The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a 'rat line', a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: 'The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.')
In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report's criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdogan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi's arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn't always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a 'finding', submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress -- the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn't tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. 'The consulate's only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,' the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. 'It had no real political role.'
Washington abruptly ended the CIA's role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. 'The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,' the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. 'The Obama administration,' Warrick wrote, 'has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.' Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels' possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. 'Erdogan was pissed,' the former intelligence official said, 'and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.' In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government -- through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation -- was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. 'The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training -- including training in chemical warfare,' the former intelligence official said. 'Stepping up Turkey's role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdogan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics -- the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdogan's hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn't respond in March and April.'
There was no public sign of discord when Erdogan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad 'needs to go'. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, 'it is important for us to make sure that we're able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.' The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdogan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks' insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdogan was joined by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdogan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdogan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdogan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: 'We know.' Erdogan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: 'We know.' At that point, an exasperated Erdogan said, 'But your red line has been crossed!' and, the expert told me, 'Donilon said Erdogan "fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House".' Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: 'We know what you're doing with the radicals in Syria.' (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn't respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn't respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdogan, Fidan and Davutoglu sitting at a table. 'Beyond that,' she said, 'I'm not going to read out the details of their discussions.')
But Erdogan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country's ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a 'golden loophole': gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. 'The middlemen did what they always do,' the former intelligence official said. 'Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.' The illicit skimming flared into a public 'gas for gold' scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdogan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but 'lobbied to make sure the legislation ... did not take effect for six months'. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to 'accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime'.
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdogan exposed politically and militarily. 'One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,' the former intelligence official said. 'It can't come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can't come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon -- you can't be sure who you'd meet on the other side.' Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, 'Erdogan's dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we're the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him -- where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.'
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described 'the acute anxiety' of the Erdogan administration about the rebels' dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed 'the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response'. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August 'sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.'
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. 'We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdogan's people to push Obama over the red line,' the former intelligence official said. 'They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors' -- who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas -- 'were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey -- that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.' Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. 'Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.' Erdogan's problems in Syria would soon be over: 'Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.'
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. 'Nobody wants to talk about all this,' the former intelligence official told me. 'There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can't say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can't go back and blame Erdogan.'
Turkey's willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of Erdogan and his associates, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdogan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan's spoke of creating a provocation: 'Now look, my commander [Erdogan], if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That's not a problem. Justification can be created.' The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey's meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. 'I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdogan's continued support for the rebels, especially now that it's going so wrong,' the former intelligence official told me. 'The answer was: "We're screwed." We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdogan, but Turkey is a special case. They're a Nato ally. The Turks don't trust the West. They can't live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdogan's role with the gas, it'd be disastrous. The Turks would say: "We hate you for telling us what we can and can't do."'
[*] Seymour M. Hersh first wrote about the sarin attack in the LRB of 19 December 2013. [http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin] Letters Vol. 36 No. 9 -- 8 May 2014 For a second time the LRB has aired Seymour Hersh's highly shaky claim that the opposition was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta on 21 August 2013 (LRB, 17 April).  Hersh provides only one source for the key claims in his piece: a 'former intelligence official'. As the bloggers Eliot Higgins and Scott Lucas have shown, he entirely ignores the overwhelming balance of tangible evidence that indicates the responsibility of the regime for the Ghouta attack. The two types of munitions found at the site were the Soviet M14 and an improvised type of rocket known as 'the Volcano'. Both have been spotted in several combat videos, always being used by regime forces and never by the opposition. Contrary to Hersh's claims in his first article, all of the rockets used were well within range of regime-held areas (LRB, 19 December 2013).  The position of the intact munitions, in particular 'Missile 197', indicates a firing point to the north, where the regime-held areas were. The 21 August incident involved multiple rocket attacks on the Ghouta from those directions. A lot hinges on Hersh's implication that the Islamist fighters arrested in Turkey in May 2013 were part of a sarin-producing operation. Indeed, the local press did report that the men were carrying two kilogrammes of sarin. The charges laid by the court did not say this: they said that the men were carrying chemicals that could have been used to produce sarin. Perhaps they intended to do so, but they would have needed much more time. At least eight 'Volcanoes' were fired on the Ghouta. Each warhead carries an estimated fifty litres of sarin. It took Aum Shinrikyo years, trillions of yen and a dedicated factory to come up with less than a tenth of that. Not only did the jihadists supposedly come up with the sarin in miraculously large quantities without anyone knowing about it, according to Hersh's intelligence official they then filled perfect copies of regime munitions with the stuff, transported them to areas north of the Ghouta (unopposed by the regime forces occupying those areas) and launched them at their own side. Hersh has dropped his arguments of December -- including the claim that a secret US sensory system in Syria should have shown evidence of the attack -- and wants us to take the word of a single unnamed spook instead. Likewise, the Russian Foreign Ministry initially said there had been no attack and that the YouTube footage was false, on the basis of the timestamp on the videos. When it was pointed out that this was due to the time difference between Syria and the US, where YouTube marks its timestamps, and that the actual timing was entirely consistent with reports of the attack, the idea was dropped without further ado. This is not a method of argument that inspires confidence. Whose sarin? Assad's, almost certainly. Why did he do it? Perhaps he thought Russian diplomatic cover would let him get away with it. That is what happened, after all. Jamie Allinson London NW6 The real answer to Seymour Hersh's question, 'Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya?', is that he was shy in Libya. There he 'led from behind', giving over leadership to the French and British, content to play an auxiliary role. In Syria, he'd have to give direct leadership, with allies playing a subordinate role. The imminent prospect of that is probably what gave him cold feet. He then turned to Congress for approval in the certain knowledge he would be denied. Albion Urdank Los Angeles What are we talking about when we speak of 'sarin': Seymour Hersh begs the question. Are we really talking about the nerve agent sarin stocked in Syria or smuggled to the opposition forces through Turkey? If it is one of the three well known nerve agents, sarin, soman or VX, then this is extremely serious: one aerosol droplet touching your skin will kill you in a few seconds. But news footage of the alleged sarin incident in Damascus showed a great many 'care-givers' wearing gas masks or with handkerchiefs covering their faces, and victims on the ground still moving around. Compare that to nerve agent supplied to Iraq by the Pentagon under the Bush administration and then used on the Kurds, who dropped dead instantly. Obviously, what has been used in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria is a cocktail of various toxic agents, possibly with some precursors of nerve agents, but a sloppy mixture of who knows what. Sterling Seagrave Banyuls-sur-Mer, France Seymour Hersh's allegations of Turkey's involvement in the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August 2013 in Damascus and his unsubstantiated claims that Turkey supports terrorists and their affiliates in Syria are totally and categorically invalid. It should be stressed that Hersh's conspiracy theory is based on unnamed sources, assumptions, distorted recordings and unknown reports. It is also noteworthy that Hersh's article, deliberately or otherwise, serves the Syrian regime's propaganda machine and is in compliance with the regime's lies and fabrications. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Turkey has been following a principled policy, taking the side of the Syrian people against tyranny and terrorism. We are determined to continue our policy in this context and to be on the right side of history. Distorting well-established facts, mocking the realities on the ground and disrespecting the memories of innocent Syrian civilians who lost their lives at the hands of a brutal regime will not succeed in justifying the regime's inhumane policies or in giving legitimacy to Assad's dictatorship. Ahmet Unal Cevikoz Turkish Embassy, London SW1 Vol. 36 No. 10 -- 22 May 2014 Jamie Allinson makes some false technical claims in his critique of Seymour Hersh (Letters, 8 May).  What Hersh reports is entirely plausible, and consistent with facts that emerged from our more limited but irrefutable technical studies of the circumstances surrounding the nerve agent attack in Damascus on 21 August 2013. Our findings, which have become the basis for the 'new' arguments being made against Hersh by people like Allinson, and supposedly knowledgeable non-government organisations like Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, raise the most serious questions about whether the White House lied about technical intelligence associated with the attack. Allinson is correct that the improvised rockets he calls Volcanoes each contained about fifty litres of sarin, but wrong in his claim that they were fired from a regime-held area 'to the north'. These claims are not original, but repeat those of Eliot Higgins, a blogger who, although he has been widely quoted as an expert in the American mainstream media, has changed his facts every time new technical information has challenged his conclusion that the Syrian government must have been responsible for the sarin attack. In addition, the claims that Higgins makes that are correct are all derived from our findings, which have been transmitted to him in numerous exchanges. Before we began reporting findings from our analyses, there were published reports estimating that the sarin load carried by the rockets was about five litres. We showed, from detailed engineering analyses of rocket debris, that the rockets contained as much as fifty litres. This finding was hailed by members of the US government and non-government organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, as proof that the Syrian government had executed the atrocity of 21 August. In a follow-up analysis, we found that it could not possibly have been the case that the deadly rockets were fired from Syrian government-controlled areas as far as ten kilometres away, as claimed by the US government and non-government organisations. We showed that the shape of the rockets resulted in extreme aerodynamic drag, limiting their range to about 2 to 2.5 kilometres. This finding was met with great resistance in the media. We also analysed the impact debris from the single rocket for which data was available (there is no data for multiple rocket impacts despite Allinson's claim). We showed that those who argued that the Syrian government had fired the rockets had incorrectly determined the direction of arrival as being from the northwest. We showed that the actual direction was from the north. This new technical insight quickly prompted a new 'discovery'. There was a checkpoint to the north, close to the area controlled by Syrian government forces, from which the deadly short-range rockets could have been launched. However, if they had been fired from this location, the impact pattern of the rockets used in the attack would have required them to have a range well in excess of five kilometres -- which we have shown cannot be the case. We do not claim to know who was actually behind the attack of 21 August in Damascus. But we can say for sure that neither do the people who claim to have clear evidence that it was the Syrian government. The mainstream American media have done a disservice to the public by allowing politically motivated individuals, governments, and non-government organisations to misrepresent facts that clearly point to serious breaches of the truth by the White House. Richard Lloyd; Ted Postol Spokane, Washington; Massachusetts Institute of Technology  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n09/letters#letter1