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Former CIA Official Reflects on Tangle of Wars in Syria

Michael Morell: Who Should the US Support in Syria?
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Michael Morell: Whom Should the US Support in Syria?

A former top U.S. intelligence official says the crisis in Syria is the hardest policy problem that he has seen in his 33 years in government.

Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, told VOA's Cal Perry in an exclusive interview that Syria is so difficult policy-wise because there are five different wars underway in the country.

Morell, author of the recently released book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism — From al-Qaida to ISIS, spoke about two of the conflicts.

"The two most important are, number one, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it's a proxy war over long-term influence in the Middle East," Morell said. "Iran wants it. Saudi Arabia doesn't want Iran to have it. In that war, in my personal view — I'm stating a policy view here, which is unusual for an intelligence guy — but in my view, we should be all in with Saudi Arabia.

"The other interesting war that's going on in Syria is between a secular leader, (Bashar al-)Assad, and ISIS and al-Qaida," he said. "Who should we support in that war? The secular leader, right? So we have two different wars pointing in two completely different directions. That's why this is so complicated."

No Syria strategy

Morell compared efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria. He said that while 25 percent of the territory that IS first took in Iraq has been recaptured and that ultimately all of it will be taken back, the possibility of doing the same in Syria is more daunting.

"The problem we have is that while we've got a strategy that I think is going to work in Iraq over the long term ... you can't disenfranchise those Sunnis. You've got to keep them in the fold, and the Kurds, as well. We don't have a similar strategy in Syria," he said. "We just don't. And so you have a hammer in Iraq, but no anvil in Syria. So as we're successful in Iraq, we're just going to push them into Syria, and they're going to have a safe haven in eastern Syria unless we figure out what to do about Syria, and I'm not sitting here telling you I have the answer. It's really hard."

Morell made his remarks hours before the White House and Pentagon said Saturday that U.S. special forces had killed an Islamic State commander and captured his wife in eastern Syria.

The overnight raid targeted a Tunisian man known as Abu Sayyaf, whom the U.S. describes as having been involved in the militant group's military and financial operations, including the black market gas-and-oil industry that funds much of the organization's activities.

In the interview with VOA's Perry, Morell also disputed a recent article by American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on the circumstances that helped U.S. intelligence officials locate Osama bin Laden and the raid in which U.S. special forces assassinated him at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

“It's rubbish, it's all wrong," Morell said of Hersh's article.

Contrary to Hersh's assessment, Morell said the U.S. did not learn of bin Laden's whereabouts from a Pakistani man who was given $25 million for the information. He said U.S. officials found one of bin Laden's couriers, determined where the al-Qaida leader migh be located, monitored him at his Abbottabad compound for months, and concluded that he was "probably there."

Morell also countered Hersh's claim that Pakistan's government knew of the bin Laden operation.

Bin Laden secret

"I was in every meeting at the CIA and every meeting at the White House," Morell said. "I was there when President Obama said we are not going to tell the Pakistanis. This was the most closely held secret that I'd ever been involved in in my career."

Obama has said the U.S. worked alone to kill bin Laden.

Morell, who has served under six presidents, also defended the the decision by U.S. officials to target suspected terrorists using unmanned drone aircraft, saying "they are the single most effective tool in protecting the United States and our allies from attacks."

"I am absolutely convinced that without the aggressive drone program that was started by President [George W.] Bush and continued by President Obama, that there would have been another 9/11-style attack in the United States sometime between 2008 and 2012," Morell said.

"The other thing I'll say is that this is the most precise weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Collateral damage is not zero — and gosh, I wish it were zero, but it's not — but it's very close to zero.

"Number three, the numbers that you see about huge numbers of collateral damage just aren't true. They are put out there as propaganda by people who want this program to go away, and al-Qaida is one of those groups."