by Gordon M. Hahn
The rise and fall of General Michael Flynn should come as no surprise. While a policy of seeking some realist accommodation of Russian interests in the conduct of American foreign policy makes sense, the extent of such an accommodation and the methods used to achieve it must not compromise American national security. Flynn has proven for several years that his ambitions outstrip his understanding of the rule of law and the requirements of securing the American national interest at the big league level. His own arbitrary approach to bureaucratic politics rivals the fecklessness and negligence of that interest in Obama’s ideologically-driven Muslim Brotherhood strategy in the MENA region. That strategy contributed to the Arab winter, catastrophic chaos and overall policy failures in Egypt, Libya Syria and Iraq and further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
As I noted in Part 2 of “Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood Strategy”, Flynn and others in the top ranks of the JCS and DIA had determined by no later than 2013 that Obama’s policy of supplying arms to Syria’s radicalized rebels was becoming a catastrophic failure. Moreover, it was being driven largely by the U.S. administration’s unhealthy fixation on Putin and Russia as an inveterate enemy of America’s ‘liberal democratic order’ – a term that means something different to American liberals, conservatives and libertarians each and thus drives much of the politics surrounding Russia policy.
Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood Strategy in Syria
Given Obama’s inclusion of MB-tied Muslims as consultants to his administration and his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and MB rule in Egypt, it is not irrational to conclude that Obama’s sympathy for MB directly shaped his policies towards jihadism. Although the MB is usually non-violent in its revolutionary approach, more part of the global Islamist revolutionary movement, there is a fine line between the peaceful Islamists and the violent jihadists that is often crossed by individuals and sometimes entire organizations. The MB’s involvement in Syria was probably a, if not the key reason for Obama’s support for the anti-Assad revolutionary forces in Syria. It provided another opportunity after the Egyptian failure to prove that moderate Islamism or political Islam can be moderate and reasoned with. The illegal supply of weapons to Syria through the Libyan port of Benghazi was carried out by groups which overlapped both the MB and Al Qa`ida, the latter of which became a main recruiting pool for the Islamic State or IS (ISIS, ISIL, etc.)
By withdrawing almost all U.S. forces from Iraq, by merely ‘containing’ the IS and overall jihadi threat in Syria and Iraq, by demanding the destruction of the only state apparatus capable of containing the jihadi threat in Syria–the Assad regime and its army–and by carrying out a limited air campaign against IS in Iraq, the Obama administration left the global jihadists in the region in place to fester and grow in both Iraq and Syria. This allowed IS to seize Mosul and use its oil exports–which the Obama ‘air campaign’ refused to interdict until Russia starting doing so–to fund its insurgent armies and terrorist attacks, such as those recently targeting Russia, France, Lebanon, Belgium and, yes, Turkey, and yes, soon the USA.
After illegally running guns to AQ and then IS and thereby strengthening history’s greatest terrorist threat emanating from a non-state actor, the Obama administration facilitated IS’s financing by failing to bomb both the IS-controlled oil wells and the hundred-long truck convoys that transported the oil to market across the open desert in open daylight. Although in October 2014 a U.S. State Department, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Julieta Valls Noyes, claimed the sale of IS fuel was one of the US’s “principal concerns” and air strikes against them were “a viable option”, nothing was ever done (www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/war-on-isis-us-planning-to-bomb-oil-pipelines-to-halt-jihadists-funding-9813980.html). According to former Obama administration CIA director Mike Morell’s statement on November 24th, the administration refused to bomb oil wells which IS took control of because of the potential environmental damage (www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/11/25/obamas-former-cia-director-reveals-real-reason-admin-declined-to-hit-islamic-state-oil-wells/).
One reason claimed for not attacking the truck convoys was that the drivers of the trucks ferrying oil from Mosul, Iraq to the Turkish border for sale–more about NATO member Turkey’s role below–were not IS members but rather civilians. Only after Russia’s military intervention and bombing of the IS oil convoys, along with France’s doing the same after the November 13th Paris attacks, did the U.S. carry out its first sorties against the IS oil convoys on 17 November 2015. In advance of the first U.S. attack on the convoys, U.S. forces dropped leaflets warning the truck drivers (and any mujahedin accompanying them) of the impending raid (www.wsj.com/articles/french-airstrikes-in-syria-may-have-missed-islamic-state-1447685772). It remained unclear how the U.S. knew the drivers were not IS members, whether this is in fact true, whether this necessarily exonerates them, and whether it is possible to defeat an extremist insurgency under such legal structures.
However, the perfidy of Obama’s MB policy went far beyond his administration’s usual political correctness and naivete`. By looking the other way and even facilitating the flow of weapons to rebels, the Obama administration was flirting with violating U.S. anti-terrorism laws. The administration persisted in funneling arms to MB and other ‘moderate’ elements, when it was obvious to any moderately informed analyst that it would be impossible to control the flow of weapons in the murky circles and dark networks essence of frequently intersecting Islamist and jihadist organizations. Yet Flynn’s response – going around the president to independently share U.S. intelligence with Russia — was no less irresponsible and illegal.
General Flynn, The Intel Revolt, and Russia’s Intervention in Syria
What Flynn and the JCS/DIA did, if Hersh’s account is right, sheds new light on Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria. Since directly challenging Obama’s policy had no chance of succeeding’, in autumn 2013 they opted to act against Syria’s extremists without going through official channels. According to a January 2016 investigative piece by Seymour Hersh, some in American intelligence’s top brass – with Flynn playing a leading role – decided to resist Obama’s Syria policy in summer of 2013. This resistance emerged more than a year after the CIA, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar began to ship guns and goods from Libya via Turkey and sea to Syria to achieve the Obama administration’s goal of toppling Bashyr Assad and installing the then Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islamist wing of the Syrian opposition. A joint JCS-DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) “highly classified,” “all-source” intelligence estimate foresaw that the Assad regime’s fall would bring chaos and very possibly Syria’s takeover by jihadists was occurring in much of Libya. Hersh’s source, a former JCS senior adviser, said the report “took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups.” The assessment designated Turkey a “major impediment” to the policy since Ankara had “co-opted” the “covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad,” which “had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.” Moderates had “evaporated” and the Free Syrian Army was “a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.” The estimate concluded, according to Hersh and his source, that “there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists” (www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military).
Then DIA Director (2012-14) Lieutenant General Michael Flynn confirmed that his agency had sent a steady stream of warnings to the “civilian leadership” about the “dire consequences of toppling Assad” and the jihadists’ control of the opposition. Turkey was not working hard enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters and weapons across its border and “was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria,” Flynn says. “If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic” Flynn told Hersh. But the DIA’s analysis, he says, “got enormous pushback” from the Obama administration: “I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.” Hersh’s former JCS adviser concurred, saying: “Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact.” “The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the ‘anybody else is better’ issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy” (www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military).
In September 2015 more than 50 intelligence analysts at the U.S. military’s Central Command lodged a formal complaint that their reports on IS and AQ affiliate ‘Jabhat al-Nusrah’ or JN–some of which were briefed to the president–were being altered inappropriately by senior Pentagon officials. In some cases, “key elements of intelligence reports were removed” in order to alter their thrust. The CENTCOMM analysts’ complaint was sent in July to the Defense Department and sparked a DoD inspector general’s investigation (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/exclusive-50-spies-say-isis-intelligence-was-cooked.html). This was likely done in response to explicit requests or at least implicit signaling coming from White House officials on what and what is not politically correct in the president’s mind. Thus, the analysts’ complaint alleges that the reports were altered to depict the jihadi groups as weaker than analysts had assessed in an attempt by CENTCOM officials to adhere to the Obama administration’s line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and JN (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/exclusive-50-spies-say-isis-intelligence-was-cooked.html). This would correlate with the motive behind the Benghazi coverup as well, as the terrorist attack occurred at the peak of the 2012 presidential campaign when the president was stumping on slogans that he had destroyed AQ.
Perhaps in response to the growing tensions, President Obama threw the intelligence agencies under the bus in September 2014 days after the US authorized itself to begin bombing Syria. He claimed that it was the intelligence agencies who “underestimated what was taking place in Syria” – a euphemism for the growing power of IS. He did this in August (www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/08/09/statement-president-iraq) and again in September (http://thehill.com/policy/defense/219123-obama-intel-underestimated-isis and http://time.com/3442254/obama-u-s-intelligence-isis/). In turn, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has begun an investigation and hearings on the intel redactions (www.nationalreview.com/article/424000/house-investigates-alleged-doctoring-isis-intel-joel-gehrke).
Flynn, already now Obama’s former DIA chief, urged that the investigation begin “at the top” (http://hotair.com/archives/2015/11/24/former-obama-dia-chief-intel-probe-should-focus-on-white-house/ and http://thehill.com/policy/defense/219123-obama-intel-underestimated-isis )
Moreover, according to Hersh’s report, Flynn and perhaps other U.S. intelligence officials provided US intel to Germany, Israel and Russia knowing it would be passed on to the Syrian army, with which the three states’ militaries were in contact and had some influence, and used against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military).
A hint that Hersh’s story might be accurate comes with Lt. Gen. Flynn’s appearance in—of all places—in Moscow at a anniversary celebration for the Kremlin’s chief English-language strategic communications organ – Russia Today. In December 2015 Flynn attended the RT festivities, sitting at the head table with President Putin, and gave an interview to the audience for RT. Clearly, Flynn’s actions were driven primarily by his reasonable belief that Russian can be an important piece in building an anti-jihadi alliance. Before leaving for Moscow, he signed a contract for a forthcoming book – The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies. In announcing the book, Flynn said, “I am writing this book for two reasons: first, to show that the war is being waged against us by enemies this administration has forbidden us to describe: radical Islamists. Second, to lay out a winning strategy that is not passively relying on technology and drone attacks to do the job. We could lose this war; in fact, right now we are losing. The Field of Fight will give my view on how to win” (www.aim.org/special-report/moscows-five-star-treatment-of-a-three-star-army-general/).
With Flynn’s help, Putin likely became cognizant of the following. The Obama administration knew that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, including AQ’s Jabhat al Nusra (JN), AQI/ISIS, and other extremist jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” The Obama administration controlled the air space over Iraq and parts of Syria and its fighter jets, bombers, drones, and other means of surveillance observed but did not endeavor to interrupt to flow of Turkish money to IS for oil. Moreover, the Obama administration helped to send, or directly sent weapons from Libya to Syria and the opposition, knowing from its own intelligence agencies that the Syrian opposition was overwhelmingly dominated by the very same JN, AQI/ISIS, and other radical groups. At the same time, it sought to cover up this illegal activity by lying to the American people and the world and fudging intelligence and facts about the strength of the global jihadi revolutionary movement and groups like IS and the facilitating effect of its feckless and failed policies. Thus, the Obama administration weeded out intelligence that did not concur with its preferred image of jihadism and the war against and at the same time blamed the intelligence services of failing to discover what itself has denied exists – the growing threat of the global jihadi revolutionary movement and IS. What is Russia’s response to all this?
This falsification of intelligence and the facts–and the possibility that foreign intelligence services, such as Russia’s SVR or GRU, knew of Washington’s illegal gun-running to jihadists in order to overthrow the regime Bashar al-Assad–was disastrous for foreign perception of the U.S. in terms of both its reliability as a foreign partner and guarantor of international security and its contention that it is the beacon of democracy for the world. Putin surely had been briefed on all the other revelations, and he made corresponding charges against the Obama administration before or after their first appearance in US media. The picture he and many others would take away from the reports and other evidence is that the Obama administration could not or would not take a leadership role in the fight against jihadism; at least if not prodded into doing so.
This explains both Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria and Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet in 2016. By intervening Putin might protect Russia from the imminent return of IS- and AQ-affiliated North Caucasus jihadists from Iraq and Syria to Russia, reassert Russian interests in the region, expose the duplicity of the US’s Syria policy, and thus save the Russia-friendly Assad regime.
The Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet targeting jihadists that had only briefly violated its airspace because Russian reconnaissance was able to gather data on NATO member Turkey’s oil trade with IS. The area around northern Latakia where the plane was shot down is not only the location where mujahedin from Russia’s North Caucasus are located; it is also where the Turko-IS oil trade is conducted. Thus, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian General Staff concurred that the Turkish action was a planned provocation (www.tvc.ru/news/show/id/81704). Russia would eventually win over Turkey to its side in the competing Russian and American wars against IS. Ankara is now coordinating its military operations with Moscow’s and has now joined Moscow and Teheran in mediating the Syrian civil war.
Thus, the Obama administration’s and General Flynn’s irresponsible policies and actions led to a win for Putin and a setback for U.S. interests in the MENA region and globally in terms of reputation as a reliable ally able to carry out a well-coordinated security policy.
Flynn’s behavior before he even was appointed Trump’s national security advisor — leaking U.S. intelligence to Russia on U.S. policy and operations in Syria and dining with Putin at the RT anniversary dinner — must have been known by Trump. Now it turns out that Flynn was also conversing prior to appointment with Russian officials, perhaps on his own and seemingly setting in motion a new U.S. Russia policy before the new administration had time to conduct a policy review and develop its own approach. Trump cannot appear to have been willing to allow Flynn to jump the gun, given that he should have been aware of Flynn’s incautious flirtations with Moscow. Trump chose to jettison Flynn and to be seen to be taking a harder line on Russia at least temporarily .
Flynn’s actions have damaged the prospects for a US-Russian rapprochement. Trump has been forced to issue a harsh statement that he will insist Russia return Crimea to Ukraine. It may very well be that Trump’s statement is intended to cover or compensate for the scandal which has exposed that General Flynn has a pro-Russian agenda. If held to, however, any American linkage between Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine and improvement in relations with Washington will limit severely the potential of any rapprochement. It is unrealistic to expect Russian President Vladimir Putin or almost any other Russian president one can imagine coming to power in Moscow to return Crimea to Ukraine. There are several reasons. First, it would not be in the nature of Russian political behavior to back down or reverse itself in such a way. Second, the Kremlin and a majority of Russian see the reunification of Crimea with Russia to be while perhaps not legal but certainly just for historical and other reasons – specifically the peninsula’s long history as Russian territory and territory won and defended at the cost of much blood, the unjust way in which the territory was given to Ukraine by the Soviet communist regime, and the dishonest way in which Western policies sought to wrest Ukraine and thus Crimea from Russia’s orbit by endorsing and supporting those who took power in Kiev to which the Russian Crimea takeover was a response. Third, Crimea is of great geostrategic importance for Russia as home to its Black Sea Naval Fleet. Fourth, Crimea is primarily ethnic Russian and the population prefers to be part of Russia and would be under potential threat from Kiev, especially given the anti-Russian nature of the Galician-controlled regime in Kiev, which includes many anti-Russian neofascists. Thus, it would not be surprising if Trump, as a man who prides himself on making deals and being a businessman, proposed a compromise in which Russia compensates Ukraine for the loss of its Crimean territory and the value of any business interests there in terms of tax revenues — in essence pay for the peninsula after the fact.
More generally, the entire Obama-Flynn-Trump misadventure suggests that as America continues to abandon its traditional political culture rooted in constitutionality and the rule of law, it is proving more difficult to carry out an effective foreign policy. Indeed, one point that is not surprisingly being overlooked in all the controversy is that the US intelligence services were listening in on phone calls and perhaps other communications of not just Russian officials but also Trump associates and campaign officials (www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/us/politics/russia-intelligence-communications-trump.html?emc=edit_th_20170215&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44251264).
Thus, the Obama legacy of executive arbitrariness in the service of a leftist ideological vision followed by a Trump presidency and its equally peculiar, though less ideological personalist populism could bring the U.S. an even more arbitrary approach to both domestic and foreign policy. The rift between the president and US intelligence is now almost of coup- or intel purge-provoking breadth. All this will only complicate foreign policy-making and implementation and may make the resort to war more likely even if only as a last resort to avoid impeachment.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.