More than two dozen ex-U.S. intelligence officials urge President
Trump to rethink his claims blaming the Syrian government for the
chemical deaths in Idlib and to pull back from his dangerous escalation
of tensions with Russia.
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)*
SUBJECT: Syria: Was It Really “A Chemical Weapons Attack”?
1 – We write to give you an unambiguous warning of the threat of
armed hostilities with Russia – with the risk of escalation to nuclear
war. The threat has grown after the cruise missile attack on Syria in
retaliation for what you claimed was a “chemical weapons attack” on
April 4 on Syrian civilians in southern Idlib Province.
2 – Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what
happened. There was no Syrian “chemical weapons attack." Instead, a
Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned
out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the
chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died.
|President Trump at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on April 5, 2017, at which the President commented on crisis in Syria. (Screen shot from whitehouse.gov)|
3 – This is what the Russians and Syrians have been saying and – more important –what they appear to believe happened.
4 – Do we conclude that the White House has been giving our generals
dictation; that they are mouthing what they have been told to say?
5 – After Putin persuaded Assad in 2013 to give up his chemical
weapons, the U.S. Army destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s CW stockpile
in just six weeks. The mandate of the U.N.’s Organization for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW-UN) was to ensure that all were
destroyed – like the mandate for the U.N. inspectors for Iraq regarding
WMD. The U.N. inspectors’ findings on WMD were the truth. Rumsfeld and
his generals lied and this seems to be happening again. The stakes are
even higher now; the importance of a relationship of trust with Russia’s
leaders cannot be overstated.
6 – In September 2013, after Putin persuaded Assad to relinquish his
chemical weapons (giving Obama a way out of a tough dilemma), the
Russian President wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he
said: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is
marked by growing trust. I appreciate this.”
Détente Nipped in the Bud
7 – Three-plus years later, on April 4, 2017, Russian Prime Minister
Medvedev spoke of “absolute mistrust,” which he characterized as “sad
for our now completely ruined relations [but] good news for
terrorists.” Not only sad, in our view, but totally unnecessary – worse
8 – With Moscow’s cancellation of the agreement to de-conflict flight
activity over Syria, the clock has been turned back six months to the
situation last September/October when 11 months of tough negotiation
brought a ceasefire agreement. U.S. Air Force attacks on fixed Syrian
army positions on Sept. 17, 2016, killing about 70 and wounding another
100, scuttled the fledgling ceasefire agreement approved by Obama and
Putin a week before. Trust evaporated.
9 – On Sept 26, 2016, Foreign Minister Lavrov lamented: “My good
friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military
machine, [which] apparently does not really listen to the Commander in
Chief.” Lavrov criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling
Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia on Syria,
“after the [ceasefire] agreement, concluded on direct orders of Russian
President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, had stipulated
that the two sides would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work
with such partners. …”
|The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ford Williams)|
10 – On Oct. 1, 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria
Zakharova warned, “If the US launches a direct aggression against
Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift
not only in the country, but in the entire region.”
11 – On Oct 6, 2016, Russian defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor
Konashenkov cautioned that Russia was prepared to shoot down
unidentified aircraft – including any stealth aircraft – over Syria.
Konashenkov made a point of adding that Russian air defenses “will not
have time to identify the origin” of the aircraft.
12 – On Oct 27, 2016, Putin publicly lamented, “My personal
agreements with the President of the United States have not produced
results,” and complained about “people in Washington ready to do
everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented
in practice.” Referring to Syria, Putin decried the lack of a “common
front against terrorism after such lengthy negotiations, enormous
effort, and difficult compromises.”
13 – Thus, the unnecessarily precarious state into which U.S.-Russian
relations have now sunk – from “growing trust” to “absolute
mistrust.” To be sure, many welcome the high tension, which – admittedly
– is super for the arms business.
14 – We believe it of transcendent importance to prevent relations
with Russia from falling into a state of complete disrepair. Secretary
Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week offers an opportunity to stanch
the damage, but there is also a danger that it could increase the
acrimony – particularly if Secretary Tillerson is not familiar with the
brief history set down above.
15 – Surely it is time to deal with Russia on the basis of facts, not
allegations based largely on dubious evidence – from “social media,”
for example. While many would view this time of high tension as ruling
out a summit, we suggest the opposite may be true. You might consider
instructing Secretary Tillerson to begin arrangements for an early
summit with President Putin.
* Background on Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a list of whose issuances can be found here
A handful of CIA veterans established VIPS in January 2003 after
concluding that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had ordered our former
colleagues to manufacture intelligence to “justify” an unnecessary war
with Iraq. At the time we chose to assume that President George W. Bush
was not fully aware of this.
We issued our first Memorandum for the President on the afternoon of
Feb. 5, 2003, after Colin Powell’s ill-begotten speech at the United
Nations. Addressing President Bush, we closed with these words:
No one has a corner on the truth; nor do we harbor illusions that
our analysis is “irrefutable” or “undeniable” [adjectives Powell
applied to his charges against Saddam Hussein]. But after watching
Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served
if you widened the discussion … beyond the circle of those advisers
clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from
which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be
Respectfully, we offer the same advice to you, President Trump.