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Former intelligence officers warn Trump against new Syria strikes

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A group of former intelligence officers issued a statement on Tuesday warning President Donald Trump that he should “rethink” the United States’s escalation in Syria or suffer the possibility of war with Russia.

“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,” the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) memo said, going on to quote Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as saying there is “absolute mistrust” in US-Russian relations.

One of the intelligence officers who wrote the statement told Middle East Eye that war with Russia is within reach.

“We should listen carefully to how Prime Minister Medvedev characterizes the state of the US-Russia relationship, since he is considered to be the most pro-Western person in the Putin administration,” said Elizabeth Murray, a CIA officer with a 27-year career who specialised in Middle East media and political analysis. “If he is the most pro-Western of the Russian leadership, imagine what the rest of them think.”

“Channels of communication have been shut down since the US launched its 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase … Imagine what could happen if the US shot down a Russian jet (accidentally or otherwise) or bombed a Russian ground crew,” Murray added.

The group that wrote the statement, VIPS, consists of former intelligence officers and analysts. They became well known for their objection to the Iraq War in 2003, when they cast doubt about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The VIPS memo said that according to US Army contacts, a Syrian military plane blew up a chemical weapons depot held by Al-Qaeda, and the sarin gas that was released by the explosion traveled to a nearby town by a strong wind. VIPS goes on to say that this is what Russia and Syria have been claiming.

“We note that the official US narrative was put forth very quickly, in the absence of an impartial and independent investigation, and in the absence of credible evidence,” Murray said.

A strained relationship

Philip Giraldi, a former counter-terrorism and military intelligence officer for the CIA and current VIPS member, agreed.

“The Syrians are indeed responsible for dropping a bomb. We know that for sure, and that there was a gas attack that same day,” he said in an interview with MEE.

The day after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Trump stood next to King Abdullah of Jordan and said the killing of Syrian civilians by the Syrian government “crossed a lot of lines”. But Giraldi said there was no way intelligence could have been reviewed quickly enough to “assess that the Syrian government was responsible”.

Defence Secretary James Mattis said the Trump administration has “gone back through and looked at all the evidence we can and it’s very clear who planned this attack, who authorized this attack and who conducted this attack itself.”

However, Giraldli asserted that no firm evidence has been put forward. Given the strained relationship between the Trump administration and intelligence agencies, he’s not sure where the evidence came from.

“We don’t know in this case, or any other case, whose advice the president is actually taking. It seems clear that the traditional intelligence agencies are playing a more subdued role. It’s not clear whether the Pentagon or CIA really have Trump’s ear,” Giraldi said.

According to reports, Trump’s daughter Ivanka was the one who pushed for the cruise missile strike.

“I can see how someone without intelligence experience like Ivanka Trump would be moved to point a finger, but that’s not how things are done in the intelligence community,” Giraldi continued.

Political opportunity

To the former intelligence operatives, the strike suggests political opportunism on Trump’s part.

Several senior administration figures have been dogged with accusations of cooperation with Russia when they meddled in the 2016 presidential election, which has led to an FBI investigation and the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“It was an opportunity to show he’s a tough guy who would stand up to Russia, which he needed on his resume,” Giraldi said.

Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and VIPS member, echoed Giraldi’s comment. “Aside from Trump, many in his administration saw it as an opportunity to do what many of them have long supported: Overthrowing the Syrian government,” she said in an interview with MEE.

Rowley became a whistleblower after she publicly criticised the FBI and other agencies for failing to properly handle intelligence that could have prevented the 11 September attacks. She was named as one of Time Magazine’s “People of the Year” in 2002 for her actions.

She referred to the Trump administration’s finger pointing at the Syrian government as a “rush to judgment”.

Members of the Trump administration have made conflicting remarks on the subject, with Mattis saying Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s ouster is not a “top priority” while national security adviser HR McMaster said that the US does want to see a “significant change” in the nature of the Syrian government.

Reflecting on the fallout in Iraq and Afghanistan after previous US attempts at regime change, Rowley said those pushing for Assad’s removal “don’t have a mature attitude on the subject”.

History of abuses

The US, France and UK tried to vote on a draft resolution at the Security Council on Wednesday, but Russia vetoed the move.

The UN draft resolution had demanded that the Assad government cooperate with an investigation into the suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Wednesday at a council meeting that it’s “long past time for Russia to stop covering for Assad” and his war crimes.

Bassam Rifai, a spokesperson for the Syrian American Council (SAC), which advocates for “freedom and democracy in Syria,” told MEE from the UN that the VIPS report “is echoing the propaganda that the Russians have put out, that Assad is trying to fight terrorism. We know that to be false.”

SAC welcomed the strikes on Assad’s military base. Rifai said that years of abuses committed by the Syrian government have been well documented. He said Assad and Russia have taken to casting doubt on their actions to pre-empt further military reprisals from the US.

“The Assad regime and Russia want to play the victim. They’re trying to create that air of confusion to delegitimise any strikes against Assad regime,” Rifai concluded.

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