Diary

Revisiting Benghazi, Part 2: Lines in the Sand

(AP photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

In part 1, this writer looked at the proffered reasons why Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, was in Benghazi that fateful day- 9/11/12.  Today, we have to step forward in time to 2013 before returning to Benghazi to understand what was happening in Libya at that time.

Since Qaddafi was overthrown, it was estimated tons of weapons had been shipped out of Libya to Syria.  Although Qaddafi was cooperating with the United States and had dismantled his nuclear stockpile, it is known that he still had a stockpile of chemical weapons.  Hence, we have to move forward to August 2013 before returning to Benghazi 2012.

There is no doubt that the forces of Assad had, on at least one occasion, used sarin gas against rebels.  In response to that attack, Obama had drawn his infamous “line in the sand” against further chemical attacks.  Then on August 21, 2013 images emerged from Syria of an apparent chemical attack by Assad’s forces.  The red line in the sand had been crossed.  Nothing happened.  Why was there no US response?  

The reason is twofold: the British and Libya.  There was an argument in the administration between war hawks who wanted Obama to intervene, and military experts who warned against intervening for differing reasons.  The British came in when their intelligence service managed to obtain a sample of the Sarin used in the attack and determined it did not match any batches known to exist in the Syrian’s military arsenal.  These results- that the sarin could not be definitively traced to the Syrian military- was relayed to the Pentagon.  Prior to the attack, the military was growing concerned about the role Syria’s neighbors were playing in the civil war, particularly Turkey.  Erdogan was known as a supporter of the al-Nusra front in Syria, a jihadist faction among the rebels.  The military officials believed that a sarin attack inside Syria instigated by Erdogan would draw fire down upon Assad and press Obama to enforce his line in the sand, thus possibly tipping the scales.  

Further, British and US intelligence knew in January 2013 that rebels in Syria were trying to get their hands on chemical weapons and even had labs for that purpose.  Several members of the al-Nusra front were arrested in southern Turkey and charged with having two kilograms of sarin although Turkish officials later claimed it was “antifreeze.”

Between the earlier attacks and the August 21st chemical attack in Syria, the intelligence community produced a summary on the Syrian civil war along with a special portion dedicated to chemical weaponry.  However, that spring- between Benghazi on 9/11/12 and the Ghouta attack on 8/21/13- the section concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed, allegedly on orders from White House chief-of-staff Denis McDonough.  In the aftermath of the sarin attack, plans were drawn up.  

Initially the White House rejected the military plans and argued they were not punishing enough, so they were redrawn into a massive attack designed to totally destroy Assad’s military capabilities once and for all.  The attack was planned for September 2, 2013, but on August 31st, Obama surprised everyone and said he would first seek Congressional approval before doing anything.  

It is likely that something happened- the possibility that he was about to unleash a huge military response against the Assad regime that may not have been responsible for the sarin attack.  At that point, Obama’s premise that only Assad could have been responsible was unraveling fast.  A Russian source had delivered a sample of the sarin used to British authorities.  The primary intelligence agency at the forefront of determining the source of the sarin was the Defense Intelligence Agency, then headed by Michael Flynn.  The DIA had managed to compile a list of batches of Russian-made sarin, but did not know what batches the Syrian military had.  Through a source in the Syrian military, they found the answer.  

It was surmised within the DIA that the source of the sarin possibly originated out of Libya.  It was the DIA who insisted that Assad would not have carried out a chemical attack at that time because they were winning the battle against the rebels and to do so would risk US military intervention.  At the time, Obama’s decision to go to Congress was perceived as wavering and weakness on his part.  They also fed a story to the press that McDonough and Obama had a long walk in the Rose Garden and decided against an attack fearing the Middle East would go up in smoke.  

In reality, Obama most feared going to Congress would be a replay of Bush and be predicating an attack on Syria based on faulty intelligence- exactly what Obama ran on in 2008.  On September 9th, John Kerry was asked if Assad could do anything to stop a US response.  The answer came the next day after a deal was reached brokered by Putin where Assad would relinquish his chemical stockpile.  By accepting the Russian offer, Obama “saved face” although the DNI (James Clapper) continued to insist that only Assad could have pulled off the attack.

The role of Turkey cannot be overlooked since by the end of 2012 the intelligence consensus was that the rebels were losing the war.  The IC learned in the spring of 2013 that elements of Turkish intelligence were working with al-Nusra to procure chemical weapons.  Erdogan knew that if the rebels were to lose, he would be left holding the bag as Saudi Arabia would be a less-willing ally.  Something had to be done to tip the scales and draw a massive military response from the US.  In May 2013, Erdogan and Obama held a summit and announced that “Assad must go.”  When asked about the earlier chemical attacks, Obama urged constraint and the red line was intact.  In a private meeting between Erdogan and Obama and their key national security advisers, Erdogan was insistent that Obama was not acting forcefully enough and had to enforce his red line stance.

Erdogan did not leave empty-handed.  Obama allowed Turkey to circumvent his own Executive Order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran.  In March 2012, the EU placed sanctions on Iranian banks which severely curtailed Iran’s ability to conduct foreign trade.  The US followed suit but allowed the shipments of gold to private Iranian entities. 

Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas and oil and deposited its payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian bank in Turkey.  Those funds were then used to purchase gold which was then exported to private confederates in Iran.  Up to the point of the summit, it is estimated that $13 billion in gold had entered Iran.  The program became a cash cow for traders and politicians in Turkey, Iran and the UAE.  It blew up into a scandal in Turkey in December 2012.  In response, Obama decided to close the gold loophole in January 2013, but not until July.  It was surmised this was done for one of two reasons: create an incentive to bring Iran to the negotiating table over their nuclear program, or placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war.  

The decision to end the arms gravy train out of Libya after Benghazi left Erdogan politically exposed.  The only avenue of support for the rebels was Turkey since the terrain out of Jordan prohibited it and getting arms through the lawless Lebanese valleys was troublesome.  Erdogan’s dream of a client state in Syria was evaporating and he knew that if the al-Nusra front was to be defeated, they would turn on him and his country would be inundated with people out for revenge.  There is further evidence that Turkey instigated the attack and that Turkish intelligence helped the rebels procure the sarin and trained them how to use it.  The DIA had intercepted Turkish communications in the immediate aftermath of officials basically back-slapping one another.

The sad part of this whole thing is that anywhere from 281 to 1,729 people died in the August 21, 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta, Syria.  The United States was deploying forces (along with the British and French) for a major attack on Syria that would have tipped the scales in that war in favor of the rebels backed by Turkey, many of whom were declared jihadists.  Even more sad is the fact that some of the sarin may have made its way out of Libya to Turkey, then off to the rebels in Syria.  If SA-7s and heavy weapons can make it out of Libya to Syria, quite possible chemical weapons have also.

Next: The attack, the “responses” and some serious ineptitude