While We’re Investigating Intelligence Failures on Syria…

For the past several weeks, we’ve had a series of stories about how the intelligence on ISIS was cooked — at least within DIA. I had grand plans to write some posts on it — to track DIA’s past recent politicization (which I think should raise some skepticism about these claims, though I find them largely credible), to how the story has developed, and to a number of things that likely aren’t even being considered in whether the intelligence is cooked (such as whether treating ISIS as a terrorist group serves an analytical disservice).

Ah well — the posts that might have been.

But amid that frenzy about politicized Syria intelligence, the Guardian reports that in 2012 Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered up Bashar al-Assad as part of a proposed peace deal, purportedly at his government’s direction.

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.

[snip]

“The most intriguing was the meeting I had with Vitaly Churkin because I know this guy,” Ahtisaari recalled. “We don’t necessarily agree on many issues but we can talk candidly. I explained what I was doing there and he said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’

“He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

I’m not so sure I buy this was a real offer from Russia. Possibly it was a trial balloon designed to prove that on Syria, as on Libya, the western powers were lying about their ultimate goals being regime change (though obviously this was an offer to remove Assad, though not his regime).

China Matters has a lot to say about this disclosure, arguing that it confirms his observation in the wake of a July 17, 2012 terrorist attack on Assad that the US was probably partnering with al Qaeda. Those posts are well worth reading (and the potential roles of David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton in such a scheme — one which Obama temporarily halted in summer 2012, only to reconsider it in 2013 — are equally worth considering).

But here’s the other question that must be raised from this article.

What the fuck kind of intelligence failure in 2012 had everyone in the US government believing that Assad was about to fall? I mean, I get that that was the conventional wisdom at the time (a CW China Matters rightly takes on in his post). But there were plenty of people (CM is one, Moon of Alabama another, Joshua Landis another) who were predicting Assad would be able to withstand that assault. Indeed, CM argues that Assad’s ability to withstand the July 2012 decapitation strike should have been the clue.

What sources were leading both the press and US intelligence to believe Assad was going to fall?

If you buy that the Russians were willing to make a reasonable deal of some sort in 2012, then the mistaken belief Assad was about to fall has been almost as catastrophic as the intelligence failures that got us into the Iraq War in terms of deaths and dislocation. They’ve been far more damaging, at least thus far, than cooked intelligence on ISIS. That bad intelligence likely comes the same vicinity as the intelligence that said we could insert a small group of fighters in al Nusra’s vicinity without the al Qaeda affiliate responding.

Admittedly, it’s likely there has been some internal accountability for this intelligence failure. David Petraeus probably could have withstood sharing code word intelligence with his mistress, after all. And Bandar bin Sultan, who surely was in charge of this effort, lost the Saudi intelligence portfolio.

But it is likely we’re taking advice from the same people as we did then, with the same disastrous consequences. Which go far beyond fluffing US success against ISIS.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

29 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    What sources were leading both the press and US intelligence to believe Assad was going to fall?
    The US State Department, for one.
    (But actually they liked — and like — Assad just fine.)
    .
    Dec 14, 2011
    US: Assad’s Syria a ‘dead man walking’
    The State Department official, Frederic Hof, told Congress on Wednesday that Assad’s repression may allow him to hang on to power but only for a short time.
    .
    “Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of dead man walking,” said Hof, the State Department’s pointman on Syria, which he said was turning into “Pyongyang in the Levant,” a reference to the North Korean capital. He said it was difficult to determine how much time Assad has left in power but stressed “I do not see this regime surviving.”
    .
    Then the US line developed that the situation was just fine, and to justify that stance the US claimed that Assad and the (US-supported) Islamic fundamentalists were…wait for it…co-dependent!
    .
    Oct 31, 2013
    Ambassador Fred Hof’s Testimony on Syria before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 31, 2013
    We are, Mr. Chairman, at a diplomatic turning point in this crisis.
    As matters now stand an informal partition is taking hold, with the Assad regime consolidating its grip on the western part of the country adjoining Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Kurds are trying to defend themselves in the northeast, and much of eastern Syria is dissolving into chaos, with Al Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists seeking to impose their ideas of governance on unwilling populations. This axis of co-dependency — the Assad regime and its jihadist enemies of choice — has been lavished with arms and money. . .
    .
    Currently Freddy Hof, now Atlantic Council, is saying that the US policy has been all wrong and we need to …blah blah blah

    • Jamesjoyce says:

      I agree. This is divide and energy conquest. America has been played, conned by those who are not neo conservative but, fascist.

