The former head of the intelligence department of the United States Department of Defense, Michael Flynn, who headed the agency in 2012-2014, visited Moscow in December, at the invitation of the TV channel Russia Today, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Known later as a critic of the US invasion of Iraq and the international military operation in Libya, Michael Flynn told Vlast about the consequences of Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.
According to Al Jazeera, you are the first high-ranking US official to publicly declare that the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are helping Al Qaeda-related groups inside Syria weapons in order to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Is that what you said?
No, this is definitely not what I said. I meant that we support such a diverse anti-Assad forces in Syria, such different groups, and it is almost impossible to understand who is who and who cooperates with whom. The increasing complexity of the composition of the warring Syrian opposition made it extremely difficult to identify. Therefore, I am sure that now, from the point of view of the interests of the United States, we need to once again step back and revise our strategy. Because the potential possibility that we will support, along with other anti-Assad forces in Syria, and those forces that are associated with the "Islamic State" (the organization is banned in the Russian Federation. - "Power"), exists. We cannot act according to the principle "both ours and yours". We must clearly define what we are trying to achieve and with whom we intend to work.
Which groups in Syria do the US support?
God, too many. I remember we had a score in 1200 warring groups. I really think that none of us, including Russia, has a clear understanding of what we are dealing with there, but tactically it is very important to understand. A one-sided view of the situation in Syria and Iraq would be wrong.
Russia and the United States assess the activities of rebel groups in Syria differently and cannot yet agree on a common terrorist list. For example, Moscow proposes to include such radical groups as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. What do you say about these groups?
Russia, like the United States, may declare certain groups as terrorist organizations, assuming the responsibility to do so according to their vision. I would like to believe that we - Russia and the United States - could have a truly constructive conversation about it, discuss whether to call us "Jaish al-Islam" or related to "Al-Qaeda", "Al-Shabab" or something else is a group of terrorists. At the same time, we must provide each other with our clear criteria for identifying terrorist groups.
However, with respect to some groups of the United States, obviously, fluctuate. For example, the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham group has a powerful jihadist component and links to the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist organization. This is not enough?
Personally, I think that's enough. Dzhebhat al-Nusra supports the Islamic State. In general, I think it is important for the USA now to take a more realistic look at who is who in this zoo. Because this is a zoo, and with wide open cells. This is a jungle. And therefore, we must define our common criteria when interacting with all of this.
But the decision about Assad must also be made. Assad used chemical weapons against his people, he violated international law and moral law, he must be brought before an international tribunal. This is what I would recommend in this situation. We cannot regard such a person as a national leader.
When the whole история started against the background of Arab uprisings that swept across different countries, Assad tried to cope with every single incident in every part of his country, trying to pacify the protesters, but he did not admit that he had one big problem throughout the country. He applied the wrong means. In my opinion, he is generally very lucky that he is still alive and in power. And Russia is the main reason why this is still the case. Russia, together with the international community, must decide whether we can live with people like Assad on the same planet. Can this person take a leadership position? Does the Syrian people have the right to vote. Think ten million displaced people, that's half the country's population. We - the international community - should give the Syrian people the opportunity to choose, give the refugees a chance to return, give hope to a prosperous state that could be sustainable.
You stated that the US authorities in 2012 closed their eyes to the report of the Pentagon Intelligence Directorate headed by you about the substantial progress of the radical Sunni Salafi groups among the Syrian opposition. Why did it happen?
This was intentional, and was done for political reasons. The problem was that intelligence was carried out correctly, the Intelligence Agency informed the authorities about the real situation. And in this, in my opinion, the main function of intelligence is to tell the truth to the authorities. If I tell the president the truth, but he does not like what he hears, this is not my problem. My problem is to provide an adequate report.
That report, among other things, spoke of a significant deterioration in the situation in the region. In 2013, there were 300 bombing attacks in Iraq. The situation was getting worse. The decision to leave Iraq ultimately became one of the prerequisites for the emergence of the Islamic State.
One of the reasons why the United States did not dare to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition for a long time was because there were no guarantees that it would not fall into the hands of the radicals. Since then, the situation has only worsened. Why did the US still decide to supply weapons in 2013?
I do not know what played a decisive role. I know one thing: we must stop investing in conflict. By supplying weapons to Syria, we incite conflict. And we are talking about Russia too. We must invest in security, and the Arab community must also play a big role in this.
How serious, in your opinion, is the support of the US allies for the Sunni radical groups? Speech about Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar? What can be done with this?
Let's not play the information game. Because my counter-question to this will be: what can be done with the fact that the allied Syrian regime of Iran supports Hezbollah? Hezbollah is an international terrorist organization whose branches operate far beyond the borders of the Levant, it is definitely a serious security threat. Hezbollah members killed many people not only in the Middle East. So Iran does it too, sponsoring terrorism. Fruitful cooperation between Russia and the West is possible only if Iran becomes part of the equation. To begin to resolve the issue, we must recognize that Iran is part of the problem.
What are the possible consequences of Russian intervention in the conflict?
From this point of view, the Russian intervention in the form in which it occurred, instantly changed the balance and dynamics that existed before. I would really like to talk about this topic with President Putin. After all, what consequences and what effect has it already received? We saw an incident with a Russian military plane shot down by Turkey, and another explosion organized by the Islamic State on board of an airliner with Russian passengers, which killed many people. Too losing consequences for the start of intervention. Both are unacceptable, but these are real consequences.
The decision of President Putin to intervene in the conflict and to do what he does there, in my opinion, is connected with 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 will not return to Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan or Moscow. I think we did not recognize and did not realize this - that President Putin is trying to solve a problem that actually already exists, and part of the solution of which is in Syria, Iraq. The main problem is how we - I mean the big powers, Russia and the West - can work together. This is a big question. And this is not about diplomatic negotiations, this is about how we will work on the battlefield, on the information field, on the digital battlefield, which also exists quite real.
We firmly believe in the existence of mutual interest in destroying this cancer of radical forms of Islam. If we do not do this together, then we will have to try to do it separately, which will be much more difficult.
As a young officer, I learned the rule: the best plan is the one that leaves you with more alternatives at the very last moment. I wonder if President Putin believes that he has the best plan? Does President Obama Believe in the Same? When I look at what is happening, how events are developing, I see that there is a great threat hanging over us. I think we haven't left enough choices for ourselves. And the direction in which we are moving now is the growth of the conflict - this is a big war. The closer we are to this, the higher the risks, the greater the price, the less choice we have. Therefore, now it is important for us to work together, the United States and Russia, to determine whether we can jointly work out more opportunities in order to stabilize the situation.
Does the US have a long-term strategy for Syria and the region as a whole?
Here I can only give my own opinion on this problem. Because I really do not understand what the US strategy is today: it lacks clarity, clarity and lack of consistency. In my opinion, the strategy should consist of four components: first, you need to achieve security, then stabilize the region, then begin to stimulate economic prosperity in the region, bringing there new ideas, new technologies, a new education system. To allow the region to develop for quite a long period of time.
In order for this to become a reality, such a strategy must be embodied not only by the United States and the West, regional powers such as Russia, China, and India must be brought in here. Because the current situation affects all of us without exception. Because in the short term we cannot move in the same direction where we are moving. It is not viable.
How to win the "Islamic state"?
At this stage, the military component should play a serious role - the destruction of the "Islamic state" in the occupied territories. However, this is not enough.
In the end, the roots of the problem are economic. It is necessary to promote the emergence of a viable regional economy. We have to deprive the radical Islamists of justification, the possibility of blaming the West for all the troubles of the region. Let's give these countries something to make it impossible for radicals to influence young people.
In the long run, it is also necessary to work with the spread of the ideology of Salafism and Wahhabism, we need strong leaders within the religious community who could prevent the spread of radicalism.
Support for the project "caliphate" in the Muslim world is very broad, 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-style Salafism, according to the results of one poll that appeared in the Arab media, about 90% believe that the norms established by the Salafi Islamic State really correspond to Islam.
I do not think that 90%. And I don’t think that the Saudi authorities are happy that they are being compared to radicals or even considered part of this community. Although, without a doubt, there is a Saudi component there (in the "Islamic State". - "Power").
President Obama once said (commenting on the proposal of Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly to create a joint anti-terrorist coalition.— “Power”) that there are only two members in the US-led coalition of 60 (it was about Iran and Asad. - "Power"). We should not talk in this way. Today in the ranks of the "Islamic State" - representatives of 80 countries. It is their coalition more than ours. From 20 to 30 Thousands of foreign fighters in Syria. Why? It's not just the Saudis. This is an ideology that was introduced into many countries and turned people into "true believers." We must work together to figure out ways to resist this most dangerous enemy. And for this it is necessary, among other things, to get rid of the guilt complex of the white liberal.
Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009 was widely accepted 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 do you rate it from today?
I do not think 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 is in the fight against terrorism. That is, we continue to do what our country has decided to do. US policy today lacks transparency, clarity and consistency. I think we just have to admit that this is not working. However, Russian policy is also not completely clear. Russian intervention today is becoming an increasingly important factor, it has fundamentally changed the dynamics, and we must work with this. Better together than separately.