Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq | Page 2

Donations from Convicted Sex Offender Offend MIT–What about China?

The New Yorker posted a story on 6 September 2019 that described financial links (donations) to MIT’s highly regarded Media Lab from the now infamous sex offender Jeffery Epstein. The next day the President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif wrote a letter to the MIT community that included the following: “…the acceptance of the Epstein gifts involved a mistake of judgment. We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future. Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.” MIT went on to hire a law firm to do a thorough examination of the facts. The director of the Media Lab, Joi Ito, resigned on September 7.

On 9 September 2019, President Reif wrote again about the review saying
“Once we have the results, and once our separate internal review of our current processes on gift acceptance is complete, we will be able to understand what happened and what needs to change.”

MIT is trying to apply moral standards to their income (donations) in the case of a sex offender. This is a relatively simple problem. MIT likes to think it solves tough problems. If MIT is going to determine their hierarchy of values relative to a convicted sex offender, then what of MIT’s relationship with China?

President Reif wrote in his usual “Note from the President” in the MIT News alumni journal that the competition with China cannot be won by blocking China’s access but by making sure that we sufficiently fund our own research (presumably at MIT).

This is an old argument and there is no categorical answer. Yet it is clear to the intelligence community among others, that China has progressed through government directed efforts to steal intellectual property, suck up as much advanced knowledge as possible through open sources (student and faculty deployed overseas), etc. American schools and universities welcome Chinese students and fellows because they pay full fare–and a lot of it.

I think it would be interesting for MIT to develop a policy on acceptance of resources from China–a country that is decidedly not just a competing country in the global market place. Yes, it is good to re-consider receiving funds from a sex offender. But why not consider the issues associated with MIT’s relationship with a country that has a large number of its citizens in re-education or detention camps? The NY Times of 19 November 2019 describes internal China documents addressing the plight of millions of Uighurs. Hong Kong is another story. The growing number of bases in the South China sea is another. The continuing cyber theft and intrusions in this country is another. Competing arguments to President Reif’s position should be considered. Are MIT’s policies aiding and abetting a substantial threat to the United States? Certainly looks that way.  The implicit argument that MIT should receive more funding from the US government has a wiff of the self-serving.  It would be a valuable exercise to just determine how much aid MIT gets from China and how much China gets from MIT.

Funding sources, their morality, and the outrage from the self-identifying intellectuals of Cambridge are not new. There have always been outraged members of the MIT community who shun the receipt of funds based on their source. In the 60’s and 70’s there was great debate and protests about defense contracts and even the CIA. Are there no Uighers advocates in Cambridge? Are all the Chinese students there too concerned about the source of their tuition to say anything?

Tough problem. MIT should not ignore it.

Posted in China, MIT | 2 Comments

Quandaries: Deep Fakes and Cyber Conflict

The Council on Intelligence Issues* held a seminar on “Intelligence Operations in a Digital Age” this week. The discussion covered many current issues, but lingered on couple of looming problems with no satisfactory answers aired among a broad group of senior former intelligence officials,

Peacetime Offensive Cyber Operations. The first had to do with offensive cyber operations. There is an ongoing debate about whether such operations should be conducted under defense department authorities (Title 10) or intelligence authorities (Title 50). This has implications for who has oversight in Congress (Armed Services or Intelligence committees) and what authority process and chain of command is required within the administration. That’s complicated but manageable (the debate of drone strikes aired this in the Obama administration).

But what struck me, as a real problem, is that while cyber operations against countries like Iran, North Korea and even Russia and China may be preferable to kinetic operations, the US has a marked asymmetrical weakness.   If we hit them, they can respond by hitting US commercial systems. Iran has demonstrated this ability by hitting US banks some time ago. As a policy matter, will the USG conduct a cyber operation against an adversary (e.g. as a response to attacks on allies shipping in the Gulf) when the response may cause the private sector hundreds of millions and undermine confidence in US systems (esp. banking)?

Moreover, when the favorite US policy “stick” of choice—sanctions—is applied, those on the receiving end could logically respond with their own cyber operations against US private industry. This can be a powerful deterrent. Iran seems to be thinking along these lines. Others, like Russia may do the same—especially if such cyber responses can be cloaked with reasonable deniability.