      Here is the motivation in black and white with colored photo, worth a million words

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/19/world/middleeast/19oilfields.html?ref=middleeast&_r=0

      “KARABILA, Iraq, Feb. 18 — In a remote patch of the Anbar desert just 20 miles from the Syrian border, a single blue pillar of flanges and valves sits atop an enormous deposit of oil and natural gas that would be routine in this petroleum-rich country except for one fact: this is Sunni territory.”

      THE PRIZE? One might think back to an energy task force and pipelines, then the motive become very clear

      Aggressive wars to secure oil resources, is still a war crime. There was a reason for the N African campaign in WWII

  2. joanneleon says:

    This is an excellent argument set against the current … I don’t know what it is exactly.. going on in the intelligence community about cooked intel, etc. It’s an important post that, along with the must read linked analyses, should make people think.

    It’s obvious to me that there are some pieces missing in what we know about goals, etc. We know that Syria has been on the overthrow list for a long, long time. It was supposed to happen a lot sooner, fairly soon after Iraq. We know there was a rat line of weapons from Libya to Iraq in 2011 timeframe. From Wikileaks cables we’re told it’s likely there were special forces from more than one western country fishing around in Syria since roughly 2007, at a time when we still had large numbers of troops and bases in the region. By that time there was already a lot of pushback against the neocon game plan and then later it became nearly impossible to launch another operation in the Middle East that involved troops and of course McCain, who could have provided continuity of their foreign policy (somehow) lost the election.

    When neocons went back to the drawing board but had the same goals, I think that’s when things went even more FUBAR than they were before. I wonder if the goals had to be adjusted from a grand plan for remaking the Middle East to a scaled down plan. Or, the opposite may have happened. When the plans were put back on the table for reworking, I wonder if a mission creep came into play. Without a lot of bases and troops in the region, perhaps some more “allies” had to be brought in in order to continue the regime change/chop up Middle East plan. And those allies would, of course, have their own bargaining pieces which were incompatible with others but neocons being neocons, they kept marching forward even with an untenable alliance and operation. Plus, China and Russia gained strength all through the Iraq quagmire, and that threw even more complexity into the situation.

    Anyway, back to the intelligence question. I thought there were some important bits in this post:
    “French Military Intelligence Cautious about Russian Military Build-up in Syria”
    http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2015/09/french-military-intelligence-cautious-about-russian-military-build-up-in-syria.html

    First he notes that 95% of intelligence comes from open source. That’s astounding, really. While I’m glad that our intel analysts have more ways to get information, it’s also definitely a way to throw them off if you have a good social media operation going.

    Also this French general clearly knows there are intelligence and media manipulations going on with Ukraine and Syria on a large scale. “the real worry is the reliability of this information.”

    Anyone who has been reading MoonofA for the past few years knows that there was a pretty big propaganda operation going on with the Syrian war. It’s still going on. And we also have the western open source “analysts” who always happen to come to a conclusion that benefits the McCain gang, such as Brown Moses, now unpseudonymed and running the “bellingcat” operation which has made Ukraine another pet project and who has teamed up with the Atlantic Council.

    These social media propagandists and open source analysts are not targeting the general population. Their stuff is way too far into the weeds for the average consumer. So who ARE their target audiences? Could be their followers are mostly just wonks and people obsessed with the various wars, like me for instance. Or maybe their intended audience is western intelligence organizations. Just a thought. I have no idea who their real funders are or if they are. Maybe they’re just the stay-at-home dads they claim to be or they have trust funds or other sources of sustenance. I sure don’t know. But it’s a whole new world in intelligence, it seems to me, and we’ve heard this from people in the intel community in various talks and interviews (the fact that open source intel and the internet have become critical sources for them).

    Anyway, enough from me. Great post, glad you’re zeroing in on this.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    .
    One huge event currently going unreported is the destruction of the PKK fighters in northern Iraq by US ally Turkey using US F-16s. The PKK has been the only credible ground force against ISIS.
    .
    This also demonstrates what a proper air campaign is capable of in terms of destroying a fighting force (but not capturing territory).

