The former head of one of the US government's leading intelligence divisions says that the US believed that religious extremists could carve out a sizable safe-haven in Syria as early as 2012 — but that the US did little to stop this from happening.
In an interview with Mehdi Hasan for Al Jazeera, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who lead the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, called out the administration on its alleged inaction during the first year of the Syrian civil war.
Hasan quotes what he describes as a "secret" DIA analysis from August 2012 warning that the chaos in Syria could allow for the creation of a Salafist enclave in the country's desert east. Hasan asked Flynn whether this meant the US actually predicted the rise of the ISIS caliphate and did nothing to stop it.
Flynn agrees, arguing that it shows the US should have had a smarter policy of cooperation with Syria's secular rebels.
"I think where we missed the point, where we totally blew it was in the very beginning, I mean we're talking four years now into this effort in Syria ... the Free Syrian Army, that movement, I mean where are they today? Al Nusra, where are they today? How much have they changed?" Flynn asked. "When you don't get in and help somebody they're going to find other means to achieve their goals."
Flynn suggests that the US's failure to assist the rebels earlier in the conflict created an opening for extremist groups. Mehdi pushed back, quoting the 2012 DIA assessment as saying that "The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda in Iraq are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria" before accusing the US of "coordinating arms transfer to those same groups."
Flynn says he paid "very close attention" to reports like the DIA assessment and implies that he actually opposed forms of assistance that could benefit extremist groups. But Flynn disputed Mehdi's characterization of the administration turning a "blind eye" to the DIA's analysis and explained that US policymaking on Syria has always been convoluted.
"You have to really ask the President, what is it that he actually is doing with the policy that is in place, because it is very very confusing." Flynn said.
The jihadist group began as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which fought the US military and the Iraqi state during last decade's US campaign in the country. ISIS was expelled from Al Qaeda in February 2014 because of the group's overly-brutal sectarian violence and refusal to listen to the group's Afghanistan and Pakistan-based global leadership.
Although Al Qaeda in Iraq was hobbled when the US military pulled out of Iraq in 2011, the collapse of Syria provided AQI with a safe-haven.
The rule of a sectarian Shi'ite government in Baghdad, and the Baghdad government's failure to integrate anti-Al Qaeda Sunni militants into the security forces, provided further impetus for the group's growth.
During the Al Jazeera interview, Flynn also conceded that the US's military policies in the Middle East were at least partly to blame for the crisis in Syria and that the US had made a number of strategic errors that made the conflict more likely.
He also conceded that US prisons in Iraq were responsible for the radicalization of thousands of young Iraqis, many of whom are now fighting with ISIS.
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