This is an excellent interview by Scott Horton of Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. They discussed President Obama’s proposed cooperation with Russia in a combined air campaign against the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front jihadist forces in Syria – and the strong opposition to such a plan within Obama’s own national security bureaucracy. Porter wrote an article on this you can read at Consortiumnews.com.
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Interview transcript below:
00:31 Scott Horton: …..Alright, introducing our good friend, Gareth Porter. He’s more than 200 of those 4000 interviews, jeez, maybe 300 by now, I don’t know. And for very good reason, he’s my most very favorite reporter out of everybody, and I’ve got a lot of favorite reporters. But Gareth Porter, he’s the author of the book on the Iranian nuclear program. It’s called “Manufactured Crisis: The Truth about the Iranian Nuclear Scare.” And boy, he’s written a ton of great articles all about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now focusing on Syria. This one is a new fight over Syria war strategy. It’s at consortiumnews.com and also at antiwar.com, a very important piece. Welcome back to the show here, Gareth.
01:35 Gareth Porter: Thanks so much, Scott. Glad to be back on the show.
01:37 SH: Very happy to have you here. Very complicated war there in Syria. I guess the listeners of this show more or less understand the breakdown that it’s the Assad government, and his army, the State army of Syria, aligned with Hezbollah, allied with Iran and allied with Russia and they’re fighting against a, basically, Al Qaeda and ISIS led Sunni-based insurgency which is backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi, Qatar and Israel. To some degrees over time this fluctuates, I’ll let you clarify. And then of course also, America and Russia are backing the Kurds and are attacking the Islamic State and have been bombing the Islamic State for the last two years since they declared their caliphate based out of Raqqa in Eastern Syria and Mosul in Western Iraq. So now, we’re trying to figure out how to end this war short of one side declaring a complete and total victory because apparently that’s not in the cards. We need some kind of negotiated piece here or we need some kind of change in strategy by I don’t know America, Russia, or some of the major powers, to change the game on the ground to get this thing over with one way or the other before it turns into a 15-year Lebanon length civil war here Gareth, so tell us please, what is going on?
03:06 GP: Well yeah, I think you’re absolutely right in your overall summary except for sort of the distinction between ISIS and Al Qaeda were Al-Nusra Front of course is not simply that they’re two variants of the Al Qaeda based theme, but rather that they are on different sides of the war in the sense that ISIS and Al-Nusra Front are rivals for the ultimate prize of gaining power in Syria, rather than allies in the struggle against Assad. So in other words, there are really three sides to the war, or maybe four sides if you include the Kurds, and that does indeed make it a very complicated conflict, and makes it more difficult to figure out what the end game is gonna look like. I would say, however, that if there’s one possibly hopeful sign on the horizon, it is that the Turkish government of President Erdogan is now rethinking its policy towards Syria. It’s not ready to give up its support from Al-Nusra Front clearly at this point.
04:26 GP: On the other hand, there is this distinct possibility, although perhaps a small possibility, that Turkey could approach the Russians, and I think they probably already have approached the Russians, about the possibility of a deal under which Assad would remain in power but would have to take away… That is to say the Russians putting pressure on Assad and using their own military power, would have to force the Kurds to give up their demand for autonomy in the area along the Turkish-Syrian border, the Northern border of Syria, next to Turkey. And that’s a long shot, but that is one possibility that is beginning to be discussed as a solution that could provide the basis for Turkey to say, “Okay, we’ll shut down the lifeline to the Al-Nusra Front and it’s allies.” So I just wanted to throw that in there.
05:37 SH: Well, and they’ve already cut off ISIS, right? There was a time where the Turks were happy to let ISIS raise money there, were happy to leave their border wide open to them, were happy to buy black market oil from them.
05:47 GP: I think that’s right. At this point, the Turks have cut off ISIS and therefore, ISIS has turned on them and of course, started to carry out terrorist bombings of the terrible nature against Turkey.
06:08 SH: So I’m trying to keep my scorecards straight here. So now, in this article, now you’re talking about a proposal that the Russians offered to the Americans, somewhat along these same lines, is what you’re talking about, maybe this deal between the Russians and the Turks.
06:28 GP: Well, what the Russians were proposing to the United States was that, “Yeah, let’s the two of us get together and carry out an air campaign against Al-Nusra Front that would really weaken it significantly.” And the premise of it would be that the non-jihadist parts of the factions, if you will, of the armed opposition to his side, would retreat from or would separate themselves physically and organizationally from Al-Nusra Front, would cease the close military cooperation including direct participation in the military planning with Al-Nusra Front that they have been carrying out in the past. And that would then allow both United States and the Russian Air Forces to cooperate in carrying out a more effective campaign against Al-Nusra Front.
07:36 GP: Now the US has, as I understand it, never said simply no to that but they’ve always wanted to have some further conditions imposed on the arrangement. And that’s what we now see covered in my story about the Obama Administration’s response diplomatically to the Russian plan, and that was provided or given to the Russians on June 27th. And in that proposal according to both The Washington Post article, as well as other news media coverage of it, the Obama Administration wants the Russians to essentially, as one source put it, not my source, but a publish source put it, they want to ground the Air Force of the Assad regime.
08:32 GP: And that’s obviously putting it in the strongest terms, it would mean that the Assad regime would not be carrying out further bombing. Now, I don’t think that’s gonna be acceptable to, and clearly, that’s not gonna be acceptable to the Russians. But more explicitly, what my understanding is that the Obama Administration was demanding that the Russians agree that there would be no further bombing of the areas controlled by the US clients, is the way I’m gonna put it, the armed clients of the CIA in Syria after this agreement would go into effect.
09:21 GP: So that leaves a lot of questions unanswered obviously, and this was really where my article sets out to try to discern what it is that’s really going on here. So my article basically says that the folks who have the hard line in the Obama Administration on Syria, who want the Obama Administration to either use military force against Assad or carry out a much more aggressive program of military assistance to the armed opposition or both are very much opposed to this and that includes the Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who has made it known that he doesn’t like this proposal.
10:10 GP: But clearly, factions within the CIA and I think it’s clearly those folks who are responsible for the covert operation in Syria, or the so-called covert operation of aiding the armed opposition in Syria, they’re opposed to this because it carries them further away from where they wanna be, which is in a much more aggressive program. So we know that there are factions within the Obama Administration who are opposing this, but I further raised the question of how serious is the Obama Administration about really wanting to go ahead with this kind of program. I have serious questions about that.
10:52 SH: Alright. Now, so Gareth, the other thing is, well okay so the CIA backs these different groups, but to what degree can they really tell them what to do? In other words, if America, say Obama instructed the CIA to instruct the mythical moderates to, “Yeah. No. Now, we really mean it. Separate yourself from Al-Nusra, ’cause we’re about to bomb Al-Nusra.” Can he even get them to do that? Or are they just gonna say, “No. We’re down with Al-Nusra and not with you ’cause you’re gonna end up stabbing us in the back anyway,” and this has been the problem all along, or really they haven’t tried to separate them out from Al-Nusra like in the deal from a few months ago.
11:32 GP: Yeah. I think the point here is that, if the United States is not willing to tell its allies, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, no more arming of the opposition groups if they’re not going to cooperate with the ceasefire, then those groups are not going to pay attention to what the United States says. And I think that’s exactly what has happened in the past, that the US sort of parrots the line that yes, we support a ceasefire and we expect all groups who have signed up for the ceasefire, meaning the groups that are our clients, to participate in this and to separate themselves from the Al-Nusra Front. But in fact, John Kerry knows very well that they’re not gonna do it as long as they can count on the external regional allies to continue their policy of providing a lifeline from across the Turkish border, and of course as long as their able to get though against the Russian and Syrian bombing. But I think that’s correct that the US clients are not going to comply with that because they don’t see it as in their interest, and they believe that they can continue on the present course because they have the support of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
13:02 SH: Yeah. So where even they really do have some strings to pull. CIA actually probably could boss them around, but they would have to crack down on their allies and have their allies crack down on the mythical moderates, and they’re just not willing to do that is what you’re telling me.
13:16 GP: That’s exactly right and this has been the crux of the matter ever since this program began in 2013, or even earlier depending on how you date it. The United States has been part of a coalition and it has valued it’s alliances with the regional allies more than it does peace in Syria or any other interest. And that in my view is the real problem with US Middle east policy, that the US does not really care about… Can I use the A-S-S word? It does not give a rat’s ass about the Syrian people or about peace in Syria. It values primarily being able to have access to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and access to the Bahrain Naval Base which is controlled by Saudi Arabia, and access to the crucial land and air bases in Qatar. So this is…
14:24 SH: So what you’re saying is when Obama finally decides to stop deliberately backing terrorists, he can’t because all of our satellite tails are wagging the imperial dog.
14:36 GP: Well, I don’t think that terrorism has really been the primary interest here for many years, in fact. But yeah, the point is that we…
14:45 SH: Well, the Al-Nusra guys target civilians with suicide attacks and that kind of thing, right? And the Ahrar Al-Sham massacres people for having the wrong religion, what am I missing?
14:56 GP: Well, we are de facto using the terrorists in Al-Nusra Front as a basis for the policy in Syria have been since 2012 or 2013. And therefore, I would argue and have argued that the terrorism/counter terrorism is not the reason the United States is doing anything in Syria.
15:25 SH: Oh, I understand what you mean. I’m sorry, I misunderstood what you meant by that, but I understand. You’re saying our war on terrorism is not what’s relevant, but that’s not what I was talking about either. I was talking about our war for terrorism, for Christ’s sake.
15:41 GP: Neither counter terrorism nor the concern about civilians in Syria, nor the concern about stability in the Middle East have anything to do with, or are governing concerns about US Policy. It is continuing to maintain the United States as a regional hegemon, a regional super power, and that demands access to these bases, it demands the continuation of the military status quo, in that sense. So I continue to believe that that is what controls the US Policy in the Middle East and again, Obama is merely a kind of steward of that continuous policy rather than someone who ever intended to really upset the apple cart.
16:33 SH: Right. Well, and I hope I didn’t sound like some kind of Trumpian birther saying that Obama is a secret Muslim terrorist or whatever. He obviously is pursuing these interests for… Doing the very same thing Ronald Reagan did which is backing these guys in order to accomplish American goals.
16:49 GP: Yeah, except that in fact, Reagan was more “progressive” in the sense of recognizing reality and being upset about, in the case of Reagan’s policy, what the Israelis were doing and was willing to say publicly, “Hey, we got to stop that, the Israelis have got to stop this.” He was in fact more reality-oriented in his own way, at least during the early 1980s than Obama has proven to be and that’s I think a very telling point about the nature of US National Security policy over these decades.
17:26 SH: Yeah, I saw a clip of Ronald Reagan talking about how the Israelis ought to get out of the West Bank, I couldn’t believe it. And that was par for the course for a Republican president back in the 80s, wow.
17:36 GP: Last night, I saw a screening of a new film on the occupation of the American mind.
17:42 SH: That’s where I saw the clip. Exactly, yeah.
17:44 GP: Okay. Yeah, yeah. So we saw the same clip then. Okay, yeah.
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18:20 SH: Yeah, I was just a kid then, I didn’t remember that, but I didn’t know anything about it. Yeah, that was really something else to see him and being so frank about it, the way he was being too. This was serious business. He wasn’t making a soft suggestion or something.
18:34 GP: Various memoirs record the fact that Reagan really was personally very upset about what the Israelis did. He did not understand. He had simply not understood what was really going on there, and when he understood it, he was quite upset. And that was an interesting moment, shall we say, in US National Security policy [chuckle] that took place.
18:53 SH: Yeah, absolutely. Alright now, so let me get back to Ash Carter for a minute here. This guy was sold when they got rid of Chuck Hagel and they brought in Ash Carter to be the Secretary of Defense. They basically sold him as a wonk, like he’s a mathematician, and he’s a physicist, and he’s a technocrat, and he’s gonna… Nobody knows his name, but he’s gonna be the place holder until the next administration, basically. We’re not gonna have any more stars. We’re promoting this guy from inside the Pentagon. And there was the story that he had advocated an attack on North Korea and a couple other things that made people wonder maybe there was a bit of an ideology here. But from where I’m sitting, it seems like, and I know I’m over-simplifying, but I’m doing so, so that you can clarify, it seems like there’s a real split between the CIA and the DOD about whether we wanna back Al-Qaeda in, more or less, back Al-Qaeda through our allies and all those caveats in Syria.
19:54 SH: And the DOD, I don’t know if they take it personally, the attack on the Pentagon back 16 years ago, still or exactly what their problem is, but they still seem to not be over their hatred of Al-Qaeda. Maybe it was 4,500 of them that got killed fighting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq war two. The CIA apparently doesn’t give a damn. But then, both sides cry to Nancy Youssef at The Daily Beast about it and say, “Nancy, those guys are backing our enemies and we want them to stop.” And yet Carter seems like he’s on the side of the CIA, not the DOD. So what’s going on there?
20:27 GP: Okay. Good question, good question, good point. Two things. One, first of all, Ash Carter’s real interest here has nothing to do with Syria. Again, it has to do with DOD’s interest, and what’s the primary interest that DOD has in Russia? It is continuing the New Cold War. So what Ash Carter is concerned about is that if the Obama administration were to sign up to a real joint military effort with the Russians, that would be a big blow to the New Cold War. And so he’s simply not gonna buy into that at all. So I think that’s the primary concern. Now, the secondary question here or a second question, let me put it that way, is this consideration of what’s going on with regard to US military cooperation with the Kurds? And that has to do with not just Al-Nusra Front but even more so with cooperation with the Kurds against ISIS. The Kurds have become the primary military force, apart from Assad against ISIS.
21:42 SH: In Syria anyway, yeah.
21:43 GP: In Syria, right. And so that’s where the… Particularly, this is not so much Ash Carter, but the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military who are carrying out the war against ISIS are, of course, very close to the Kurds in that regard. And that’s why, I think, you get this military versus CIA conflict.
22:09 SH: Well, and I always hear different versions, Gareth, of just how separate JSOC’s chain of command is from the rest of the military, and I guess it changes back and forth, whether they’re really under the Chiefs or whether they’re the President’s private army on their own chain of command, or how exactly that works.
22:26 GP: I think it depends on the location of where they’re involved. In the case of Syria, I think they’re probably much more closely linked into the chain of command, the military chain of command, than they would have been in Afghanistan, for example.
22:45 SH: But you’re still saying that the split between them and the Secretary of Defense can still be pretty great when they’re in the middle of a mission like this?
22:52 GP: Absolutely, yeah. I think so. In other words, particularly if the Secretary of Defense is talking about avoiding cooperation with the Russians to go against Al-Nusra Front and inevitably against ISIS as well. In other words, there would be a combination of cooperation against Al-Nusra Front as well as against ISIS. And so definitely that would be a conflict.
23:25 SH: And remind me one more time, Gareth, Al-Nusra Front and their leadership are sworn, loyal to the person and the goals of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, the butcher of New York City hiding out in Pakistan somewhere right now.
23:39 GP: Yeah. In Al-Qaeda’s political culture, there is such a thing as, I think it’s called bayat, allegiance is a very important concept, and you either have it or your don’t. If you don’t, then it’s a very serious matter. If you break off, this is a big deal. And so there have been efforts within Al-Nusra Front supposedly, reportedly there is a faction that has tried to get al-Julani, the head of Al-Nusra Front, to agree to cut off his relationship to Al-Qaeda or to seize his loyalty, his allegiance to al-Zawahiri. And that’s failed. Clearly, he has never been interested in that. He has never been willing to seize to pledge his allegiance to the head of Al-Qaeda. So that’s a key fact here. It’s just not gonna happen.
24:46 SH: Yeah, I don’t know. The fly on the wall thing seems like it would be a lot of fun, but I wanna really crawl inside the mind of Ashton Carter for a minute here and try to figure out how picking a fight with Russia is a higher priority, is such a high priority that never mind that we’re backing everyone who’s backing the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda in Syria. Isn’t that high treason?
25:20 GP: [chuckle] Well…
25:22 SH: Isn’t it?
25:24 GP: It’s not treason within the system of course, as you know very well. You and I agree that many of the things that have been done in the name of national security should be considered treasonous. I mean, I hold no…
25:40 SH: Again, no secret Muslim conspiracy here, but they’re still backing our enemies, our enemies, yours and mine, the civilians of the land between Mexico and Canada. They made these enemies for us and they just keep making them and making them. When they’re fighting them, they’re making them, and when they’re backing them, they’re making them even more than that.
25:57 GP: Well, but then it’s not just Ashton Carter, of course, it’s the entire national security bureaucracy that signed on to the strategy of cooperating with our regional allies in backing the army of conquest in Idlib province, which was the reigning US strategy in Syria from 2014 up ’til relatively recently. And to some extent, there’s at best ambiguity about it today. That’s still as far as I can see a de facto US policy in Syria. So again, this is the way they have decided to pursue US interests in Syria for a variety of bureaucratic and domestic political interests that have produced the result. But I think that if you’re looking for a reason for this, for Ashton Carter to take that position, it’s very simple. That’s where the money is, in the military budget. The military budget is such that you have to have what they call near-appear rivals to justify the kind of spending that we have been indulging and continue to indulge in in the military budget. It’s China and Russia that provide the rationale for backing hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of spending well into the future, and that’s…
27:36 SH: What would they ever do if they got their regime changed? What would they ever do if they’d put another Yeltsin in charge in Russia, did some kind of color-coded thing in China and put their sock puppets in charge of these last two independent powers on Earth, then who are they gonna target? India?
27:54 GP: No. Then they’re in the soup. Then you see what happened after the end of the Cold War. They had to suffer a very severe loss of budget. And that’s what they’re determined not to have happen again. That was a very serious problem for them for many, many years. They were in the darkness as it were. They were out in the desert suffering from lack of military budget. And so when they saw the possibility when Putin began to respond to an aggressive NATO stance in Europe, they saw the rationale for a new Cold War and I think that’s what we’re seeing in practice here. And they’re determined not to let go of that. And that’s the primary motivation for Ashton Carter and the staff of the office of the Secretary of Defense at this point, and to a considerably stand of course Joint Chiefs of Staff are in the same place. But they also have a war to fight in Syria and that provides a counter weight to some extent to that consideration.
29:10 SH: So now wait a minute. If we rewind it all back to the ’92 defense planning guidance in rebuilding America’s defenses and this and that and the other thing, is it fair to say then that the whole Middle East war, Iraq War two and everything since then is all part of a proxy war with Russia? Still just like the days of the USSR?
29:31 GP: No. I think you have to distinguish between what was going on in the planning, the run up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 as well of course as the first Gulf War. These were wars that were fought for different reasons but to a considerable extent in the knowledge that this was a way of ensuring two things. One, that you would have a sort of permanent war state that would justify much higher levels of military budget than would otherwise be the case. In both the first Gulf War and the Iraq War, this was a huge part of the rationale within the military and within the office of the Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld specifically, that’s what he had mind. I’ve never written about this but I have a lot of information which I someday will write about how Rumsfeld’s position on the invasion of Iraq was very strongly shaped by the need for a fix on how to be able to fund a whole new generation or generations to come of high-tech weaponry while at the same time having a way of carrying out regime change in Iraq. And he was offered that opportunity to accomplish both those things by the Air Force strategy of shock and awe. Basically, the Air Force strategy of carrying out regime change by air power without having any significant ground force footprint in the country. So that was a military budget problem that he had. And he was solving that by the invasion of Iraq.
31:25 SH: Alright. So we know now that when Richard Perle says, “Real men go to Tehran,” that yeah, he’s speaking for Ariel Sharon there. But well, wait a minute now. Assuming, I think you agree, that was initially part of the plan they thought they were gonna be able to get away with is going straight to Syria and Iran too, and they weren’t thinking about Putin and breaking Iran away from Russia at that point? That was just, they were really just thinking about Israel? Or thinking about overall weapons…
31:55 GP: At that point, I don’t think that they were consciously thinking about the relationship between Iran and Russia. No, absolutely not. No.
32:02 SH: Okay. ‘Cause Iran is one of Russia’s last kind of dependent sort of allied states, right?
32:09 GP: Yeah, you can’t really use an ally or alliance in talking about Iran and Russia, that’s not gonna work because they’ve never trusted one another at any moment. [chuckle] It’s been a…
32:20 SH: Yeah, there’s a lot of bad blood there I understand too.
32:23 GP: Yeah. Very, very shaky relationship. So you really can’t use alliance at all for that.
32:27 SH: Yeah. But it wouldn’t make sense if I was Douglas, well, forget him, if I was Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz to say, “Yeah, it would weaken Russia’s position a bit if we had our guy back in power in Tehran.”
32:39 GP: Yeah, sure. That could be thrown into the mix, in the discussion in the National Security Council, but that’s not the primary thought at all. That’s not the primary thrust of the planning for the war in Iraq.
32:53 SH: Sure. Alright. Well, good deal, man. Thank you very much for doing the show as always, Gareth. I really appreciate it.
32:58 GP: My pleasure as always, Scott.
33:00 SH: And I know the audience really appreciates it too ’cause they tell me. That’s the great Gareth Porter everybody. This is one is at consortiumnews.com and at antiwar.com. It’s called, “The New Fight Over Syria War Strategy.” It’s a really important piece. I hope you’ll go and look at it. Again, it’s at antiwar.com right now. And that’s the Scott Horton Show. Check out the archives at scotthorton.org, sign up for the podcast feed there, help support at scotthorton.org/donate and follow me on Twitter@scotthortonshow.