Streetwise Professor

July 28, 2016

Consigning Another US Syrian “Training” Farce to the Memory Hole

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:35 pm

Today there were numerous stories in most major news outlets about a “vast new trove” of intelligence about ISIS, with the NYT (AKA administration mouthpiece and cheerleader) taking the lead in pushing the story.

You had to look a lot harder-and a lot faster-to find another story which casts US intelligence in a much, much worse light. Specifically, ISIS captured a cache of weapons and computer disks from the latest group that the US has been training in Syria, the New Syrian Army. (Coming next: The New New Syrian Army. Or maybe: And Now for a Completely Different Syrian Army.)

ISIS released some of the video contained on the captured disks, complete with English subtitles (because the dialogue is in Arabic) and commentary, and some snazzy editing. The video that got the most play featured a douchy looking American, presumably CIA, who looks like he just wandered away from a kegger at his frat. In one part of the video frat boy gives instruction to a beefy uniformed Syrian. What is the content of the instruction, you ask? Close quarter combat? Demolitions? Combat shooting?

Surely you jest. No, frat boy was giving a lesson in public communications. He was instructing the Syrian on how to deliver a recorded propaganda statement, telling him things like it’s OK to move your hands, but keep your feet still and don’t shift your weight around on your legs. He gave demonstrations of proper body language. He assured the nervous pupil that they had plenty of time to master this.

Years ago, when I joined the UH faculty, the dean had me and several other new senior hires take a course in media relations that included a virtually identical session on how to act on camera.

In another part of the video, the American gives a disquisition on why ISIS propaganda is effective. In a nutshell, it is because actions reinforce the verbal message.

So, apparently, a part of the American training operation is how to win hearts and minds through killer presentation skills. No doubt another part of the training was the art of effective PowerPoint presentations.

Meanwhile ISIS propaganda effectively wins hearts and minds through demonstrating killer killing skills.

The video really has to be seen to be believed. But that’s easier said than done. The videos were posted on Twitter. The CIA guy’s face is plainly visible, and because of this, Twitter yanked tweets embedding the video. I was able to grab it, and was planning to embed it here. I still might, but don’t want to do anything precipitatous, and I understand that there are issues with disclosing the identities of US operatives.

It’s a close call, though, because it is the (presumably) CIA’s  recklessness that created this problem. It was the CIA who allowed its operative to be filmed with his face fully visible. It was the CIA that allowed the video to be stored unencrypted on the drives captured by ISIS. It was the CIA that trained a group that was beaten by ISIS, which resulted in the capture of not just the videos and other electronic information, but weapons. Since this fiasco is completely of the CIA’s making, it is a little rich to invoke the importance of maintaining the secrecy of US operatives when the Agency itself was grossly incompetent in its personal and operational security. Methinks that this CIA CYA was more about protecting the faceless bureaucrats in Langley than protecting the face of the hapless Lawrence wannabe in the Syrian desert.

This is yet another episode in the ongoing farce that is the American effort to train fighters in Syria. Remember the tragicomic Five Guys incident? The hundreds of millions spent to outfit a handful of “fighters” who almost immediately capitulated to Al Qaeda-linked insurgents? That program was eventually terminated, but the ones that have replaced it have been conspicuous only for their utter lack of impact on the battlefield, whether it be against ISIS or against Assad. Of late, the most prominent American action in Syria has been to whinge about the Russians and Assad bombing “our” fighters (and bases used by US and UK special forces to train them–and perhaps to operate in Syria), and to attempt to negotiate some bizarre deal with the Russians to prevent that from happening again.

In fact, the effort has been so woeful that it actually makes more sense that it is intended to fail, than to succeed. Obama is under pressure to do something in Syria, but he doesn’t want to. What better way to split the baby than to fund a farcical effort? If it is intended to fail, at least we can claim a success, for fail it has.

Regardless of the explanation for the farce, there is no denying that it is a farce. One look at the video just adds an exclamation mark to that statement, but there is plenty of documentation in the public record that the effort is a litany of abject failure unblemished by a single success. (Involvement with the Kurds is a different story. I am focusing on training of Arab fighters in Syria.)

And consider this irony: a comical effort to train anti-ISIS Syrians in propaganda resulted in handing a huge propaganda victory to ISIS. Because rest assured, even though you can’t see the video, the audience in the Islamic world that matters to ISIS has or will. What better way to make a laughingstock of the US than to show some communications major lecturing about the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda, and engaging in pitiful efforts to train Syrians in fighting ISIS propaganda?

