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Seeing Syrian Crisis Through Russian Eyes

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Reprinted from Consortium News


Amid the crisis over Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia welcomed President Barack Obama to the G20 Summit at Konstantinovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5, 2013.
(Image by (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza))
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"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," as Sir Winston Churchill put it at a White House luncheon on June 1954. The aphorism applies in spades today as the U.S., Russia and other key countries involved in troubles in Syria decide whether to jaw or to war.

Russia's recent military intervention in Syria could open up new possibilities for those working for a negotiated solution -- or not. There does seem to be considerable overlap in U.S. and Russian interests and objectives.

For instance, both sides say they want to suppress terrorism, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh) and Al Qaeda's affiliate, the Nusra Front, and both the U.S. and Russia talk about the need for political reconciliation among Syria's disparate religious and ethnic groups. The chief disagreement is over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whether he "must go," as U.S. officials insist, or whether that issue should be left to the ballots of the Syrian people, the view favored by Russia.
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Yet, what happens in the next week or so -- whether it turns out to be a belated "jaw-jaw" or an escalated "war-war" -- will have a significant effect on bilateral U.S.-Russian relations, as well as developments in Syria, Iraq and the whole neighborhood, which now includes Europe because of the destabilizing flow of refugees.

So, I think it makes sense for me to undertake what we did at some of the best moments inside the CIA's analytical branch: view a crisis from where the other side stood and thus project how an adversary (or a friend) might react to a U.S. initiative. A common trap in intelligence analysis is mirror-imaging -- assuming that others, whether adversaries or friends, look at facts and intentions the same way we do.

It can be helpful to step into the other side's shoes and consider how its leaders are likely to see us. I make a stab at that below.

In what follows, I imagine myself working within Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR, Russia's CIA equivalent) in the analysis office responsible for preparing The President's Daily Brief for President Vladimir Putin. I further imagine that his daily brief resembles what the U.S. Intelligence Community prepares for the U.S. President. So, I pattern the item below after the (now declassified) PDB for President George W. Bush that -- on Aug. 6, 2001 -- famously warned him, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." (In my paper, intelligence assessments are presented in italics.)

The President's Daily Brief

Oct. 28, 2015

Re Syria: Obama Trying to Fend Off US Hawks

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President Obama is under severe pressure from senior military and intelligence officials and Congress to raise the ante in Syria.

Yesterday's Washington Post lead story, sourced to unnamed U.S. officials, reported that Obama is considering Pentagon proposals to "put U.S. troops closer to front lines" in Iraq and Syria.

Diplomats at our embassy in Washington note that this kind of story often reflects decisions already made and about to be formally announced. In this particular case, however, the embassy thinks it at least equally likely that the Post is being used by officials who favor more aggressive military action, in order to put pressure on the President. During Obama's first year in office, senior military leaders used the media to make it extremely difficult for Obama to turn down leaked Pentagon proposals to "surge" troops into Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Sen. John McCain, the Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, used a Senate hearing to ridicule administration policy on Syria and grill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on the policy's embarrassing failings. Carter said attacks against ISIL in Syria and Iraq would increase, including "direct action on the ground." But Dunford admitted, "The balance of forces now are in Assad's advantage."

Facing heavy criticism for indecisiveness, Obama still seems reluctant to put many more U.S. Army or "moderate rebel" boots into the "quagmire" that he warned us against when we began our airstrikes. He would also wish to avoid the kind of destructive attacks that would pour still more Syrian refugees into Europe.

We do not think occasional "direct action on the ground" will change much. Indeed, a White House spokesman reiterated yesterday that the administration has "no intention of long-term ground combat."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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