Defining and determining what’s real. More troubling was consideration of the problem highlighted during the last US presidential election, i.e. foreign efforts to shape voter actions in the US elections. This is a logical extension of the long history of covert actions by various countries to shape outcomes, but combined with the ubiquity of Internet communications today, is a huge problem. With technology offering the opportunity to create false stories and images that are very difficult for average people to distinguish from reality, shaping decision-makers (voters) can be accomplished with remarkable success. Classically, the chief problem in covert action operations is measuring whether the action does in fact have the desired affect. Today, if a country can systematically target stories to select types of voters and gain access to daily tracking polls (or even design their own surrogate) they can have as much if not more affect in shaping election outcomes as the major political parties.

To save the United States from this paralyzing phenomenon, shouldn’t someone be able to, in near real time sort fake from real? There are two very difficult problems: One, technically it takes time and an offensive operation could flood the US with a large number of targeted stories (think of the algorithms that target you with customized ads to your email account).   The second problem is who would do (police) this and why would we trust their judgment?

At the seminar amongst intelligence alumni, the thought was whether the intelligence community (IC) could do this. In principle, it seemed possible given the time and resources. But who would, trust the IC? In my own experience, the IC lost enormous credibility when it got the Iraq WMD estimates badly wrong. In producing the so-called Duelfer report afterwards, I took several steps to try to overcome this, including making the entire report unclassified, including all the background data, and not writing an executive summary. The idea was that an independent reader could consider the data and come to their own conclusion. This was successful, but it was a static case.

A rolling set of stories and data coming in all over the country to various subsets of American voters can not be evaluated and judged in realtime—especially as election day approaches.

Is there another part of the government that could perform this function? I doubt it. Could the companies that current owe their vast wealth and market dominance to their ability to shape messages to consumers provide this service (Google, Facebook, etc)? Possibly they could have the expertise, but the task is labor-intensive and who would trust them? Could journalists do this? They don’t have the resources other that in select cases, and which journalists would you trust—the range of quality and objectivity of individuals who identify themselves as journalist varies wildly.

These are two major problems for our country—especially the second. And the government is not designed to address them. In fact, the fractious political environment seems to make this a major problem no one will wish to raise. It calls into question the outcome of any election—no matter who the winner is.

*The Council on Intelligence Issues provides a critical and unique function for former intelligence (largely CIA) officers—providing post government legal assistance. Unlike virtually any other government employees, former CIA officers can be subject to post-government legal actions that stem from their performance of their jobs. This is one of the reasons for officers to retain their cover even after leaving the service. They can be sued, warrants issued for their arrest, and otherwise attacked—even by their own countrymen. Government legal assistance to former officers may or may not be available, and even if it is, the government’s interests and the individual’s interests may not be aligned.  Incoming officers rarely hear about this type of risk to them and their families the vagaries of political correctness in the world evolve.  Current actions can be judged by some future set of standards that are unforeseeable now.


Beyond a “thank you for your service” you can be left on your own.

Posted in Allies, Cyber Threat, Intelligence, Iran, journalism coverage, NSA | Leave a comment

Mueller Report – Duelfer Report

A few commentators have made some comparisons between the Mueller Report and report on Iraq WMD in 2004 which was dubbed the Duelfer Report.  There are a few similarities and many key differences.

Both were produced in a highly charged political environment.  The Mueller report affects the prospects for the Trump presidency (and some would suggest its legitimacy).  The Iraq WMD report came out in October 2004 just before the heated election contest between John Kerry and President George Bush–and in the midst of a war that was starting to look really ugly.   Both were subject to major political examination in Congress.  Both were issued in an environment where there was going to be enormous skepticism among the audience.  Both involved intelligence matters, and both were complicated,

But there were key differences.  The Duelfer Report did not assess the actions of US actors (intelligence community, political leaders, etc.).  It addressed the Saddam Hussein regime and its relation to WMD.  Others would investigate such questions as malfeasance on the part of the intelligence community or whether political leaders inappropriately pressured the Intelligence community.  (This task was ably done by the commission chaired by Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman.)