  4. Jim White says:

    .
    Whenever we get into the world of DIA, I always go back to Cheney’s long game plan of planting “left behinds” in various defense agencies during his various times serving in government. These folks are full-fledged neocons working behind the scenes to do the bidding of Heartless Dick (yeah, I know, all tinfoil stuff, but I buy it 100%). The ones he planted while serving as SecDef under Bush the Elder were what allowed him to grasp the reins of defense so quickly when he became VEEP.
    .
    With that in mind, a plausible scenario for what’s going on in this post is that the “cooked intel” story on ISIS is generated by his crew and is chaff to divert attention from the colossal “failure” you point out. And the thing that drove that “failure” is the hard-on that the neocons have always had for it being Murican forces that topple their targets. Having somebody else do the dirty work for us is reserved for the initial destabilizing so we can swoop in. [And then for trying to clean up the mess afterward when the neocon plan fails (see Anbar Awakening).]

    • galljdaj says:

      For sure lil chenney is right there at the Table. However the Member List of the PNAC and the White Papers(128+) written by those members is much more definitive of the Policy Makers!

      Given the position of the court recently all those White Papers ought to be Published Today! As they were Published! And the lil bush gang merely hid them!

      • joanneleon says:

        I don’t see Cheney having career people at that agency as tinfoil territory.

        On the ‘cooked intel’ thing, my guess is that was a mixed bag. At first it looked like one thing, then it started looking like something else as war party regulars in the media pushed it hard & repeatedly because it didn’t catch fire at first. I think Flynn’s 2012 report was genuine but the “uprising” something else altogether — sort of upside down.

        These guys are shameless and take it over the top nearly every time and there were some shameless “tells” in the 2nd wave of reporting, IMHO:

        “Some of the analysts involved in this were also involved in Iraq ’03…and said they came forward out of guilt over that.”

        “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'”

        • joanneleon says:

          One more thing – if my speculation is even close to the reality of the situation and IC and WH have to take defensive measures to filter out manipulative intel from the war party then what I *really* don’t understand is why they don’t just get them out of there. If you’re the most powerful man in the world and yet you can’t do that…

          • orionATL says:

            why ?

            because you are the provost, not the president, of the u.s.; each bureaucratic entity rules unto itself. thus, for example, the pentagon can refuse to approve the release of cleared gitmo prisoners, as the whitehouse wishes to do.

        • orionATL says:

          cheney at dia ? i have no idea.

          but david shedd was at the nat sec council from 2001 to 2005.

          he was deputy at dia from 2010. he and michael flynn (dia director from 7/12) were supposedly fired in 2014.

          flynn is notable for having cooked up a very dramatic account of all the damage edward snowden had done to the u.s. natsec military-industrial complex.

          whatever happened, shedd, a former cia, was subsequently appointed head of dia by obama.

          just as a historical aside, dia was the patron and sponsoring agency of noted iraqui informer “curveball”.

  5. wayoutwest says:

    The fact, if it is true, that Russia was looking for a deal on Syria in early 2012 that ‘could’ at some time ‘find’ an elegant way for Assad to step down could have reinforced the US view that Assad was weak and near collapse. The war to that point with rebel gains and Assad loses would have reinforced that conclusion. What wasn’t known then was that Hezbollah was soon to escalate their direct involvement sending in thousands of troops to support Assad’s failing military along with Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan organized and directed by Iran. From that time onward Iran has been directing the military efforts to resist the rebels according to some sources in Syria.

    The increasing use of Barrel Bombs in congested urban combat also helped Assad’s troops to advance where troops alone or conventional bombing were much less effective.

    The conflict today seems to have returned to a similar situation as in 2012 but with a much more organized Rebel Army plus the Islamic State forces even with all the assistance from Iran and its minions. Russia is again trying to promote a deal that, at least retains Assad for some time, even though none of the rebel forces will accept that condition just as they wouldn’t in 2012.

    • bevin says:

      “…What wasn’t known then was that Hezbollah was soon to escalate their direct involvement sending in thousands of troops to support Assad’s failing military along with Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan organized and directed by Iran…”
      Where do you get this stuff?
      There is no evidence that Hezbollah has ‘thousands of troops”. If it had sent any significant forces into Syria both Israel and the wahhabi backed Hariri forces would have attacked it. Hezbollah has penny packets of militants in Syria. As to the shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, again, who has seen any of these? The Iraqis are surely needed at home. So would the Afghans be too, given the Taliban attitude towards the shia minority there.

      It is all very simple: the US and its allies, Jordan, Turkey, the Saudi-Gulf states and Israel are all backing Al Nusra and/or ISIS in the hope that Assad will be crushed. After that-look at Libya- they don’t much care what happens, they figure they can protect themselves and the refugees will be funnelled north into Europe.
      As to the Russians, again where is the evidence of a Russian build up of forces? It sold Syria Air Defences in 2006 and it is still installing them. Russia is supplying the Syrians- just as the US is supplying all of Al Nusra’s other sponsors. Russia has a genuine interest in fighting Al Qaeda and its equivalents. The wonder is that it hasn’t done more and actually sent in some troops. But so far nobody has actually seen any.
      It may be hard to accept, but the US and its allies aren’t just killing people in the middle east
      on an industrial scale, they are doing so deliberately by implementing evil and destructive policies in the belief that these policies will benefit US corporations.
      As to those ‘barrel bombs’ they are cheap improvised attempts to keep up with the much more sophisticated and deadly weapons being poured into the arsenals of the ‘rebels’. Poison gas for example, the very weapon that US propagandists attempted to show that the Syrians were using in order to promote more war.
      Killing people, particularly civilians, is not a game, nor should it be incidental to ‘more important’ calculations, it is a crime and it is being carried out in our name.

      • wayoutwest says:

        Hezbollah comes in ‘penny packets’, that’s hilarious , 3 to 5000 fighters is the estimate from a year ago and Hassan Nasrallah bragged publicly months ago that he was sending 500 new recruits into the conflict each month. This would make the Hezbollah force about half the size of al-Nusra. The Iraqi Shia militias move between Iraq and Syria as needed, the Afghanis are hired help and the Iranian militias do as they are ordered. The last large deployment was in June when about 7000 mixed fighters arrived by ship and were reported by local Syrians as they disembarked to take up positions to defend Damascus.

        Your claims about the Islamic State and who supports them may simplify the conflict so it fits a simplistic world view but no facts or evidence supports your faulty claims. All of the countries you list do support and arm various rebel groups in Syria but many of the groups they support are enemies of the IS including al-Nusra.

        What Barrel Bombs ‘are’ is much less important than how they are used in Urban Warfare and what ‘sophisticated weapons’ are being poured into the conflict? Assad has the sophisticated arsenal and the Air Force to deliver them.

        Your relying on Western media propaganda about the of use of poison gas by the rebels is ironic after trying to discredit their claims about Assad actually using sarin.

  6. b says:

    Notice that the German secret service (depends a lot on U.S. services) thought Assad would go in 2012 but changed its opinion in 2013.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/german-intelligence-believes-assad-regime-regaining-lost-power-a-901188.html

    Was there a similar change of mind in the U.S.? If so the only consequence was to intensify the war.

    In the end I believe the aim of the U.S. and Israel is not to keep Syria intact.

    As I wrote in September 2012:

    “Destruction of the infrastructure, economy and social fabric of Syria is their and their supporters aim.”

    http://www.moonofalabama.org/2012/09/syria-destruction-is-their-aim.html

    If that is true than the intelligence “failure” is none. Intelligence just does not matter. They simply decided, willfully, to destroy Syria no matter what.

  7. Jim White says:

    .
    If we take today’s NYTimes story at face value, where 50-some analysts are now saying that the brass at CentCom altered the outlook of their analyses, I think I can make a prediction of where this will all wind up. CentCom has been sending out rosy “We’re winning, we really are!” reports on Iraq and Afghanistan for years. Whenever they’ve been even partially caught at it, it seems to me that they hide behind the fact that the military is allowed to use deception as one of its tools in combat.
    .
    And that is how these very high-ranking officers will escape punishment for changing the results of the analyses: they will simply state that they were taking part in an information operation aimed at throwing the enemy off balance. Never mind that they are not supposed to aim their info ops at the public in the US or Congress–which is what they definitely were doing–they will hide behind their claim that they were making life difficult for the terrorists. And not one of them will face any consequences.

    • Les says:

      They weren’t fighting ISIS then, and they aren’t fighting ISIS now.

      It looks like this story was created to justify the deployment of conventional ground troops in Syria and Iraq.

      There are plenty of reports that US, UK, Turkey, Israel, and others have collaborated with Islamic State, Nusra Front, etc. The Israeli newspapers have openly reported on the aid Israel has given to IS and other rebels in Syria, not to mention the air support.

  8. Les says:

    And foreign government support the many rebel groups as they did in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. At times, they compete over the same land and clash. Your simplistic view that they clash and are enemies has been shown to be faulty. There’s been plenty of reports of movement of soldiers between and among so-called enemy groups as well as collaboration.

    • Les says:

      There was an article today about the US having trained 4 or 5 Syrian fighters at a cost of $41 million.

      This other article has several interesting bits of information in it beyond the headline.

      http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/breaking-us-special-ops-forces-ground-syria-aiding-kurds-1533366130

      A document from the security company Stratfor released by WikiLeaks in 2011 suggested that there had potentially been US special forces on the ground in Syria since 2011.

      A security analyst from Stratfor said, in an email, that after talking with Pentagon officials they “said without saying that SOF teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce missions and training opposition forces”.

      ———————–
      It’s highly likely that operations in Syria are carried out in the same manner as in Libya where SAS special forces were embedded in the rebel groups against Gaddafi.

      • wayoutwest says:

        There is certainly some irony in our SOF assisting the YPG who are the enemy of our ally, Turkey and the ally of our enemy, Assad.

        The Stratfor email is pure rumor and speculation, unlike the admitted SOF involvement today, second or third hand information with no verification. It could possibly be true and if so it probably relates to earlier contact with the YPG and our long running assistance to the Kurds.

  9. GKJames says:

    It’s easy enough to accept the premise that it wasn’t Russian altruism talking. But would it have been really that difficult to have a more in-depth discussion to explore a way out a morass that we helped create? Moscow proposed something. Whatever it was would surely have been seen by coherent adults as an opening gambit, an offer that effectively begs for counteroffers. Instead, and assuming the reporting’s correct, Washington rejected it out of hand. Which tells us that an end to the madness in Syria is hardly a priority.

    • wayoutwest says:

      There might have been a chance to end the conflict in 2012 but Russia and more importantly Iran were not willing or able to meet the primary demand of the Syrian rebels, the removal of Assad from any position of power. Without that core goal of the revolution being offered there was nothing to discuss.

  10. ne plus ultra says:

    Not sure it’s fair to complain about a deal passed up in Feb. 2012 and then cite something that happened in July 2012 as the clincher for the view of the situation that should have led the administration to take the deal.

    I’m also not clear enough anymore on exactly where things stood in February, so i can’t criticize your overall conclusion much.

    I know that I myself was watching fairly closely in mid-2012, reading the yallasouria blog and other sources, and I felt like Assad had few assets left. I was hoping a few rocket launchers might take out his air force, leading to despair and mutiny, because at that point, he had a lot of positions that were untenable without air support and even airlifted supplies.

    Importantly, the armed religious factions weren’t nearly as strong yet. This was ultimately what saved Assad – the pincer in which both his forces and the religious forces preferentially targeted the moderate rebels. If the administration was helping al Qaeda in 2012, they may have actually prevented the very outcome they was predicting.

    Josh Landis didn’t even take notice of the growing religious basis of opposition in his early 2012 analysis, which is a pretty major blow to using him as an example of better informed observers who knew Assad was strong.

    But Landis wasn’t as madcap, drifting-in-ether as M o A. I like and respect him or her, but honestly, the insurgency will be ended within 6 months, and Assad’s new diverse multi-party legislature will have calmed everyone and brought them back under the protective wing of a lovely tolerant democracy??? Someone so utterly out of touch with Syria c. 2/2012 probably didn’t deserve a link.

    My prediction was much closer to being correct than M o A. I genuinely regret that we didn’t provide some support to the moderate rebels in early 2012. And that may be our real failure of intelligence. I don’t think we had the intelligence assets that would have helped us know who the moderates were. Now, better solutions are long-since foreclosed.

    • ne plus ultra says:

      To expand a bit on what I wrote above, I’d mention that the fall of Taftanaz airbase to Nusra at the end of 2012 is what many consider the turning point that led to the 3-way stalemate. Till that moment, most rebel gains were in the hands of moderates, and they were progressing rapidly. Aside from diehard Baathists and those who’d been involved in the regime-sponsored tortures and massacres, there was reason for Alawites and others to make their peace and trust in the moderation of the rebels.

      But suddenly after Taftanaz, Nusra had more firepower than the moderate rebels we’d done nothing to supply. After that, almost all regime defeats go to the Islamists, including a quick string in the eastern deserts that allows them to create supply lines.

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