Which raises the issue: just what is the objective in Syria? Who are we fighting? Why? To achieve what? The administration goes through the motions of supporting the anti-Assad insurgency, but its heart is clearly not in it. I can understand that, and actually agree with it: the US has little strategic interest in who wins the Syrian civil war, and an Assad defeat would almost certainly empower head chopping, terrorist, anti-American Islamists. But if that’s the policy, stop the cynical game of training a few deluded fools and sending them to be killed. This accomplishes nothing strategically, and damages the reputation of the US. It bolsters the Islamist/ISIS narrative that the US is ineffectual, unreliable, and feckless.

If the objective is to fight ISIS, well, to paraphrase Napoleon speaking of Vienna–fight ISIS. And do so using proven methods. But the US now proudly boasts that it is not using methods that have worked in the past. SecDef Carter (in whom Obama has finally found a reliable water boy after firing three predecessors who dared defy him) brags that the US is NOT engaged in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. Why not? Because it has actually worked before? Because it is linked with the Bush administration and General Petraeus? I can’t think of a reason based on actual military realities.

The press would be savaging a Republican administration for such colossal ineptitude and cynicism. Hell, the press might even savage some Democratic administrations. But Obama is given a free pass, and the utter failure–and patent absurdity–of his Syria policy draws nary a cross word from the panjandrums of the press. Indeed, they trumpet alleged intelligence triumphs while remaining mute about proven intelligence debacles: the timing of the release of the intelligence coup story raises the real possibility that it was intended to counter to intelligence boner story. Twitter goes so far as to clean up after the circus parade to conceal the mess that the CIA made: I presume Google has too, because the video is not to be found on YouTube.

It is a performance worthy of Putin’s press, but worse, actually. It is worse because at least Putin’s press does not pretend to hold him accountable, whereas America’s preens and primps about its vital role in our democracy, and declares that it is a vital check on the skulduggery and incompetence of elected officials and bureaucrats. To the extent that it is, it is extremely selective, and this is even more dangerous in many ways than a lapdog press like Putin’s. Consigning the video of the public comms 101 class to the memory hole is just another sad demonstration of why.

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4 Comments »

  1. Not going to argue with the ineptitude of the current administration nor would I quibble with your analysis of candidate Clinton and her absolute total fail in foreign policy. She is a walking disaster.

    However, I do believe there is a role for social media and other media to play in the fight with ISIS. We shouldn’t discount a concerted effort to educate the population about values that are instinctive to humanity. Ironically, they are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and other documents of the time.

    My friend has translated Thomas Paine’s Common Sense into Arabic. The people he gives it to love the message. Hearing and reading that message puts them on a path to understanding, and paves the way for less hate.

    At the same time, if the person fights for ISIS, there is only one option. Kill them all.

    Comment by Pointsnfigures — July 28, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

  2. “to educate the population about values that are instinctive to humanity”: if the values are instinctive, why do Arabs need to be indoctrinated in them? Are they less than human?

    “they are enshrined in the Bill of Rights” – meaning that they were British rights at that time, not universal rights.

    Comment by dearieme — July 29, 2016 @ 4:01 am

  3. Points
    The notion that humans are naturally good is known as the Pelagian Heresy.
    Anyone who has raised kids, been at a party or a riot where the brakes are off will understand that Augustine was right and Pelagius wrong. This is stuff argued about and agreed about 1,500 years ago.

    What are our “strategic interests” anywhere from Syria to Afghanistan? Close to zero. Wall them off and let them bicker and fight among themselves.

    Comment by bloke in france — July 29, 2016 @ 11:12 am

  4. @Points-I understand the desire to believe that a social media campaign could work. It would be nice if we could defeat Islamism and terrorism through sweet reason and Tweets. But it’s a dream to think it will work.

    I appreciate your friend’s efforts, but the positive response is probably a sample selection effect. He is not interacting with a random sample, and the people he interacts with are probably far more likely to be receptive than those he has very little chance of interacting with. And it is the latter who are consumers of ISIS social media.

    Those who find ISIS social media compelling are attracted by the fantasies of power and the pornography of violence it offers. Those people are not going to be persuaded by an 18th century American patriot. Sadly, the only way to reach those people is to destroy those fantasies by killing ISIS and defeating it on the battlefield. Humiliating it actually, and making that humiliation plain. The social media campaign depends on decisive victory on the battlefield. It is not an alternative or a substitute. We are dealing with a weak horse/strong horse culture (Osama was right about that), and the necessary condition for winning is demonstrating that we are the strong horse.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 29, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

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