The Iraq WMD investigation did not have the obligation to make legal judgments…it “only” had to establish facts.  The collection of data was in some ways similar to Mueller’s efforts, though gathering data largely from non-US citizens was categorically different.  Of course the environment was physically dangerous.  Four lives were lost and several were badly wounded.  We operated in a devastated country in midst of an insurgency.

I made some decisions concerning our work and the report of our work that contributed to the enduring credibility of the report and long term utility.  They may be useful in other circumstances.

First, it was clear to me that we had a unique opportunity to record for history the details of how the Saddam regime worked and why.  This was an opportunity that went beyond the relatively simple question asked by some, “Did Saddam have WMD or didn’t he?”   I defined the task more broadly, to record the relationship between the Saddam regime with WMD over time.  He had, and used, WMD at certain points, and at other points he did not.  Moreover, where was he going in the future.

To this end, we collected and reported a lot of data about the workings of the regime and its interactions domestically and internationally.  Moreover, we included as much raw data as possible.  This was going to be a document studied not just by current politicians in Washington, but by historians, and, Iraqis themselves who were intimately involved in the events.  I wanted to be sure they would not find factual problems.

Very early in the process, I determined that the report would be unclassified and all the included material would have to be declassified.  This was difficult but essential.  The US intelligence community had suffered a major blow to its credibility about Iraq WMD and if there was anything we held back, it would shake the confidence in our report.  And gathering the data had been expensive in lives and treasure.  I did not want the validity of the effort to be challenged.  (Note:  We did not have the serious constraint faced by Mueller concerning releasing grand jury data affecting American citizens.)

Another decision I made was to not have an executive summary.  In response to critical questions on this (especially from some Senators), I stated that it was a complicated picture and I believed that the truth would not fit in the equivalent of a bumper sticker.  I should also point out that no one else wrote a summary of the report as happened with the Mueller report with political consequences.

As it turned out the absence of an executive summary made testifying before Congress somewhat easier since members and staff who sought to bolster one of their own views or another would have to pluck their own segments out to support their own biases, but they could not attribute such conclusions to me.  And, while it remains to be seen it Mueller will testify before congress, this was never question for me.  It was inevitable.

I also decided that the report should be completed and released before the election.  This was important since if it were released afterwards, then all would assume that was for a political reason and that would taint the credibility of the overall report.  I did not want to do anything that would damage the credibility of the work produced by so many and at such a cost.

Finally I would emphasize that President Bush and his White House team supported all these decisions without complaint or criticism.



Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, Uncategorized, WMD | Leave a comment

US Intelligence and the Press

Yesterday, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted an interesting discussion moderated by Michael Morell and four prominent Washington journalists regarding coverage of intelligence by journalists.  The journalists were Andrea Mitchell, long-time NBC correspondent who has covered everything in the last forty years; David Ignatius who has a similar depth of experience with the Washington Post; Peter Finn another long time journalist at the Post and currently their national security editor; and finally, Suzanne Kelly, formerly with CNN who the founder of the specialized national security web publication “Cipher Brief”.

There was discussion of the usual tension between government secrecy and first amendment freedoms specially blessed on the press.

Then, keying on the issue now prominent from the Julian Assange case, Morell politely asked the key question facing the press today:  Who is a journalist (and implicitly receives the special protections of the first amendment)?  The panel largely dodged the question.  Peter Finn came closest to candor by saying that it was an open issue, but one thing for sure was he did not want the government to define who was a journalist.  Then quickly turned to something else.

This is a critical question.  The journalists on the panel would be hard to dispute as real journalists.  They have lived by the standard ethics and principles of old school journalism.  But who defines a journalist?  Today you can “self-identify” as many things.  Pick up a paint brush, put on a beret, and presto, you’re an artist!  And with that you get artistic license!

Journalism similarly lacks formal certification criteria.  Get a lap-top, write a blog and you’re a journalist.  Or, use a cell phone and  create a You Tube product.  All the editorial standards and editorial oversight that the experienced journalists on the panel yesterday referenced are out the window.

Old time journalists are trying, with justification, to preserve their independence and first amendment rights, but the hoards of others who have no loyalty to ancient journalistic ideals of fact-checking, sourcing, etc. swarming the new media.  Perhaps the Post, Times, and NBC  do strive to retain old standards rather than just generate clicks as the seasoned news veterans described at the panel yesterday.  But that certainly doesn’t look like the future to me.

There is an inevitable crash concerning who qualifies as a journalist.  If the media does not establish criteria that are sustainable in court, then it may well be that government does need to step in.  This an issue that cannot be dodged.  “Journalists” are going way beyond reporting facts and are now actively seeking to shape outcomes–not just for their own interests but for foreign interests.  There is a crisis in journalism–it would be interesting to see more reporting on it.

Posted in Intelligence, journalism coverage, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Space News – And National News

Tuesday this week, in a speech before the National Space Council, Vice President Pence announced that the US would land its astronauts on the Moon again within five years.  He said:

“And I’m here, on the President’s behalf, to tell the men and women of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the American people that, at the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.

And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil.”

This strikes me as a big deal.  The Trump Administration has been consistently vigorous in pushing American space programs both government and private.

The three major networks all carried a space story on the evening news–but not the commitment by the US to return to the moon in five years.  No, edging out that story was the cancellation by NASA of the first “all women” spacewalk because they discovered that one of the spacesuits they had on the space station did not fit the astronaut.  Now, admittedly, this raises some concerns about NASA mission planning.

But what is it about this space story that makes it a headline while the announcement of the commitment to return to the moon is not?



Posted in NASA, Space | Leave a comment

The Value of Allies – It’s Personal

In his resignation letter, Secretary of Defense General Mattis called out the importance of Allies for US national security.  I expect his eloquent statement will be long-quoted by those involved in foreign policy.  But I bet it resonates even more with individuals who have  served the US in almost any capacity overseas–military, intelligence, diplomats, Peace Corps, USAID, etc.  It’s personal.

I’ve worked with the French in Chad, Brits various places, Aussies in Iraq, etc.  The value of having kindred spirits who can be called upon (or vice versa) when the unexpected happens is invaluable.  Out in the field, you need friends.  Whether its another embassy that can help or other views to inform decisions or reports.  The US and allies who share overarching principles are invaluable.  In a pinch they can save your life–and vice versa.

Remember the role Canada played in helping some of our embassy staff escape from Iran during the revolution.  They took a big risk.  There are lots of other examples–some will never be public.  Some probably never known at “policy levels” of either government.

If you have served the US abroad–it’s blindingly obvious allies are vital.

In Washington, perhaps other short term arguments may obscure fundamental points.  Mattis reminds us that alliances of governments who share long-standing ideals and principles are the core to international security.  Maybe we pay more in NATO, but don’t for a second think we don’t get a lot of benefit.  Sure we should argue for greater contributions when others begin to take things for granted.  But the benefit we get should be remembered.

Lost in the news yesterday was an example. The US Justice Department indicted two Chinese individuals for theft of data by hacking.  It would be meaningless but for the fact that several other countries stepped forward with similar steps.  We have been attacked for over a decade by the Chinese is this way.  We will need allies to effectively turn this around.

Maybe something good will come of Mattis’ resignation if it serves to remind everyone of the elemental need to have as many on this planet who share our common ideals.  For those who have served abroad, its also personal and obvious.

Posted in Allies, Iraq, NATO | 2 Comments

Syrian CW Use – Why? There’s a good reason

Many have wondered why Syrian would continue to use chemical munitions recognizing that the international community would condemn such actions. After all, they received some measure of positive recognition when acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and allowed the OPCW inspectors to supervise the removal/destruction of their (large) declared CW capacity. They did a good job though it is now apparent that Syria retained a limited capacity in contravention of their treaty obligations. So why incur all the wrath of the international community just to use some limited chlorine (possibly also sarin) barrel bombs? After all, (and the Russians) have been bombing extensively with conventional weapons to great effect.

They answer may be the extensive tunnels that Jaesh al-Islam seems to have had in Douma. Clearing insurgents out of tunnels is not an easy military task. A uniquely effective tool could be Chlorine gas. Conventional bombing will drive insurgents (and civilians) into basements and bunkers. Chlorine is a perfect response to that. It is heavier than air and sinks to lower levels. Using chlorine will flush insurgents out of their tunnels and remove their last bastion of protection. It was shortly after Basher al-Assad used chlorine that the last insurgents agreed to evacuate Douma.

And now the presence of insurgent tunnels is beginning to become know.

Chlorine and barrel bombs seem to have been the perfect weapon for this military problem.

Sadly, I doubt Bashir al-Assad will be deterred from using this potent weapon in similar circumstances in the future. The airstrike of last Friday night may have sent a message, but it was mixed. It seems we launched over one hundred cruise missiles, some very advanced and NO ONE WAS HURT! That seems a peculiar measure of merit.   Possibly there was some damage to buildings that may have been associated with chemical weapons fabrication, but the fear of upsetting the Russians constrained targeting to the point where on the order of a quarter billion dollars of our most sophisticated munitions are expended with the caution that no one should be hurt. Bashir al-Assad’s uses weapons with exactly opposite purpose.


The Russian certainly are protected the regime—sort of a variation of Saddam’s use of civilians as human shields.


Following last years strike, the White House put out a detailed compilation of the essential data that supported their assessment about Syrian CW use. This time they have not yet. The French have issued a fairly detailed paper. More could be done.


Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, an expert in dealing with UN inspectors, will continue to offer alternative explanations and arguments. He will challenge UN inspectors and assert that they have not proved their case. Lavrov, did this with great panache when I was deputy Chairman of the UN Iraq weapons inspection team called UNSCOM (Lavrov was the Russian ambassador to the UN). He would have to think that little green men could have dropped chemical agent from flying saucers, or, if you found that unlikely, then the weapons inspectors themselves were at fault. But certainly there are many other explanations for the data presented by west. Washington needs to counter this in a more compelling manner.






















Posted in Russia, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | 1 Comment

Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him….

The September 18, 2017 New Yorker had a very good article about Kim Jong Un by Evan Osnos.  He made the point that we really have no idea what motivates him (or perhaps more importantly, would deter him).  And, or course Kim Jong Un will have the same problem viewing Washington.  We experienced similar ignorance about Saddam in 2002-3.  Only afterwards did we learn a great deal about his incentives, goals, etc.  Wisdom can come late and at great cost.  It’s important to recognize that we are very ignorant about what Kim sees as a plus or a minus–and vice versa. Below is a letter I sent regarding this article and published in the New Yorker of October 16, 2017.


I directed the Iraq Survey Group, which detailed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, more important, the internal dynamics of Saddam Hussein’s regime (“On the Brink,” September 18th). Reading Evan Osnos’s report about Kim Jong Un and North Korea, I noticed some striking parallels. Saddam made assumptions about President Bush and Washington that were wildly off the mark; he did not know what motivated Washington, and Washington did not know what motivated him. So it is now with Kim and Donald Trump. Osnos notes that there is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang. Similarly, the U.S. closed its Embassy in Iraq in 1990 and reopened it only after the invasion of 2003. This dramatically limited the number of Americans who had any contact with Iraqis inside Iraq. The quality of U.S. decisions—and the understanding of the public—suffered from that. The same will be true of North Korea.

Charles Duelfer

Fairfax, Va.

Posted in Iraq, North Korea | 1 Comment

Iraq – Avoiding the Next Insurgency

It is blindingly obvious that while ISIS soon may be expelled from Mosul, absent any further US policy change, there will be a renewed insurgency fueled by disaffected Sunni groups.

This is depressingly similar to Spring 2003. I was in Iraq in early April 2003 meeting with assorted Iraqis that I had come to know well from several years as the deputy head of the UN Iraq weapons inspection group, UNSCOM. It was clear at the time that, having removed Saddam but lacking anything to hold the Iraq together, there was inevitable conflict around the corner.

Worse were the US decisions to disband the army and condemn Baathists to having no future in Iraq. The pending turmoil was clear to see. The freshly disenfranchised Iraqis implored the US to listen to them. If the US offered no hope, then many would chose insurgency. It was clear in May of 2003 that if there was no major change by the US, there would be an insurgency by the 4th of July. There was.

We are at a similar moment. A range of groups with roots in the initial mistakes of 2003, will have little choice but to re-ignite internecine conflict. In fact, it’s worse this time. Iran has a strong motive and ability to fan those flames. Tehran does not desire a strong Iraq that is inclusive of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tribes, territories and interests. The fragile progress that has been made by Prime Minister Abadi in nurturing national institutions and trying to constrain corruption will collapse. If the US does not take a bolder position in supporting an inclusive empowered central government, Abadi will remain weak and unable to rein in sectarian violence, corruption and the militias of various stripes.

Yes, Iraq is a mess. But it will get worse if the Washington refuses to take a stand. The Iranians, Turks, Kurds Gulf States, Russians and various Iraqi factions are tough for anyone to balance. But if the next elections in Iraq—2018—are not to be the last serious elections in Iraq, then all these parties must know that the US will put its weight and resources in back of Abadi’s efforts to reform the national Iraqi government. And time is running out.

Iran understands this. The Kurds understand this. And, the various Sunni resistance groups understand this. They do not want to return to fighting. The older members know the costs and privately indicate they just need some indication of a process that will include them and that the US will back or even just monitor, in some fashion.

However, as things now stand, the same forces that were shut off from any hope of a future in spring of 2003 will resort to violence and destruction. Assorted resistance groups will have no choice but to fight. External interests are reported to be offering weapons, training and funding. They are being goaded to take on, not only the militias that are largely Shia and supported by those aligned with Iran (i.e. former Prime Minister Maliki), but also to attack the US presence.

Ironically, Iran is reported to be offering resources via Maliki to these latent insurgent groups. Yes this means Iran is funding both sides of a conflict. This is not really surprising in that region.

Still, these groups, as in 2003, may avoid the path of renewed insurgency if they feel they have an alternative. It is imperative that the US supports a dialogue in some fashion between them and the central government.

Abadi, whose intentions are widely seen as being good, cannot take such steps without strong backing. There are lots of opposing forces, not just Maliki and his segment of the Dawa party, but the corrupt Sunni officials in Baghdad who do not want to risk losing their influence to Sunni empowered leaders in the Sunni provincial areas of Iraq.

Iran has a strong interest in a weak Iraq and will support groups that keep turmoil going. The Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis have different stakes in Iraq. Likewise, Turkey has its separate interests to support. And Russia has made its presence known. These competing interests can only be brought in line if there the US engages forcefully and influence events leading to the elections next year. If the vacuum of American disinterest (beyond defeating ISIS) continues, chaos will blossom.

The US needs to keep its military presence, support and training in Iraq post Mosul. In fact, an expansion would help. Building up a degree, perhaps at Qayyara military air base near Mosul and or Al Assad air base would send a potent message to all parties. (Other bases in Turkey and Qatar are recently looking less certain.)

The US should continue training for security forces in liberated areas and the Iraqi Army generally. It will have to encourage the provision of reconstruction efforts that are channeled directly to the regions that will use them. But it will also have to take convincing positions regarding strategy of engagement with all the outside parties—reversing our hands-off image.

Iran and its supporters in Iraq need to know that they will pay a price for fostering sectarian violence in Iraq. At the same time, all must know that the US will support the Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts for a strong Iraq with robust national institutions that represent all Iraqis. Of course that’s what we say now, but it’s not what people see on the ground. They see that Abadi cannot control the militias operating in his own country. They see that militias can take hostages and prisoners and Abadi has no control over their fate. This needs to change.

Washington must have a robust strategy for the political/military process leading to the next elections. Iran has a broad network of support and Iraqi politicians who will act consistent with Tehran’s interests—former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Badr Organization head Hadi al Amiri are the most prominent. Our current policy is not to pick winners. Well that sounds good, but we can sure tell who is bad. We can act to level the playing field that is now wildly tilted against a favorable outcome. Maliki is rumored to be one of the richest men in the Middle East. That means there are a lot of people in Baghdad whom he owns.

Only the US can step in and make a powerful stand that can give some hope to the disaffected Sunni resistance that there is a political path open to them. They know Abadi’s heart may be open to their views, but Abadi, without US support, is far too weak to take the necessary steps toward dialogue that would fend off the coming insurgency. The other parties will learn from this—i.e. the US is going to be reckoned with.

There is no time to be lost for the US to make clear it understands the stake it has in Iraq and its interest in Iraq extends far beyond the limited goal of removing ISIS.

Posted in Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, Mosul, Sunni | 2 Comments

Syria CW Use – Why?

The headline news of Syrian use of Sarin last month has faded from memory.   Even the US strike against the Syrian base at Khan Sheikhoun seems to have sunk beneath the daily harangue of Trump news. The military strike seems to have accomplished its various puposes.

However, there have been lingering questions about this event. The US view of the event seems convincing, certainly compared to the Russian hypotheses. But it would be good to hear more and a thorough UN investigation would be helpful.

The White House issued a short paper on 11 April and gave a background briefing to the press (available on their website In addition to the obvious evidence of casualties, open source videos, medical reports, and aircraft tracks, they say they had signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence. They concluded sarin was used and the attack was at the direction of President Bashir al-Assad.

Turkey and France have also stated that sarin had been used.

The OPCW (the implementing organization for the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed up to in 2013) reports that a nerve agent, sarin or something similar to sarin was used. This is based on biological samples examined at four different laboratories in four different countries. They have not attributed responsibility. It is worth remembering that the OPCW verified destruction of a lot of Syrian CW stocks, but they still have open issues to be resolved. They have not completed their investigation and have not yet investigated on the ground in Syria. .

Some experts have challenged the US presentation on various technical grounds. The background paper does not have a lot of detail that underlying intelligence assessments presumably contain. If those data were really weak, I suspect there would be more leaks–from the briefings on the Hill if nowhere else.

The part I find puzzling is why Bashir al-Assad would order such a flagrant attack that does so little militarily. The background briefing by “a senior administration official” addresses this with the following:

“SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the context in which these weapons were employed, what motivated the regime — the fact that they were losing in a particularly important area, and that’s what drove it.  

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so in the middle of March, opposition forces launched an offensive from Southern Idlib province toward the major city of Hama, which is a strategic city in Syria.  It’s Syria’s third city, and it’s also the location of a key Syrian regime airbase that has been crucial for the regime and the forces that support it for projecting power from central Syria, both along the western spine, from Aleppo down to the south, and also further to the east to support operations in Palmyra.  So that is an airbase that the regime had to calculate that it could not lose.

The opposition offensive approach was able to penetrate to within just a couple of miles of that strategic airbase and also threatened the Hama population center within just a few miles.

At that point, the regime we think calculated that with its manpower spread quite thin, trying to support both defensive operations and consolidation operations in Aleppo and along that north-south spine of western Syria, and also trying to support operations which required it to send manpower and resources east toward Palmyra, we believe that the regime probably calculated at that point that chemical weapons were necessary in order to try to make up for the manpower deficiency.  

That’s why we saw, we believe, multiple attacks of this nature against locations that the regime probably determined were support areas for the opposition forces that were near Hama — for example, in the town of Al-Tamanah and then in the town of Khan Sheikhun, both of which are in what would be, in military terms, the rear area for the opposition forces that were on the front line.

So we believe certainly that there was an operational calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisors went through in terms of the decision-making.

This just does not sound terribly compelling. This is a lot of assumptions on top of assumptions about the assessed operational military rationale for dropping a sarin chemical munition from an SU-22 aircraft given the inevitable international outcry. To violate flagrantly the international treaty (again) for rather marginal military advantage against the insurgents formerly known as al Nusra, seems peculiar.

It would have been interesting to hear the discussion between President Assad and his military commanders that led to this action. Too bad they don’t leak as much as Washington does.


Posted in ISIS Chemical Weapons, Russia, Syria, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment