their influence with the Syrian regime to try and tamp this down.
Q: And do you believe at this point that they’re preparing for an end to the cease-fire? Does it look that way from their positioning?
COL. WARREN: Well, you know, I’m not going to predict — (inaudible) — what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen, you know, regime forces with some Russian support as well begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo. So this is something we’re concerned about and something we’ll keep an eye on.
That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated. We’re watching it. Our focus, though, as the Combined Joint Task Force, is ISIL. And so don’t forget that, that’s our focus. The cessation of hostilities, the diplomatic and political processes — while they certainly have — are of interest to us and potentially could influence our operations peripherally, our focus remains ISIL.
Let’s review the key sections to parse the stratcomm op.
Warren’s first distortion of reality: The Russians “claimed that they wanted to fight ISIL, and in reality, only a small fraction of their strikes were against ISIL.”
Facts: Putin gave an interview to the Charlies Rose Show shortly after the Russian intervention began and said what he had said and has continued to say in Russian numerous times as well: Russia was intervening primarily to defend the Assad regime but was doing so because it is the only force in the region capable of rallying around itself a strong fist to destroy IS and other jihadists in the region. Thus, there were two main goals of Russia’s operations: Support Assad and kill jihadists. Got it? A third goal, perhaps a side benefit, was to kill jihadists from Russia fighting under IS and other jihadist groups in Syria (and Iraq). A fourth was to enhance Russian power in the region taking advantage of the feckless U.S. war against IS there.
Warren’s second distortion: “(I)n reality, only a small fraction of their (the Russians’) strikes were against ISIL. About 80 percent of their strikes were against the opposition.”
FACTS AND CONTEXT: This might be general accurate. Even if so, it means that as many as one-fourth of Russia’s attacks were against IS. Given that the forces can be divided into three general groups—(1) non-jihadi, non-Islamist forces, (2) non-IS Islamist and jihadi forces, and IS forces—this is not particularly unbalanced. This is especially so, since the IS forces, located in far eastern Syria and Iraq, posed the least threat to Assad’s stronghold and forces located in the western and coastal Syria. The jihadi and Islamist forces were predominant in the west and controlled key cities there like Alleppo and Homs. Naturally, Russia’s first military task was to remove the greatest strategic threats first.
Warren’s first CYA statement: “(T)he Russians really have — they primarily had been striking ISIL. At one point, I think, in the last, I don’t know, week or so, the Russians we estimated — really more than 70 percent of their strikes were against ISIL.”
PARSING: When engaging the CYA operation, Warren suddenly introduces doubt into his characterization of Pentagon’s assessments.
CONTEXT: There are two reasons Russia might have shifted its focus more to IS. First, the jihadi and Islamist forces had already been decimated enough and Assad’s forces had re-grouped and were on the offensive, so there was less need to keep bombing these elements as intensely. Second, most of the very few non-jihadist, non-Islamist elements within the opposition rebel forces were covered under the ceasefire agreement, and Russia needed to avoid bombing them. All this freed up capacity and heightened the urgency to focus on attacking IS, the forces of which might attempt to fill in gaps left by the retreating rebel forces.
Warren’s second CYA statement: “(W)e don’t track it, you know, that closely. But the Russian have been striking either ISIL or, in many cases, Nusra.”
PARSING: When Warren attempts CYA by introducing in the first element of the reality of Russia’s air campaign in Syria—that a large majority of Russian air strikes targeted jihadi forces—he again introduces that note of uncertainty and casualness. After months of hearing confident, though intentionally misleading estimates of the portion of Russian attacks hitting various, conflated ‘opposition forces’, Warren says the Pentagon does not track Russian air sorites “that closely”. This undermines the regretted acknowledgement in the CYA statement that Russian forces have all along been bombing mostly “either ISIL or, in many cases, Nusra.” Suddenly, no emphasis on the moderate opposition forces allegedly receiving the brunt of the Russian campaign.
The lack of clarity and the growing confusion in such official statements reflects the lack of policy and the disintegration of the Barack Obama administration’s ‘strategy’ in its ‘war’ against jihadism.
For my previous articles detailing the realities of Russia’s air campaign and some of the points made above as well as the U.S. stratcomm’s previous distortions of reality, see: