We are moving towards a major war
Translated by KA
Michael Flynn, former head of the intelligence service of the US Ministry of Defence from 2012-2014, visited Moscow in December at the invitation of the TV channel Russia Today, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Known as a critic of the US invasion of Iraq and the international military operation in Libya, Michael Flynn talked to “Vlast” about the consequences of the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.
According to the television channel Al Jazeera, you were the first senior US official to state publicly that the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were supplying groups inside Syria connected to “Al Qaeda” with weapons to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Is that what you said?
No, it’s definitely not what I said. I meant that we support such diverse anti-Assad forces in Syria, such a variety of factions, it is almost impossible to figure out who is who and who is working with whom. The increasing complexity of the composition of the warring Syrian opposition has considerably complicated its identification. For this reason I am sure that from the point of view of US interests, we must once more take a step back and subject our strategy to review. Because the possibility that we will support forces linked to the “Islamic State” (an organization which is banned in Russia – Vlast), along with other anti-Assad forces in Syria does exist. We cannot act on a “straddle the fence” principle. We must very clearly define what we are trying to achieve and with whom we intend to work.
Which groups does the US support in Syria?
Oh God, too many. I remember we counted around 1,200 warring groups. I really believe that not one of us, including Russia, has a clear understanding of what we have to deal with there, but tactically it is very important to understand it. A one-sided view of the situation in Syria and Iraq would be a mistake.
Russia and the United States have differing opinions on the activities of rebel groups in Syria and cannot yet agree on a common list of terrorists. For example, Moscow proposes to include such radical groups as “Ahrar al-Sham” and “Jaish al-Islam.” What do you think of these groups?
Russia, like the United States, can declare certain groups to be terrorist organizations, taking the responsibility to do so in accordance with its own vision. I would like to believe that we – Russia and the United States – could have a really constructive conversation about this, discussing whether “Jaish al-Islam” or “Al-Shabab”, which is associated with “al-Qaeda”, or some other group should be designated as terrorists. In so doing we must provide each other with our precise criteria for the definition of terrorist groups.
However, regarding certain groups the USA is obviously wavering. For example, the Salafist group “Ahrar ash-Sham” incorporates a powerful jihadist component and has links to the terrorist organization “Jabhat al-Nusra”. Is this not enough?
Personally, I think that it is enough. “Jabhat al-Nusra” supports the “Islamic state.” All in all, I think it is now important for the United States to take a more realistic look at who’s who in this zoo. Because this is a zoo and one with wide-open cages. It’s a jungle. And so we have to define our common criteria for interacting with all of this.
But a decision must also be made on the Assad regime. Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, he violated international and moral law; he must be brought before an international tribunal. That is what I would recommend in this situation. We cannot consider such a person as a national leader.
When the whole story began, Assad tried to deal with each individual incident, in every part of the country, trying to pacify the protesters against the background of the Arab uprisings that swept through various countries. However, Assad did not recognize that he had one big problem in the whole of the country. He used the wrong means. In my opinion, he is very lucky to still be alive and in power. And Russia is the main reason why it is still the case. Russia, together with the international community, needs to decide whether we can live on the same planet with people like Assad. Can this person take a leadership position. Whether the Syrian people have the right to vote. Just think – ten million displaced persons – it is half the population of the country. We – the international community – must give the Syrian people the opportunity to choose, we must give the refugees the opportunity to return, we must give hope of a prosperous and sustainable state.
You stated that in 2012 the US government turned a blind eye to a report of the Pentagon’s Intelligence Agency headed by you detailing the substantial progress of radical Sunni Salafist groups among the Syrian opposition. Why did this happen?
This was intentional and was done for political reasons. The problem was that the investigation was carried out correctly, the Intelligence Agency informed the authorities about the real situation. And this, in my opinion, is the main function of the intelligence services – to speak truth to the authorities. If I tell the president the truth, but he does not like what he hears, it is not my problem. My problem is to provide an appropriate report.
The report mentioned among other things the significant deterioration of the situation in the region. In 2013 there were 300 bomb attacks on the territory of Iraq. The situation was getting worse. The decision to withdraw from Iraq eventually became one of the preconditions for the emergence of the “Islamic state”.
One of the reasons why for a long time the United States did not dare to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition was that there was no guarantee that these would not fall into the hands of radicals. Since then the situation has only worsened. Why did the US then decide in 2013 to supply arms?
I do not know what played a decisive role. I know one thing: we need to stop investing in the conflict. In supplying weapons to Syria, we kindle the conflict. And we are talking about Russia, too. We need to invest in security, and in this the community of Arab countries should also play a major role.
How serious, in your opinion, is the problem of support of radical Sunni groups by US allies? We’re talking about Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar? What can be done about this?
Let’s not play the information game. Because my counter-question to that is: what can be done about the fact that the Syrian regime’s ally Iran supports “Hezbollah”? “Hezbollah” is an international terrorist organization whose branches operate far beyond the Levant, it is absolutely precisely a serious security threat. Members of “Hezbollah” killed a lot of people not only in the Middle East. Hence, Iran is doing the same by sponsoring terrorism. Fruitful cooperation between Russia and the West is only possible if Iran becomes a part of the equation. In order to commence resolving the issue, we must recognize that Iran is part of the problem.
What are the possible consequences of the Russian intervention in the conflict?
From this viewpoint, the Russian intervention in the form it took immediately changed the balance and dynamics that existed before. I’d really like to talk about it with President Putin. After all, what consequences and what effect has he already experienced? We have seen the incident with the Russian warplane downed by Turkey, and also the explosion organised by the “Islamic State” on board an aircraft with Russian passengers, as a result of which many people died. They are overly disadvantageous consequences for the start of the intervention. Both are unacceptable, but they are real consequences.
President Putin’s decision to intervene in the conflict and to do what he was doing there is, in my opinion, connected to problems within Russia. Five to ten thousand Russian citizens are fighting in Syria which is partly why Russia wants to be there – so that these people do not return to Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan and Moscow. I think we did not recognize and did not realize this – that President Putin is trying to solve a problem that in reality already exists, and for which a part of the solution can be found in Syria and Iraq. The main problem is how we – I mean the great powers, Russia and the West – can work together. This is a major question. And this is not about diplomatic negotiations, it is about how we will work on the battlefield, in the information field and on the digital battlefield, which also exists in reality.
We firmly believe in the existence of a mutual interest in destroying this cancerous tumour that is radical Islam. If we don’t do this together, we will have to try to do it alone, which will be much more difficult.
As a young officer, I learned the rule that the best plan is the one that at the very last moment leaves you with the most alternatives. I wonder whether President Putin believes that he has the best plan? Does President Obama believe the same? When I look at what’s going on – how things are – I can see that a huge threat hangs over us. I don’t think we have left ourselves a sufficient variety of choices. And the direction in which we are currently moving leads to a widening of the conflict – to a major war. The closer we are to it, the higher the risks, the higher the price, the more limited our choices. So now it is important that we work together, the United States and Russia, to determine whether we can develop more opportunities together to stabilize the situation.
Does the US have a long-term strategy for Syria and for the region as a whole?
Here I can only give my own view on this issue. Considering I really do not understand what the US strategy of today is: it lacks definition, clarity and it lacks consistency. In my view, the strategy should consist of four components: first you need to achieve security, then you must stabilize the region, and then you begin to stimulate economic prosperity in the region, bringing back new ideas, new technologies and a new system of education. You need to give the region a sufficiently long period of time to develop.
In order that this can become a reality, the strategy must be implemented not only by the US and the West, but the regional powers Russia, China and India must also be involved. Since the current situation affects all of us, without exception. Because in the short term, we cannot continue to move in the direction, in which we are moving. This is unsustainable.
How can the “Islamic state” be defeated?
At this point, the military component must play a major role – the destruction of the “Islamic state” in the occupied territories. However, this is not enough.
After all, the roots of the problems are economic. It is necessary to promote the emergence of a viable regional economy. We must deprive radical Islamists of their justification, of the opportunity to blame the West for all the troubles in the region. Let us give these countries something in order to deprive the radicals of opportunities to influence young people.
In the long term it is also necessary to work against the spread of the Salafist and Wahhabi ideology. We need strong leaders in the religious community, who can prevent the spread of radicalism.
There is broad support for the “caliphate” project in the Muslim world and it is not only among the marginalized. In Saudi Arabia, which is the leader of the Islamic world and the official religious doctrine of which is Wahhabi Salafism, around 90% of the people believe that the norms established by the salafist “Islamic state” really correspond to Islam, according to the results of a survey, which appeared in Arab mass media.
I don’t believe it is 90%. And I do not think that Saudi authorities are happy that they are compared to the radicals or even that they are considered a part of this community. Although, no doubt, there is a Saudi component (in the “Islamic state” – „Vlast“).
President Obama once said (commenting on Vladimir Putin’s proposal made to the UN General Assembly to create a joint anti-terrorist coalition- „Vlast“) that the US-led coalition had 60 members whereas President Putin had only two (he was referring to Iran and Assad – „Vlast“). This is not how we should be talking. Today there are representatives of 80 countries in the ranks of the “Islamic State”. Their coalition is bigger than ours. There are around 20 to 30 thousand foreign fighters in Syria. Why? It’s not just the Saudis. It is the ideology, which was introduced in many countries and which converted people there to “true believers.” We must work together to come up with ways to counter this dangerous enemy. And for that we need to include getting rid of the white liberal guilt complex.
Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009 was seen by many as the beginning of a change in US policy in the Middle East. He created the image of a “friend of Islam.” Has the policy really changed in recent years? How would you evaluate it from today’s standpoint?
I do not think that it has become qualitatively different. President Obama, by the way, spoke about this recently in his speech in the Oval Office. We have not changed the direction of our policy – it still consists of the fight against terrorism. That is, we continue to do what our country has decided it should do. US policy today lacks transparency, clarity and consistency. I think we just have to admit that it’s not working. However, Russian policy is also not entirely clear. Russian intervention is becoming an increasingly important factor, it fundamentally changed the dynamics and we have to work with it. Better together than separately.