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What’s Missing as NATO Rearms Its Eastern Flank? Diplomacy


June 1, 2016 By Ulrich Kühn Ulrich Kühn, Ph.D, is a Research Associate with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, Germany.

An arms buildup alone won’t keep the Baltics safe, but a parallel Cold War-style diplomatic track just might.

From a military standpoint, Western planners’ biggest headache is the defense of the Baltic states, located at the edge of NATO territory and hopelessly outnumbered by Russian troops. Indeed, the need to deter Russia will top the agenda when alliance leaders meet next month in Warsaw. But as they contemplate what military means might stop a swift, Crimea-type land grab, they should also review what they know about Moscow’s beliefs and motivations - and choose a path that might defuse, rather than elevate, regional tensions.

NATO’s fears are not unfounded. In Ukraine, Moscow achieved surprising success with unorthodox tactics that included the use of “voluntary battalions” and unidentified troops. President Putin has made it clear that Russia sees itself as the protective power for all Russians. Theoretically, this also includes the large Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia.

Thus, the alliance is currently doing what can be expected from a collective defensive organization: it is ramping up defenses. In addition to the decisions at the last summit in Wales, Washington is sending a continually rotating brigade (about 5,000 men) to Eastern Europe. Furthermore, NATO is planning to station a multinational battalion in each of the Baltic States and Poland (altogether about 4,000 men). Romania recently reported the completion of a part of the European ballistic missile defense system. NATO is thus on track to better defend its easternmost allies.

But alliance leaders need a better approach, for even the planned measures are inadequate to mount a military defense. A recent RAND study found that available troops could hold off a Russian attack for a maximum of three days. For serious resistance, about 35,000 soldiers would be needed - and this imbalance is about to get worse. Rushing ahead of the anticipated Warsaw decisions, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu recently announced the stationing of three new divisions (up to 30,000 men) on Russia’s western and southern borders.

Shoygu’s reaction points to the central problem with NATO’s current approach. Although alliance leaders believe they are shifting their forces in purely defensive efforts — and in particular, to minimize vulnerability to a second use of Putin’s “Crimea tactic” - that is not how Moscow sees the situation.

In fact, Russia has accepted the expansion of NATO, however reluctantly. Moscow is also clear-eyed about the ultimate consequences of an attack on an alliance member: war, and possibly with nuclear weapons. What Russia does not accept is further expansion into the post-Soviet space. To Moscow, therefore, NATO’s activism looks like hysteria and a pretext for an offensive rearmament.

The combination of fundamental, contradictory views and the imbalance in military capabilities does not augur well. It seems as if both sides are steering towards a regional security dilemma. Because one side feels uncertain, it arms itself. The other side misunderstands the intention and follows suit. A regional arms race threatens. It’s Cold War déjà vu all over.

To prevent such a scenario and, in the absence of a fundamentally new approach, the Warsaw meeting should lead NATO back to a Cold War strategy that mixes deterrence and cooperation. What became known in the 1960s as the Harmel Doctrine - that is, the combination of stronger defense and the offer of dialogue with the Soviets - was ultimately implemented in NATO’s dual-track decision of 1979. Today, NATO needs a new dual-track strategy adapted to 21st-century needs.

The formula could be as follows: Dialogue comes before any additional military build-up (on top of the Warsaw decisions). A concrete dialogue offer to Russia should aim at clearly defined consultations with a concrete deadline and a realistically approachable goal. The aim would be a reciprocal and verifiable conventional arms control regime for the region, limiting conventional forces and military equipment on both sides of the NATO-Russian border and providing for much-needed transparency about military maneuvers.

The advantages are obvious. Rather than letting itself be pulled unchecked into a renewed arms race, the Alliance would - at least temporarily - give priority to diplomacy. Thereby, the quite divergent positions between the classic proponents of deterring Russia (above all Poland, the Baltics, Romania and, to some extent, the United States) and the proponents of a more cooperative approach (particularly Germany) could be better reconciled.

Furthermore, this would offer the opportunity of an urgently needed military dialogue with Moscow. Should Russia reject or undermine the discussions, NATO could always still deploy additional forces – it wouldn’t even have to take the international blame for its allegedly “aggressive” policy. More likely Moscow would be viewed as the main spoiler in the game. Even if consultations do not yield an immediate outcome, allies could still continue the dialogue with Moscow in the hope that more favorable conditions might emerge in Russia.

The proponents of deterrence are right: The Kremlin must be shown the limits. But deterrence alone is simply not enough. In order to better gauge Russia’s intentions and prevent a costly decade of mutual rearmament, the alliance must re-discover diplomacy - starting in Warsaw.

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US should ditch ‘plan B’ for Syria


The failure to date of Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups to retake the Syrian border town of al-Rai from the Islamic State (IS) should be a warning to US intelligence officials reportedly preparing a “plan B” for Syria, should the cessation of hostilities collapse.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional partners are drawing up plans to provide more advanced arms, possibly including anti-aircraft weapons, to Syrian opposition forces as a contingency plan. Old habits and bad ideas seem to die hard in some Washington policy circles. One might recall, for example, the failure of the ill-fated initial train and equip mission, which cost $382 million to train 180 fighters, 95 of whom are reportedly still active. But instead of coming to a reasonable conclusion of “been there, done that, that didn’t work,” for many understandable reasons, the CIA is consulting with Turkey and Saudi Arabia on a scheme to ramp up the capabilities of Syrian proxies, which would of course be devastating for the Syrian people who have enjoyed a mild reprieve from the bloodbath of the past five years, as Mohammed al-Khatieb reported from Aleppo last week.

The divide between the United States and Turkey over the role of Syrian Kurdish groups has further complicated the campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra and IS in northern Syria, and is a major reason why a plan B would fail.

Fehim Tastekin writes that the Turkish-backed operation in al-Rai has turned into a “fiasco.” The weeklong campaign has so far gone poorly, with IS putting up a fierce defense. The plan appears to have been hatched after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed to US President Barack Obama to back off support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the leading force in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and instead work through armed groups linked to the Turkish National Intelligence Service, “a composite force of Turkmens, Free Syrian Army factions and Salafists,” according to Tastekin.

Turkey’s Syria policies will only become more problematic as there is little or no hope for a “cessation of hostilities” with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Metin Gurcan writes, “The milder meteorological conditions will allow the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to become more mobile. With improved logistics support, the PKK could integrate its urban units, which have been operating independently, and transform them into a regional force and escalate fighting. Security forces, which are aware of these realities, are frantically preparing. Security officials in Ankara expect multiple, simultaneous PKK operations on the ground or actions in the cities at the end of April. Ankara has reacted by increasing the number of special operations teams trained in urban warfare, appropriate vehicles and weaponry.”

Tastekin concludes, “Turkey’s tactical moves designed to keep the YPG away from the area are impeding a real and meaningful struggle against IS. The expectation is that if the Kurds and their Arab allies move against Menbic, Turkey will arrange for a repeat of the al-Rai offensive. If the Syrian army succeeds in the “Great Aleppo War,” the northern front will be even more complicated, so much so that even Turkey won’t be able to cope with it. Then, the ‘with Kurds or without Kurds’ debate will become irrelevant.”

Despite the leaks of a plan B, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is not ready to write off progress since the US-Russian agreement in February, despite a breathless report in The Washington Post on April 14 about the “apparent collapse” of the cessation of hostilities. At the start of a new round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, de Mistura told reporters April 13, “We need to make sure, at any cost, that the cessation of hostilities, in spirit and in substance, continues to give hope to the Syrian people, because that is what made all of them believe that, in fact, even if they have to wait for the intra-Syrian talks, their lives are at least improved.”

Laura Rozen reports that US concerns about the challenges to the cessation of hostilities are in part the result of disputes over the targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra in and around Aleppo by the Syrian military and its backers, especially Iran and Russia, as some of the armed groups supported by the United States and its regional partners are in close proximity to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The relationship and proximity of other Syrian armed groups to Jabhat al-Nusra is a matter of some urgency. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 reiterates that the cessation of hostilities does not apply to Jabhat al-Nusra “and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with al-Qaeda or [IS].” This column has zero tolerance for those who run with al-Qaeda, even if for tactical reasons or a shared hatred of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Plan B, in our score, should be kept on the shelf for good, if not a candidate for the shredder. The thought of advanced arms, including anti-aircraft weapons, falling into the possession of sectarian Salafi groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which are fellow travelers with Jabhat al-Nusra, and are backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, should be something to be avoided, not discussed.

The bottom line is that the US-Russia partnership on Syria is mostly working, and is Syria’s best bet for an end to the war. Rather than a plan B, a better approach would be to build on what is working and establish a mechanism for both monitoring potential cessation violations, which is under discussion, and enhanced intelligence coordination among the United States, Russia and its regional partners in the International Syria Support Group about Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, especially in and around Aleppo, in anticipation of a likely offensive to retake the city, which would be a turning point in the war.

Kamal Sheikho reports from Kobani that “the latest military movements by the SDF and armed Syrian opposition factions in northern Syria aim to cut off the supply route to IS, which links the eastern and northern Aleppo countryside to Raqqa, and to bottleneck IS militants by cutting off the remaining border passages with Turkey. Analysts and experts in Syrian affairs believe it is likely for the coming days to witness heated and decisive battles between conflicting parties, changing the balance of power in favor of the forces fighting IS.”

As we wrote in January, “If the Syrian army, backed by its Iranian and Russian allies, retakes Aleppo, the city’s liberation will come by directly defeating terrorists and armed groups that are already deserting the battlefield. A government victory would be of a different order and have a different impact than the negotiated departures of besieged armed opposition forces in Homs and around Damascus. The people of Aleppo would experience a flat-out victory by the government and a defeat, and exodus, by the armed groups. … A Syrian government victory in Aleppo could be the beginning of the end of the sectarian mindset that would have been alien to the city prior to 2011. There is no more appropriate city to begin Syria’s healing. A Syrian government victory in Aleppo will make it harder to rationalize Western backing for jihadi groups that want to keep up the fight against long odds in the rest of the country. IS and al-Qaeda may prefer, over time, to begin to relocate to Libya and other countries where they can avoid the pounding from the US-led anti-IS coalition and Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian forces. This may already be happening, and if so, it is to be cheered by those who seek a unified, secular and nonsectarian Syria, as outlined in the Vienna Communique, and as is Aleppo’s tradition.”

Military to Military


Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war

Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped.

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups. By then, the CIA had been 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. The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.

Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’

‘Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact,’ the former JCS adviser said. ‘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.’ The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.

Germany, Israel and Russia were in contact with the Syrian army, and able to exercise some influence over Assad’s decisions – it was through them that US intelligence would be shared. Each had its reasons for co-operating with Assad: Germany feared what might happen among its own population of six million Muslims if Islamic State expanded; Israel was concerned with border security; Russia had an alliance of very long standing with Syria, and was worried by the threat to its only naval base on the Mediterranean, at Tartus. ‘We weren’t intent on deviating from Obama’s stated policies,’ the adviser said. ‘But sharing our assessments via the military-to-military relationships with other countries could prove productive. It was clear that Assad needed better tactical intelligence and operational advice. The JCS concluded that if those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’

Once the flow of US intelligence began, Germany, Israel and Russia started passing on information about the whereabouts and intent of radical jihadist groups to the Syrian army; in return, Syria provided information about its own capabilities and intentions. There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, ‘we provided the information – including long-range analyses on Syria’s future put together by contractors or one of our war colleges – and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad. We were saying to the Germans and the others: “Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our interest is mutual.” End of conversation. The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it – but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it. It’s because he was smart enough to use the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.’

The public history of relations between the US and Syria over the past few decades has been one of enmity. Assad condemned the 9/11 attacks, but opposed the Iraq War. George W. Bush repeatedly linked Syria to the three members of his ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – throughout his presidency. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; the payments were kept up even after it became clear that Syrian intelligence knew what was going on. A 2010 cable warned that funding for a London-based television network run by a Syrian opposition group would be viewed by the Syrian government ‘as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime’.

But there is also a parallel history of shadowy co-operation between Syria and the US during the same period. The two countries collaborated against al-Qaida, their common enemy. A longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command said that, after 9/11, ‘Bashar was, for years, extremely helpful to us while, in my view, we were churlish in return, and clumsy in our use of the gold he gave us. That quiet co-operation continued among some elements, even after the [Bush administration’s] decision to vilify him.’ In 2002 Assad authorised Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany. Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant. In violation of this agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach, and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers. Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like America’s allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere – tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus prison.

It was this history of co-operation that made it seem possible in 2013 that Damascus would agree to the new indirect intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US. The Joint Chiefs let it be known that in return the US would require four things: Assad must restrain Hizbullah from attacking Israel; he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to reach a settlement on the Golan Heights; he must agree to accept Russian and other outside military advisers; and he must commit to holding open elections after the war with a wide range of factions included. ‘We had positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me. ‘The Syrians told us that Assad would not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’ A senior adviser to the Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to reopen the talks on the Golan Heights. The Israelis had rejected the offer. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. ‘“He’s close to the end.”’ He said the Turks had told Moscow the same thing. By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious about their offers of help.

In the early stages of the talks, the adviser said, the Joint Chiefs tried to establish what Assad needed as a sign of their good intentions. The answer was sent through one of Assad’s friends: ‘Bring him the head of Prince Bandar.’ The Joint Chiefs did not oblige. Bandar bin Sultan had served Saudi Arabia for decades in intelligence and national security affairs, and spent more than twenty years as ambassador in Washington. In recent years, he has been known as an advocate for Assad’s removal from office by any means. Reportedly in poor health, he resigned last year as director of the Saudi National Security Council, but Saudi Arabia continues to be a major provider of funds to the Syrian opposition, estimated by US intelligence last year at $700 million.
In July 2013, the Joint Chiefs found a more direct way of demonstrating to Assad how serious they were about helping him. By then the CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime after Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011).* The operation was largely run out of a covert CIA annex in Benghazi, with State Department acquiescence. On 11 September 2012 the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed during an anti-American demonstration that led to the burning down of the US consulate in Benghazi; reporters for the Washington Post found copies of the ambassador’s schedule in the building’s ruins. It showed that on 10 September Stevens had met with the chief of the CIA’s annex operation. The next day, shortly before he died, he met a representative from Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a Tripoli-based company which, the JCS adviser said, was known by the Joint Staff to be handling the weapons shipments.

By the late summer of 2013, the DIA’s assessment had been circulated widely, but although many in the American intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists the CIA-sponsored weapons kept coming, presenting a continuing problem for Assad’s army. Gaddafi’s stockpile had created an international arms bazaar, though prices were high. ‘There was no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorised by the president,’ the JCS adviser said. ‘The solution involved an appeal to the pocketbook. The CIA was approached by a representative from the Joint Chiefs with a suggestion: there were far less costly weapons available in Turkish arsenals that could reach the Syrian rebels within days, and without a boat ride.’ But it wasn’t only the CIA that benefited. ‘We worked with Turks we trusted who were not loyal to Erdoğan,’ the adviser said, ‘and got them to ship the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: “We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”’

The flow of US intelligence to the Syrian army, and the downgrading of the quality of the arms being supplied to the rebels, came at a critical juncture. The Syrian army had suffered heavy losses in the spring of 2013 in fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups as it failed to hold the provincial capital of Raqqa. Sporadic Syrian army and air-force raids continued in the area for months, with little success, until it was decided to withdraw from Raqqa and other hard to defend, lightly populated areas in the north and west and focus instead on consolidating the government’s hold on Damascus and the heavily populated areas linking the capital to Latakia in the north-east. But as the army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs’ support, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey escalated their financing and arming of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which by the end of 2013 had made enormous gains on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border. The remaining non-fundamentalist rebels found themselves fighting – and losing – pitched battles against the extremists. In January 2014, IS took complete control of Raqqa and the tribal areas around it from al-Nusra and established the city as its base. Assad still controlled 80 per cent of the Syrian population, but he had lost a vast amount of territory.

CIA efforts to train the moderate rebel forces were also failing badly. ‘The CIA’s training camp was in Jordan and was controlled by a Syrian tribal group,’ the JCS adviser said. There was a suspicion that some of those who signed up for training were actually Syrian army regulars minus their uniforms. This had happened before, at the height of the Iraqi war, when hundreds of Shia militia members showed up at American training camps for new uniforms, weapons and a few days of training, and then disappeared into the desert. A separate training programme, set up by the Pentagon in Turkey, fared no better. The Pentagon acknowledged in September that only ‘four or five’ of its recruits were still battling Islamic State; a few days later 70 of them defected to Jabhat al-Nusra immediately after crossing the border into Syria.

In January 2014, despairing at the lack of progress, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, summoned American and Sunni Arab intelligence chiefs from throughout the Middle East to a secret meeting in Washington, with the aim of persuading Saudi Arabia to stop supporting extremist fighters in Syria. ‘The Saudis told us they were happy to listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called moderates. His message was that if everyone in the region stopped supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, and the moderates would win out.’ Brennan’s message was ignored by the Saudis, the adviser said, who ‘went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists.’

But the Saudis were far from the only problem: American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdoğan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State. ‘We can handle the Saudis,’ the adviser said. ‘We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdoğan’s dream. We told him we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.’

One of the constants in US affairs since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a military-to-military relationship with Russia. After 1991 the US spent billions of dollars to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons complex, including a highly secret joint operation to remove weapons-grade uranium from unsecured storage depots in Kazakhstan. Joint programmes to monitor the security of weapons-grade materials continued for the next two decades. During the American war on Afghanistan, Russia provided overflight rights for US cargo carriers and tankers, as well as access for the flow of weapons, ammunition, food and water the US war machine needed daily. Russia’s military provided intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and helped the US negotiate rights to use an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The Joint Chiefs have been in communication with their Russian counterparts throughout the Syrian war, and the ties between the two militaries start at the top. In August, a few weeks before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dempsey made a farewell visit to the headquarters of the Irish Defence Forces in Dublin and told his audience there that he had made a point while in office to keep in touch with the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. ‘I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our careers as we began them,’ Dempsey said – one a tank commander in West Germany, the other in the east.

When it comes to tackling Islamic State, Russia and the US have much to offer each other. Many in the IS leadership and rank and file fought for more than a decade against Russia in the two Chechen wars that began in 1994, and the Putin government is heavily invested in combating Islamist terrorism. ‘Russia knows the Isis leadership,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much intelligence to share.’ In return, he said, ‘we’ve got excellent trainers with years of experience in training foreign fighters – experience that Russia does not have.’ The adviser would not discuss what American intelligence is also believed to have: an ability to obtain targeting data, often by paying huge sums of cash, from sources within rebel militias.

A former White House adviser on Russian affairs told me that before 9/11 Putin ‘used to say to us: “We have the same nightmares about different places.” He was referring to his problems with the caliphate in Chechnya and our early issues with al-Qaida. These days, after the Metrojet bombing over Sinai and the massacres in Paris and elsewhere, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we actually have the same nightmares about the same places.’

Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support of Assad. A retired senior diplomat who served at the US embassy in Moscow expressed sympathy for Obama’s dilemma as the leader of the Western coalition opposed to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: ‘Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused. But it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. The reality is that Putin does not want to see the chaos in Syria spread to Jordan or Lebanon, as it has to Iraq, and he does not want to see Syria end up in the hands of Isis. The most counterproductive thing Obama has done, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, was to say: “Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.”’ He also echoed a view held by some in the Pentagon when he alluded to a collateral factor behind Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in support of the Syrian army on 30 September: Putin’s desire to prevent Assad from suffering the same fate as Gaddafi. He had been told that Putin had watched a video of Gaddafi’s savage death three times, a video that shows him being sodomised with a bayonet. The JCS adviser also told me of a US intelligence assessment which concluded that Putin had been appalled by Gaddafi’s fate: ‘Putin blamed himself for letting Gaddafi go, for not playing a strong role behind the scenes’ at the UN when the Western coalition was lobbying to be allowed to undertake the airstrikes that destroyed the regime. ‘Putin believed that unless he got engaged Bashar would suffer the same fate – mutilated – and he’d see the destruction of his allies in Syria.’

In a speech on 22 November, Obama declared that the ‘principal targets’ of the Russian airstrikes ‘have been the moderate opposition’. It’s a line that the administration – along with most of the mainstream American media – has rarely strayed from. The Russians insist that they are targeting all rebel groups that threaten Syria’s stability – including Islamic State. The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East explained in an interview that the first round of Russian airstrikes was aimed at bolstering security around a Russian airbase in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold. The strategic goal, he said, has been to establish a jihadist-free corridor from Damascus to Latakia and the Russian naval base at Tartus and then to shift the focus of bombing gradually to the south and east, with a greater concentration of bombing missions over IS-held territory. Russian strikes on IS targets in and near Raqqa were reported as early as the beginning of October; in November there were further strikes on IS positions near the historic city of Palmyra and in Idlib province, a bitterly contested stronghold on the Turkish border.

Russian incursions into Turkish airspace began soon after Putin authorised the bombings, and the Russian air force deployed electronic jamming systems that interfered with Turkish radar. The message being sent to the Turkish air force, the JCS adviser said, was: ‘We’re going to fly our fighter planes where we want and when we want and jam your radar. Do not fuck with us. Putin was letting the Turks know what they were up against.’ Russia’s aggression led to Turkish complaints and Russian denials, along with more aggressive border patrolling by the Turkish air force. There were no significant incidents until 24 November, when two Turkish F-16 fighters, apparently acting under more aggressive rules of engagement, shot down a Russian Su-24M jet that had crossed into Turkish airspace for no more than 17 seconds. In the days after the fighter was shot down, Obama expressed support for Erdoğan, and after they met in private on 1 December he told a press conference that his administration remained ‘very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty’. He said that as long as Russia remained allied with Assad, ‘a lot of Russian resources are still going to be targeted at opposition groups … that we support … So I don’t think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only Isil targets. That’s not happening now. It was never happening. It’s not going to be happening in the next several weeks.’

The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the DIA, dismisses the ‘moderates’ who have Obama’s support, seeing them as extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS (‘There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate,’ Putin said in a speech on 22 October). The American generals see them as exhausted militias that have been forced to make an accommodation with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS in order to survive. At the end of 2014, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the IS leadership ‘are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: “The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.” They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’

Putin’s bombing campaign provoked a series of anti-Russia articles in the American press. On 25 October, the New York Times reported, citing Obama administration officials, that Russian submarines and spy ships were ‘aggressively’ operating near the undersea cables that carry much of the world’s internet traffic – although, as the article went on to acknowledge, there was ‘no evidence yet’ of any Russian attempt actually to interfere with that traffic. Ten days earlier the Times published a summary of Russian intrusions into its former Soviet satellite republics, and described the Russian bombing in Syria as being ‘in some respects a return to the ambitious military moves of the Soviet past’. The report did not note that the Assad administration had invited Russia to intervene, nor did it mention the US bombing raids inside Syria that had been underway since the previous September, without Syria’s approval. An October op-ed in the same paper by Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, declared that the Russian air campaign was attacking ‘everyone except the Islamic State’. The anti-Russia stories did not abate after the Metrojet disaster, for which Islamic State claimed credit. Few in the US government and media questioned why IS would target a Russian airliner, along with its 224 passengers and crew, if Moscow’s air force was attacking only the Syrian ‘moderates’.

Economic sanctions, meanwhile, are still in effect against Russia for what a large number of Americans consider Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, as are US Treasury Department sanctions against Syria and against those Americans who do business there. The New York Times, in a report on sanctions in late November, revived an old and groundless assertion, saying that the Treasury’s actions ‘emphasise an argument that the administration has increasingly been making about Mr Assad as it seeks to press Russia to abandon its backing for him: that although he professes to be at war with Islamist terrorists, he has a symbiotic relationship with the Islamic State that has allowed it to thrive while he has clung to power.’


The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today: an insistence that Assad must go; that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible; that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support. The Paris attacks on 13 November that killed 130 people did not change the White House’s public stance, although many European leaders, including François Hollande, advocated greater co-operation with Russia and agreed to co-ordinate more closely with its air force; there was also talk of the need to be more flexible about the timing of Assad’s exit from power. On 24 November, Hollande flew to Washington to discuss how France and the US could collaborate more closely in the fight against Islamic State. At a joint press conference at the White House, Obama said he and Hollande had agreed that ‘Russia’s strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise’ of IS. Hollande didn’t go that far but he said that the diplomatic process in Vienna would ‘lead to Bashar al-Assad’s departure … a government of unity is required.’ The press conference failed to deal with the far more urgent impasse between the two men on the matter of Erdoğan. Obama defended Turkey’s right to defend its borders; Hollande said it was ‘a matter of urgency’ for Turkey to take action against terrorists. The JCS adviser told me that one of Hollande’s main goals in flying to Washington had been to try to persuade Obama to join the EU in a mutual declaration of war against Islamic State. Obama said no. The Europeans had pointedly not gone to Nato, to which Turkey belongs, for such a declaration. ‘Turkey is the problem,’ the JCS adviser said.

Assad, naturally, doesn’t accept that a group of foreign leaders should be deciding on his future. Imad Moustapha, now Syria’s ambassador to China, was dean of the IT faculty at the University of Damascus, and a close aide of Assad’s, when he was appointed in 2004 as the Syrian ambassador to the US, a post he held for seven years. Moustapha is known still to be close to Assad, and can be trusted to reflect what he thinks. He told me that for Assad to surrender power would mean capitulating to ‘armed terrorist groups’ and that ministers in a national unity government – such as was being proposed by the Europeans – would be seen to be beholden to the foreign powers that appointed them. These powers could remind the new president ‘that they could easily replace him as they did before to the predecessor … Assad owes it to his people: he could not leave because the historic enemies of Syria are demanding his departure.’


Moustapha also brought up China, an ally of Assad that has allegedly committed more than $30 billion to postwar reconstruction in Syria. China, too, is worried about Islamic State. ‘China regards the Syrian crisis from three perspectives,’ he said: international law and legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist Uighurs, from Xinjiang province in China’s far west. Xinjiang borders eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. Many Uighur fighters now in Syria are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an often violent separatist organisation that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang. ‘The fact that they have been aided by Turkish intelligence to move from China into Syria through Turkey has caused a tremendous amount of tension between the Chinese and Turkish intelligence,’ Moustapha said. ‘China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.’

Moustapha’s concerns were echoed by a Washington foreign affairs analyst who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and into Syria. The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior government officials, told me that ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favour of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’ He added that there was also what amounted to another ‘rat line’ that was funnelling Uighurs – estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands over the years – from China into Kazakhstan for eventual relay to Turkey, and then to IS territory in Syria. ‘US intelligence,’ he said, ‘is not getting good information about these activities because those insiders who are unhappy with the policy are not talking to them.’ He also said it was ‘not clear’ that the officials responsible for Syrian policy in the State Department and White House ‘get it’. IHS-Jane’s Defence Weekly estimated in October that as many as five thousand Uighur would-be fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013, with perhaps two thousand moving on to Syria. Moustapha said he has information that ‘up to 860 Uighur fighters are currently in Syria.’

China’s growing concern about the Uighur problem and its link to Syria and Islamic State have preoccupied Christina Lin, a scholar who dealt with Chinese issues a decade ago while serving in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld. ‘I grew up in Taiwan and came to the Pentagon as a critic of China,’ Lin told me. ‘I used to demonise the Chinese as ideologues, and they are not perfect. But over the years as I see them opening up and evolving, I have begun to change my perspective. I see China as a potential partner for various global challenges especially in the Middle East. There are many places – Syria for one – where the United States and China must co-operate in regional security and counterterrorism.’ A few weeks earlier, she said, China and India, Cold War enemies that ‘hated each other more than China and the United States hated each other, conducted a series of joint counterterrorism exercises. And today China and Russia both want to co-operate on terrorism issues with the United States.’ As China sees it, Lin suggests, Uighur militants who have made their way to Syria are being trained by Islamic State in survival techniques intended to aid them on covert return trips to the Chinese mainland, for future terrorist attacks there. ‘If Assad fails,’ Lin wrote in a paper published in September, ‘jihadi fighters from Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang and India’s Kashmir will then turn their eyes towards the home front to continue jihad, supported by a new and well-sourced Syrian operating base in the heart of the Middle East.’

General Dempsey and his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept their dissent out of bureaucratic channels, and survived in office. General Michael Flynn did not. ‘Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria,’ said Patrick Lang, a retired army colonel who served for nearly a decade as the chief Middle East civilian intelligence officer for the DIA. ‘He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn’t shut up.’ Flynn told me his problems went beyond Syria. ‘I was shaking things up at the DIA – and not just moving deckchairs on the Titanic. It was radical reform. I felt that the civilian leadership did not want to hear the truth. I suffered for it, but I’m OK with that.’ In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Flynn was blunt about Russia’s entry into the Syrian war: ‘We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad; they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.’

Few in the US Congress share this view. One exception is Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee who, as a major in the Army National Guard, served two tours in the Middle East. In an interview on CNN in October she said: ‘The US and the CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against … the Islamic extremist groups.’

‘Does it not concern you,’ the interviewer asked, ‘that Assad’s regime has been brutal, killing at least 200,000 and maybe 300,000 of his own people?’

‘The things that are being said about Assad right now,’ Gabbard responded, ‘are the same that were said about Gaddafi, they are the same things that were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating for the US to … overthrow those regimes … If it happens here in Syria … we will end up in a situation with far greater suffering, with far greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and our enemy will be far stronger.’

‘So what you are saying,’ the interviewer asked, ‘is that the Russian military involvement in the air and on-the-ground Iranian involvement – they are actually doing the US a favour?’
‘They are working toward defeating our common enemy,’ Gabbard replied.

Gabbard later told me that many of her colleagues in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have thanked her privately for speaking out. ‘There are a lot of people in the general public, and even in the Congress, who need to have things clearly explained to them,’ Gabbard said. ‘But it’s hard when there’s so much deception about what is going on. The truth is not out.’ It’s unusual for a politician to challenge her party’s foreign policy directly and on the record. For someone on the inside, with access to the most secret intelligence, speaking openly and critically can be a career-ender. Informed dissent can be transmitted by means of a trust relationship between a reporter and those on the inside, but it almost invariably includes no signature. The dissent exists, however. The longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command could not hide his contempt when I asked him for his view of the US’s Syria policy. ‘The solution in Syria is right before our nose,’ he said. ‘Our primary threat is Isis and all of us – the United States, Russia and China – need to work together. Bashar will remain in office and, after the country is stabilised there will be an election. There is no other option.’

The military’s indirect pathway to Assad disappeared with Dempsey’s retirement in September. His replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, two months before assuming office. ‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,’ Dunford said. ‘If you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.’ In October, as chairman, Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, telling the same committee that Russia ‘is not fighting’ IS. He added that America must ‘work with Turkish partners to secure the northern border of Syria’ and ‘do all we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces’ – i.e. the ‘moderates’ – to fight the extremists.

Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan. Dempsey and his associates remain mystified by Obama’s continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the American intelligence community’s strong case against him – and the evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case. ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria,’ the president told Erdoğan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I reported in the LRB of 17 April 2014). The Joint Chiefs and the DIA were constantly telling Washington’s leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey’s support for it. The message was never listened to. Why not?

Does Washington Intend War With Russia?


The Saker [1] interviews Paul Craig Roberts [2]

I had been wanting to interview Paul Craig Roberts for a long time already. For many years I have been following his writings and interviews and every time I read what he had to say I was hoping that one day I would have the privilege to interview him about the nature of the US deep state and the Empire. Recently, I emailed him and asked for such an interview, and he very kindly agreed. I am very grateful to him for this opportunity.

March 24, 2015 – The Saker: It has become rather obvious to many, if not most, people that the USA is not a democracy or a republic, but rather a plutocracy run by a small elite which some call “the 1%”. Others speak of the “deep state”. So my first question to you is the following. Could you please take the time to assess the influence and power of each of the following entities one by one. In particular, can you specify for each of the following whether it has a decision-making “top” position, or a decision-implementing “middle” position in the real structure of power (listed in no specific order):

  • Federal Reserve
  • Big Banking
  • Bilderberg
  • Council on Foreign Relations
  • Skull & Bones
  • CIA, Goldman Sachs and top banks
  • “Top 100 families” (Rothschild, Rockefeller, Dutch Royal Family, British Royal Family, etc.)
  • Israel Lobby
  • Freemasons and their lodges
  • Big Business: Big Oil, Military Industrial Complex, etc.
  • Other people or organizations not listed above?

Who, which group, what entity would you consider is really at the apex of power in the current US polity?

Paul Craig Roberts: The US is ruled by private interest groups and by the neoconservative ideology that History has chosen the US as the “exceptional and indispensable” country with the right and responsibility to impose its will on the world.
In my opinion the most powerful of the private interest groups are:

  • The Military/security Complex
  • The 4 or 5 mega-sized “banks too big to fail” and Wall Street
  • The Israel Lobby
  • Agribusiness
  • The Extractive industries (oil, mining, timber).

The interests of these interest groups coincide with those of the neoconservatives. The neoconservative ideology supports American financial and military-political imperialism or hegemony.
There is no independent American print or TV media. In the last years of the Clinton regime, 90% of the print and TV media was concentrated in 6 mega-companies. During the Bush regime, National Public Radio lost its independence. So the media functions as a Ministry of Propaganda.
Both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, are dependent on the same private interest groups for campaign funds, so both parties dance to the same masters. Jobs offshoring destroyed the manufacturing and industrial unions and deprived the Democrats of Labor Union political contributions. In those days, Democrats represented the working people and Republicans represented business.
The Federal Reserve is there for the banks, mainly the large ones. The Federal Reserve was created as lender of last resort to prevent banks from failing because of runs on the bank or withdrawal of deposits. The New York Fed, which conducts the financial interventions, has a board that consists of the executives of the big banks. The last three Federal Reserve chairmen have been Jews, and the current vice chairman is the former head of the Israeli central bank. Jews are prominent in the financial sector, for example, Goldman Sachs. In recent years, the US Treasury Secretaries and heads of the financial regulatory agencies have mainly been the bank executives responsible for the fraud and excessive debt leverage that set off the last financial crisis.
In the 21st century, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have served only the interests of the large banks. This has been at the expense of the economy and the population. For example, retired people have had no interest income for eight years in order that the financial institutions can borrow at zero costs and make money.
No matter how rich some families are, they cannot compete with powerful interest groups such as the military/security complex or Wall Street and the banks. Long established wealth can look after its interests, and some, such as the Rockefellers, have activist foundations that most likely work hand in hand with the National Endowment for Democracy to fund and encourage various pro-American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in countries that the US wants to influence or overthrow, such as occurred in Ukraine. The NGOs are essentially US Fifth Columns and operate under such names as “human rights,” “democracy,” etc. A Chinese professor told me that the Rockefeller Foundation had created an American University in China and is used to organize various anti-regime Chinese. At one time, and perhaps still, there were hundreds of US and German financed NGOs in Russia, possibly as many as 1,000.
I don’t know if the Bilderbergs do the same. Possibly they are just very rich people and have their proteges in governments who try to protect their interests. I have never seen any signs of Bilderbergs or Masons or Rothchilds affecting congressional or executive branch decisions.
On the other hand, the Council for Foreign Relations is influential. The council consists of former government policy officials and academics involved in foreign policy and international relations. The council’s publication, Foreign Affairs, is the premier foreign policy forum. Some journalists are also members. When I was proposed for membership in the 1980s, I was blackballed.
Skull & Bones is a Yale University secret fraternity. A number of universities have such secret fraternities. For example, the University of Virginia has one, and the University of Georgia. These fraternities do not have secret governmental plots or ruling powers. Their influence would be limited to the personal influence of the members, who tend to be sons of elite families. In my opinion, these fraternities exist to convey elite status to members. They have no operational functions.

The Saker: What about individuals? Who are, in your opinion, the most powerful people in the USA today? Who takes the final, top level, strategic decision?

Paul Craig Roberts: There really are no people powerful in themselves. Powerful people are ones that powerful interest groups are behind. Ever since Secretary of Defense William Perry privatized so much of the military in 1991, the military/security complex has been extremely powerful, and its power is further amplified by its ability to finance political campaigns and by the fact that it is a source of employment in many states. Essentially Pentagon expenditures are controlled by defense contractors.

The Saker: I have always believed that in international terms, organizations such as NATO, the EU or all the others are only a front, and that the real alliance which controls the planet are the ECHELON countries: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand aka “AUSCANNZUKUS” (they are also referred to as the “Anglosphere” or the “Five Eyes”) with the US and the UK are the senior partners while Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the junior partners here. Is this model correct?

Paul Craig Roberts: NATO was a US creation allegedly to protect Europe from a Soviet invasion. Its purpose expired in 1991. Today NATO provides cover for US aggression and provides mercenary forces for the American Empire. Britain, Canada, Australia, are simply US vassal states just as are Germany, France, Italy, Japan and the rest. There are no partners; just vassals. It is Washington’s empire, no one else’s.The US favors the EU, because it is easier to control than the individual countries.

The Saker: It is often said that Israel controls the USA. Chomsky, and others, say that it is the USA which controls Israel. How would you characterize the relationship between Israel and the USA – does the dog wag the tail or does the tail wag the dog? Would you say that the Israel Lobby is in total control of the USA or are there still other forces capable of saying “no” to the Israel Lobby and impose their own agenda?

Paul Craig Roberts: I have never seen any evidence that the US controls Israel. All the evidence is that Israel controls the US, but only its MidEast policy. In recent years, Israel or the Israel Lobby, has been able to control or block academic appointments in the US and tenure for professors considered to be critics of Israel. Israel has successfully reached into both Catholic and State universities to block tenure and appointments. Israel can also block some presidential appointments and has vast influence over the print and TV media. The Israel Lobby also has plenty of money for political campaign funds and never fails to unseat US Representatives and Senators considered critical of Israel. The Israel lobby was able to reach into the black congressional district of Cynthia McKinney, a black woman, and defeat her reelection. As Admiral Tom Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “No American President can stand up to Israel.” Adm. Moorer could not even get an official investigation of Israel’s deadly attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.
Anyone who criticizes Israeli policies even in a helpful way is labeled an “anti-Semite.”
In American politics, media, and universities, this is a death-dealing blow. You might as well get hit with a hellfire missile.

The Saker: Which of the 12 entities of power which I listed above have, in your opinion, played a key role in the planning and execution of the 9/11 “false flag” operation? After all, it is hard to imagine that this was planned and prepared between the inauguration of GW Bush and September 11th – it must have been prepared during the years of the Clinton Administration. Is it not true that the Oklahoma City bombing was a rehearsal for 9/11?

Paul Craig Roberts: In my opinion 9/11 was the product of the neoconservatives, many of whom are Jewish allied with Israel, Dick Cheney, and Israel. Its purpose was to provide “the new Pearl Harbor” that the neoconservatives said was necessary to launch their wars of conquest in the Middle East. I don’t know how far back it was planned, but Silverstein was obviously part of it and he had not had the WTC for very long before 9/11.
As for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, US Air Force General Partin, the Air Force’s munitions expert, prepared an expert report proving beyond all doubt that the building blew up from the inside out and that the truck bomb was cover. Congress and the media ignored his report. The patsy, McVeigh, was already set up, and that was the only story allowed.

The Saker: Do you think that the people who run the USA today realize that they are on a collision course with Russia which could lead to thermonuclear war? If yes, why would they take such a risk? Do they really believe that at the last moment Russian will “blink” and back down, or do they actually believe that they can win a nuclear war? Are they not afraid that in a nuclear conflagration with Russia they will lose everything they have, including their power and even their lives?
Paul Craig Roberts: I am as puzzled as much as you. I think Washington is lost in hubris and arrogance and is more or less insane. Also, there is belief that the US can win a nuclear war with Russia. There was an article in Foreign Affairs around 2005 or 2006 in which this conclusion was reached. The belief in the winnability of nuclear war has been boosted by faith in ABM defenses. The argument is that the US can hit Russia so hard in a preemptive first strike that Russia would not retaliate in fear of a second blow.

The Saker: How do you assess the current health of the Empire? For many years we have seen clear signs of decline, but there is still not visible collapse. Do you believe that such a collapse is inevitable and, if not, how could it be prevented? Will we see the day when the US Dollar suddenly become worthless or will another mechanism precipitate the collapse of this Empire?

Paul Craig Roberts: The US economy is hollowed out. There has been no real median family income growth for decades. Alan Greenspan as Fed Chairman used an expansion of consumer credit to take the place of the missing growth in consumer income, but the population is now too indebted to take on more. So there is nothing to drive the economy. So many manufacturing and tradable professional service jobs such as software engineering have been moved offshore that the middle class has shrunk. University graduates cannot get jobs that support an independent existence. So they can’t form households, buy houses, appliances and home furnishings. The government produces low inflation measures by not measuring inflation and low unemployment rates by not measuring unemployment. The financial markets are rigged, and gold is driven down despite rising demand by selling uncovered shorts in the futures market. It is a house of cards that has stood longer than I thought possible. Apparently, the house of cards can stand until the rest of the world ceases to hold the US dollar as reserves.
Possibly the empire has put too much stress on Europe by involving Europe in a conflict with Russia. If Germany, for example, were to pull out of NATO, the empire would collapse, or if Russia can find the wits to finance Greece, Italy, and Spain in exchange for them leaving the Euro and EU, the empire would suffer a fatal blow.
Alternatively, Russia might tell Europe that Russia has no alternative but to target European capitals with nuclear weapons now that Europe has joined the US in conducting war against Russia.

The Saker: Russia and China have done something unique in history and they have gone beyond the traditional model of forming an alliance: they have agreed to become interdependent – one could say that they have agreed to a symbiotic relationship. Do you believe that those in charge of the Empire have understood the tectonic change which has just happen or are they simply going into deep denial because reality scares them too much?

Paul Craig Roberts: Stephen Cohen says that there is simply no foreign policy discussion. There is no debate. I think the empire thinks that it can destabilize Russia and China and that is one reason Washington has color revolutions working in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. As Washington is determined to prevent the rise of other powers and is lost in hubris and arrogance, Washington probably believes that it will succeed. After all, History chose Washington.

The Saker: In your opinion, do presidential elections still matter and, if yes, what is your best hope for 2016? I am personally very afraid of Hillary Clinton whom I see as an exceptionally dangerous and outright evil person, but with the current Neocon influence inside the Republican, can we really hope for a non-Neocon candidate to win the GOP nomination?

Paul Craig Roberts: The only way a presidential election could matter would be if the elected president had behind him a strong movement. Without a movement, the president has no independent power and no one to appoint who will do his bidding. Presidents are captives. Reagan had something of a movement, just enough that we were able to cure stagflation despite Wall Street’s opposition and we were able to end the cold war despite the opposition of the CIA and the military/security complex. Plus Reagan was very old and came from a long time ago. He assumed the office of the president was powerful and acted that way.

The Saker: What about the armed forces? Can you imagine a Chairman of the JCS saying “no, Mr President, that is crazy, we will not do this” or do you expect the generals to obey any order, including one starting a nuclear war against Russia? Do you have any hope that the US military could step in and stop the “crazies” currently in power in the White House and Congress?

Paul Craig Roberts: The US military is a creature of the armaments industries. The whole purpose of making general is to be qualified to be a consultant to the “defense” industry, or to become an executive or on the board of a “defense” contractor. The military serves as the source of retirement careers when the generals make the big money. The US military is totally corrupt. Read Andrew Cockburn’s book, Kill Chain.
The Saker: If the USA is really deliberately going down the path towards war with Russia – what should Russia do? Should Russia back down and accept to be subjugated as a preferable option to a thermonuclear war, or should Russia resist and thereby accept the possibility of a thermonuclear war? Do you believe that a very deliberate and strong show of strength on the part of Russia could deter a US attack?

Paul Craig Roberts: I have often wondered about this. I can’t say that I know. I think Putin is humane enough to surrender rather than to be part of the destruction of the world, but Putin has to answer to others inside Russia and I doubt the nationalists would stand for surrender.
In my opinion, I think Putin should focus on Europe and make Europe aware that Russia expects an American attack and will have no choice except to wipe out Europe in response. Putin should encourage Europe to break off from NATO in order to prevent World War 3.
Putin should also make sure China understands that China represents the same perceived threat to the US as Russia and that the two countries need to stand together. Perhaps if Russia and China were to maintain their forces on a nuclear alert, not the top one, but an elevated one that conveyed recognition of the American threat and conveyed this threat to the world, the US could be isolated.
Perhaps if the Indian press, the Japanese Press, the French and German press, the UK press, the Chinese and Russian press began reporting that Russia and China wonder if they will receive a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Washington the result would be to prevent the attack.
As far as I can tell from my many media interviews with the Russian media, there is no Russian awareness of the Wolfowitz Doctrine. Russians think that there is some kind of misunderstanding about Russian intentions. The Russian media does not understand that Russia is unacceptable, because Russia is not a US vassal. Russians believe all the Western bullshit about “freedom and democracy” and believe that they are short on both but making progress. In other words, Russians have no idea that they are targeted for destruction.

The Saker: What are, in your opinion, the roots of the hatred of so many members of the US elites for Russia? Is that just a leftover from the Cold War, or is there another reason for the almost universal russophobia amongst US elites? Even during the Cold War, it was unclear whether the US was anti-Communist or anti-Russian? Is there something in the Russian culture, nation or civilization which triggers that hostility and, if yes, what is it?

Paul Craig Roberts: The hostility toward Russia goes back to the Wolfowttz Doctrine:
“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere,that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”
While the US was focused on its MidEast wars, Putin restored Russia and blocked Washington’s planned invasion of Syria and bombing of Iran. The “first objective” of the neocon doctrine was breached. Russia had to be brought into line. That is the origin of Washington’s attack on Russia. The dependent and captive US and European media simply repeats “the Russian Threat” to the public, which is insouciant and otherwise uninformed.
The offense of Russian culture is also there–Christian morals, respect for law and humanity, diplomacy in place of coercion, traditional social mores–but these are in the background. Russia is hated because Russia (and China) is a check on Washington’s unilateral uni-power. This check is what will lead to war.
If the Russians and Chinese do not expect a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Washington, they will be destroyed.


Dr. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following. Roberts’ latest books are The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West and How America Was Lost.

[1] The Saker: It is about a blogger who defines himself as follows: “I am a ‘legal alien’ currently living in the Imperial Homeland”.

[2] Dr. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following. Roberts’ latest books are The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West and How America Was Lost.

The Central African Republic will not be a military trap providing advised political management and an important economic and humanitarian effort


Despite a mandate from the international community and interreligious killings in Bangui, the French intervention in the Central African Republic began in a mixed international and national context.

Indeed the limited logistical and financial support provided by the Americans and Europeans to our action, François Hollande’s contradictory declarations regarding maintaining Michel Djotodia as self-proclaimed president of Central African Republic, the absence of a clearly defined enemy, “Selekas” being a general name given to groups known only by a few specialists, the mission itself, interposing between communities that recalls bad memories of Rwanda or Lebanon, the limited resources set up in a territory larger than France, the new reduction of military personnel announced just as a new operations theatre is being set up, all create an unfavorable background for support to this intervention that is wrongly perceived by commentators as a potential trap.

This analysis therefore aims to present the determining elements behind the decision to intervene in Central African Republic.

The first certainty is that it was France, who in March 2013 decided to let the selekas take hold of Bangui and let them chase away general President Bozizé to whom we provided continuous military support since he came to power ten years earlier.
Indeed, rebellions in the area of the three boarders (Chad, CAR, and Sudan) north of the RCA are endemic and we intervened three times in ten years to stop the rebel columns advancing towards Bangui, with complete indifference from the media:

  • On October 30th 2006, the rebel movement UFDR (Union of Democratic Forces for Unity) triggered an offensive from the region of Birao towards the South and took hold of Ouanda Djalle (150 km south of Birao) before moving on towards Bria and opening the road to Bangui. Upon demand from the Central African authorities, as from the end of November, the French military supported the FACA and the FOMUC in the city of Birao . On December 10th, after a series of brief and violent combats, one last area (Ouanda Djalle) was taken back from the UFDR.
  • In March 2007 – Second rebel offensive that took hold of Birao airport. A new operation is then launched by alert units in France and other pre-positioned units (Chad, Gabon, and Ivory Coast) to regain the airport. These French units also support FACA units spread out at the same time and boost their confidence. On April 13th 2007, as the UFDR rebels had been pushed back to their sanctuary at the border with Chad, a peace agreement was signed between the CAR government and the UFDR in Birao.
  • December 2012 – Third rebel offensive. Some groups, believing that the 2007 peace agreements had not been respected, launched a military offensive. The rebels who attacked towards the south along two axes took a number of towns within one month and opened the road to Bangui: Birao, Bria, Bambari, Ouadda, Ndélé, Kaga Bandoro, Damora 80 km from the capital, allowed rebels to extend their influence to the North and center of the CAR. France intervened again late December 2012. Three companies and two Puma helicopters came as backup from Gabon and Chad from the 8th RPIMa that ensures airport safety. More than 600 French military were present. Mid-January, after the tensions in the capital receded, two Puma helicopters and a company (the 2nd REP) left for Mali and took part in the operations in the Adrar des Ifoghas.
  • Three months later, in March 2013 the Seleka rebels began a new offensive from the North and center of the CAR. Fighting near Bangui made it obligatory to deploy an extra 300 French military from Gabon, on top of the 250 already there. The Seleka, rapidly defeated the FACA supported by Bozizé’s last allies (South Africa and Uganda) and caused large losses to the African forces that were trying to stop him accessing Bangui. Bangui fell on March 24th. President Bozizé fled and took refuge in Cameroon.

A geopolitical explanation must be sought as to why France let the Seleka enter Bangui in March 2013 while we were occupying the airport with forces that could rapidly have been consolidated.

It seems that France wanted to put an end to the political and economic offensive from China and South Africa in the CAR that was favored by president Bozizé who quite rightly found that France and French companies did not invest enough in the CAR for the development of oil drilling and mining.

Also Chad had just given us decisive support in Mali to reduce the Ifoghas Sanctuary and it is no secret that the North-Eastern rebels’ sanctuary lays across the border with Chad.

The absence at the African State summit in Paris of South African President Jacob Zuma, who supported Bozizé could be explained by this. South Africa, the main African strength along with Nigeria where English influence is still present, considers Southern Africa, including the Central African Republic as their natural influence zone.
The historic dimension of this conflict must also be taken into account. The CAR marks the Eastern border of French speaking Africa, sharing a border with Southern Sudan and Northern Sudan. In the memory of the British who blocked a “European Battle Group” that had been considered by Brussels, the Fachoda affair that marked the end of French colonial expansion in upper Egypt remains vivid.

The second question to be answered and that all the observers are asking is can the situation in the field be controlled with the personnel deployed?

The answer there again is not military but political and requires an analysis of the forces that compose Seleka.

Most of the fighters present in Bangui are part of the UFDR Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, recruited mainly among the Gula ethnic group. Its leader is the self-proclaimed president Michel Am Nondroko Djotodia re-christened “transition president”, whose departure was required too soon from François Hollande. Then, facing the reality of the situation (support from Chad, increasing number of combat forces), he changed his mind and decided to support him.

If the French authorities find a decent agreement with him and his war leaders, the situation in Bangui will soon be reestablished. If they remain in Bangui, disarming the other Seleka groups should not pose the French army too much trouble.

In conclusion, French intervention in the Central African Republic comes more from the struggle for power between the major global and regional players on this booming continent than from an action to avoid Central African Republic becoming a jihadist landmark like Somalia, or from a humanitarian intervention to avoid a confessional confrontation, even if this is a new dimension in the country that must be taken into account.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

6 reasons not to intervene in Syria


By going to the UN to defend France’s position at a time when his popularity is at its lowest in France, François Hollande is persisting in his strategic mistake and his wish to make a military intervention in Syria part of a UN resolution. This proposition will never be accepted by the Security Council because, although the use of chemical weapons in Syria is recognized by the UN, there is no direct proof that this was initiated by Assad’s regime, allowing Russia to affirm the opposite.
A part from there being no legitimate international right without a UN authorization -that the Americans did without when they went to war in Iraq, pretexting the presence of mass destruction weapons- here are six reasons why a military intervention in Syria would be a strategic and geopolitical mistake.

1. War would be added to war. What will happen if an occidental missile hits a chemical weapon depot and causes the deaths of thousands of Syrians? This may be what already happened on the outskirts of Damas. According to UN inspectors, shots were fired by Al Assad’s forces but chemical weapons experts have suggested that these shots could have hit the clandestine lab of a rebel group making Sarin: “Sarin is not a difficult substance to manufacture, with a few chemical engineers and explosives experts it’s possible to produce enough to destroy a city. Remember the attacks perpetrated on the Tokyo underground by the Aum sect on March 20, 1995. Haruki Murakami’s excellent book “Underground” illustrates this well. There are also risks for the people preparing the Sarin. Mistakes are always possible and could have dramatic consequences on their environment. A loyalist’s artillery or mortar shot could also have hit such a laboratory ”. What will happen if after the air strike Al Assad’s regime does not fall? If the Russian ships crossing the Mediterranean also hit the rebel positions or if Iran sends thousands of fighters to support Assad, will we be able to contain such a progression?

2. We would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. By delivering weapons to the FSA we will be taking the risk of finding them between the hands of Al Qaida Islam radicals. Who can be sure that Islam Radicals have not infiltrated the FSA? They fight side by side in the field and who could stop a member of Al Qaida getting hold of the weapon of a dead or injured FSA rebel? That is also the opinion of Arnaud Danjean, president of the Security and Defense sub-commission of the European Parliament who doesn’t hide his scepticism: “such deliveries will be totally uncontrollable”, adding that “those that are will concern only the non-central units and are therefore not decisive”. This ex DGSE (Direction générale de la Sécurité extérieure) member who served in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s was already opposed to lifting the embargo on weapons destined to the Bosnian government or anti-Albanian rebels of the UCK at the time of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. The European deputy concluded that “the main problem is still the absolute fragmentation of the rebel groups”.

3. We are openly taking sides in a confessional civil war. It is not a revolution that is taking place in Syria. If al Assad is still in power after two and a half years it’s because he is supported by all religious minorities (Alawites, Shiites, and Christians of all denominations) who lived in peace on Syrian lands. For them, a Sunni Islamist victory would mean death or exile. In Islam, the Alawites are considered to be traitors . In fact in the XIVth Century this induced a fatwa from the Salafist scholar Ibn Taymiyya, predecessor or the current Wahhabism, ordering their persecution and genocide. The fatwa has never been condemned and is still in practice today especially among Salafists, Wahhabists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Persecuted for centuries the Alawites didn’t take their revenge until Hafez al Assad (Bachar’s father)’s coup. The confessional civil war is linked to Syrian History. In 1980 a Muslim Brotherhood commando soldier entered the Army cadets’ school in Alep; getting rid of student Sunnite officers he massacred 80 Alawite cadets with a knife and assault rifle in application of the fatwa. The Muslim Brotherhood paid the expenses in 1982 in Hama –the community’s fief– that was practically destroyed by his brother Rifaat al-Assad causing more than 10,000 victims.

4. We would be openly joining a coalition dominated by religious obscurantism. Saudi-Arabia, the first sponsor of the rebels in this confessional war, is a monarchy from the Middle Ages that promotes the Hanbalist School, the most traditionalist of Sunni Islam that abolishes women’s rights and is the origin of the radical Wahhabist current and the terrorist organizations the Muslim brothers and the Al Qaida Salafists. The second sponsor, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan close to the Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose a rigorous Islam and who is arming “katibas” that are composed of Turkish and Kurdish radical Islamists.

5. We are exposing ourselves to retaliation from the other camp: boycotting of French companies in Iraq and Iran, or even terrorist attacks against our expats and on our territory. Indeed, Iraq and Iran, mainly Shiite-dominated countries, support al Assad because they know that an Islamist caliph would export civil war to their country. This is already the case in Iraq where the Sunnite minority (20% of the population) abused by Maliki, is rebelling against Shiite power and is protecting the terrorists claiming to be part of the Al Qaida movement. Iraq is already polluted by the Syrian civil war (in August 570 dead and 1200 injured were counted on Iraqi soil).

6. We would contribute to creating a new cold war climate with Russia. This would serve American interests at a time when Europe’s security, economic and political interests should lead Europe to seal a strategic alliance with Russia. The country is home to 25 million Muslims –as is Europe-, and owns raw material that we need and would allow the voice of Europe to be heard in international relations that will be dominated in the near future by the Sino-American condominium.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

The withdrawal of French forces would begin in March. Is this realistic?


Laurent Fabius announced that the withdrawal of French forces would begin in March. Is this realistic? Is there not a risk of abuse and revenge on Tuareg populations if the French withdraw?

What is the current situation?

All the major cities of the North were released by a rapid offensive of the French Army accompanied by a few dozen Malian soldiers. We should emphasize the rapid response and virtuosity with which, in three weeks, the French army was able to first of all stop the terrorist attack towards the south up to Konna, then move 3500 men on the ground and finally launch an offensive over 1000Km which helped chase terrorists and rebel forces out of all the major cities of northern Mali.

It should also be noted that even if the press was denied any images, this offensive will probably cost the opposing forces the loss of several hundred men, impressive equipment and the destruction of major logistic centers.

This first line intervention of French forces, which I had been saying was essential, has accelerated the mobilization of ECOWAS forces and especially Chad’s decision to send 2,200 experienced soldiers to Mali. The African contingent will secure major cities of Mali and allow the reconstruction of the Malian Army which will be supported by instructors, equipment and money from the European community.

What still needs to be done?

We must now find the terrorists of AQIM, the MUJAO and Islamist Ansar Eddine, who are scattered in small units over an area larger than France, but forced to make their base around water points, which limits the range of possibilities. This work is clearly not that of conventional forces that were the spearhead of the reconquest of northern Mali. It is a work of intelligence and “helping hand” conducted by special forces and paratroopers transported by helicopter or dropped by assault transport aircraft (Transall or Hercules).

In conclusion

Nothing opposes military withdrawal of a large part of the French forces in early March, before the rainy season, when the tracks will become almost unusable.

The humanitarian situation in the north is not great and it is necessary for NGOs that were already present in Mali, such as “Médecins du Monde” and “Action contre la faim” to be given the means to deploy massively on the ground. If abuse is committed, they will be the first to find out and alert the authorities and the media.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

The war in Mali is not the war in Indochina


The French officer’s statement published in the Sunday paper may have seemed alarmist concerning the difficulty of the combats awaiting our forces. It is therefore worth putting it back in context. Of course, not underestimating an opponent is an essential condition for success in the field. But any tactical evaluation must be put into a strategic context.

First a few words on the enemy. Of course they are well armed and commanded by experienced and fanatical leaders, at least in the case of AQIM and MUJAO. It is not so much the case for Ansar Dine. Every soldier is not as fanatical or as well trained as their leaders. At least half the members of the group are there for the pay and have only recently been recruited and trained.
Their vulnerability mainly comes from the lack of air force or any sophisticated intelligence solutions, along with the increased difficulty they will have to stock up on carburant and munitions if Algeria shuts its boarders as promised.

Moreover, unlike Indochina, our forces will operate in an environment (terrain and population) which is favorable to them, in which they have acquired solid experience over the past 50 years (1969 first intervention in Chad).

The area in which operations will take place is 3 million km² (nearly 6 times the area of France). Our intelligence will have to cover this area, as rebels and djihadists ignore boarders. It extends from North to South over approximately 1500 km, between the 20th parallel south of Tamanrasset and a region of the Sahel that includes East Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger. From West to East the area is 2000 km wide, ranging from the Mauritanian border region of Nema - Adel Bagrou - Bassiknou to the Arlit - Agadès - Nakoro region in Niger that includes the Niger Bend where the cities of Gao and Tombouctou are located.

This operations area is three quarters desert and relatively flat. The main relief of the area is located in the Kidal district in eastern Mali (10 000 inhabitants) and rises to 890 m. This is where the Tuaregs of the Ifoghas tribe originate from. This crystalline mountain is an extension of central Sahara and is bordered on the West by the Tilemsi valley, a North-South axis that gives access to the Algerian border and runs through the towns of Aguelhok (8 000 inhabitants) and Tessalit (5 000 inhabitants).

This area was conquered early in 2012 by rebels of the MNLA and is now controlled by the Ansar Dine Islamic extremists which are in part a “spin off” of the MNLA. It is probably in this area that our forces can face hostility of the local population if no political negotiation with the Malian leaders has come to a particular arrangement for this area beforehand.

To the North, the Niger River rapidly leads to a set of sandy plains with altitudes between 250 and 320m. It is crossed by a second north-south track, which is the traditional route for salt convoys. It leads to the Algerian border from Timbuktu via the Arouane water point (260 km North of Timbuktu) and via the former prison in Taoudenni (750 km north of Timbuktu) where the Tuareg have always exploited the rock salt. It then passes through Téghasa on the northwestern edge of Mali to reach Tindouf in Algeria.

A part from the Niger River, there is only one other east-western track in northern Mali linking Tamanrasset (Algeria) to Tessalit - Taoudenni via the border post of Tinzaouaten.

The specifics of war in the Sahelian zone

Controlling towns and villages, which only exist because there are water points, is the major issue of the war in semi-desert and desert areas.

In the Sahel and desert areas, it is very difficult when moving to avoid aerial reconnaissance which is facilitated by the lack of vegetation.

This is clearly demonstrated by the French intervention in 1977-1978 against the Polisario. The Sahrawi movement, sponsored by Algiers, intended to suffocate Mauritania by attacking the mineral railway line linking Zouerate to Nouadhibou to get rid of its only exportable resource: Zouerate iron.

The set-up, which allowed safe delivery of iron, included « Breguets Atlantics » from the Navy in order to identify the Polisario5 columns and « Jaguars » from the Air Force, based in Senegal and refueled in flight in order to destroy them.

I would also like to bring to mind the experience acquired in Chad where the « Epervier Device » has been stationed since 1986. It is thanks to these pre-positioned forces that France could rapidly put an end to the jihadist columns that wanted to head towards Bamako. « Operation Epervier » was launched at the beginning of February 1986 after the Libyan armed forces crossed the 16th parallel when they came to support Goukouni Oueddei who had been overturned at the end of 1981 by Hissène Habré with France’s support. It followed «Operation Manta» that had been launched in 1983-1984 for the same reasons.

To conclude, this war must first of all be a war of airborne and land intelligence, using drones, helicopters and marine and air force aircrafts and Special Forces.
If we manage to mobilize the necessary intelligence systems, our ground forces accompanying those of Mali and ECOWAS will progress towards the North out without surprises. We will be able to intercept and destroy the attacks of the small rebel columns that will try to oppose it and watch our backs by combined air-land actions.

On this condition, our losses should be significantly lower than what we faced in Afghanistan (an average of two deaths per month) and incomparable to those suffered in Indochina (285 killed per month, only counting our metropolitan Soldiers).

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

The hostage-taking in Algeria


The magnitude of this hostage situation reminds me of the one carried out by 50 Chechen jihadists at the Doubrovka theatre in Moscow on October 23rd 2002 during the Nord-Ost musical. They succeeded, in the center of Moscow to capture and retain hostage for 3 days all of the 850 spectators. Terrorist women wearing explosive belts were spread out in the theatre, threatening to bring down the theatre roof, made of concrete plates, on top of the spectators if an assault was launched.

This hostage taking had the whole world holding its breath from the 23rd to the 26th of October. On October 25th, Putin even promised to grant them their lives if they let the hostages go.
Despite this effort, it ended tragically when at daybreak on the 26th the Russian Special Forces launched an assault after having introduced paralyzing gas into the building. The toll was heavy. 39 terrorists were killed, and over 100 hostages succumbed after inhaling the gas. The terrorists only directly killed 2.

The negotiations that began with the terrorists on the evening of the 23rd allowed 17 people to be let free on the morning of the 24th followed by a woman and two children in the afternoon. On the 25th 11 people and 8 children were set free. This was partly negotiated by private parties in exchange for ransoms handed over to accomplices on the outside.

We are probably going to face a similar scenario.

Some countries that aren’t directly involved in the Malian conflict will attempt to negotiate for their nationals to be set free by paying ransoms, but in the end the Algerian Special Forces will launch an attack probably Saturday or Sunday at the latest.

Indeed it is difficult to imagine Algeria sending the AQIM a signal other than firmness. The terrorists who launched into this hostage taking know it: they cannot get out of this adventure alive without denying their beliefs.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

Mali, political and military certainties, risks and objectives for France


The certainties

Thanks to our bases and the armed forces pre-positioned in Africa, France was the only power able to immediately stop the rebel and terrorist offensive towards Bamako.

The French armies have significant political and military experience of combats in the Sahel due to our engagement in Chad from 1969 to the current day.

What can we learn from this experience ?

  • Never have the black governments of the South been able to establish long term control on the territories and the populations living in the desert zones. Consequently, we will be able to regain control of Timbuktu and Gao but never the deserts north of the Niger river to the Algerian border unless we favor the implementation in Bamako of a government led by a Northern leader (which is the case in Chad), or if the Malian government accepts to negotiate with the Tuareg leaders for the autonomy of Azawad;
  • There will never be a Malian army able to ensure the safety of its territory until the pro-coup military return to their units or have been put into prison, and that a democratically elected political power has been implemented in Bamako;
  • The ECOWAS governments don’t have the resources or the will to help Mali and the Malian army in a decisive manner;
  • The risk of there being violence and massacres against the Tuareg population by the armed forces, and Malian security during an offensive towards the North mustn’t be underestimated.

Subsequent military and political objectives for the French government

  • Limiting actions at first to ensuring the safety of southern Mali by opposing all rebel attacks beyond the Mopti-Sandare line. This objective must allow us to ensure the safety of the French nationals and provide the time needed to set up a legitimately elected power in Bamako and to rebuild a Malian army capable of taking charge of the combats on the ground;
  • On the military front, only aiming to weaken the terrorist forces, without showing an aim to destroy them which is impossible. The Tuareg rebellion is endemic and can only be weakened by a political negotiation. Putting the military effort on AQIM and MUJAO forces whilst maintaining contacts and negotiations with Ansar Dine, with whom a national reconciliation should remain a possibility;
  • Only supporting the reconquest of the important towns North of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal when these two political and military conditions are filled by clearly advertising that this objective must be linked to the implementation in these cities of Tuareg political leaders that have remained faithful or neutral since September 2012;
  • Setting up in each Malian company a team of counselors that will have an official counseling role and the unofficial mission of making sure that the Malian army doesn’t retaliate against the local population of these towns;
  • The objective of destroying AQIM and Mujao forces cannot be carried out without the military engagement of countries bordering Mali, particularly Algeria, or without the establishment of a coalition of forces from the major European countries and help from the USA.

The strategy to be implemented must therefore be global and combine diplomatic, political and military maneuvers. It is the only way to put an end to the instability in the Sahel which is strongly rooted and has a dangerous potential.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

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