Dreaming in Empire: The Geopolitics of Syria’s Civil War and the Killing of Osama bin Laden

By Joseph DanaMay 12, 2016

The Killing of Osama bin Laden by Seymour Hersh

WHEN PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA touched down in Riyadh last month for his final official visit to the Arabian Gulf, the rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia was barely concealed. The Obama administration’s deal with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program angered the Saudis, along with other Sunni Gulf allies and Israel. For the Saudis, Iran is extending its influence across the Middle East, from Sana’a to Beirut and Damascus, in nefarious ways that threaten their country’s dominant regional position. To make matters worse, the United States is emboldening the ayatollahs in Tehran by lifting the sanctions.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have based their foreign policy on continued and unwavering US support in their battles for supremacy over the Iranians. That this deal marks a highpoint for US diplomacy means nothing to these countries. Likewise, that Iran’s influence with Shia groups in the Middle East can help in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda is of no consequence to Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

Obama’s frosty reception — Saudi Arabian King Salman failed to even greet Obama at the airport, choosing to send the governor of Riyadh in his place — was a physical embodiment of the rift the Iran deal has created in the region. Since his hopeful speech to the Arab world in 2009, Obama has watched the Middle East descend into chaos, with borders redrawn and violent extremists taking advantage of the mayhem.

Seymour Hersh’s new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, is an excellent primer on the United States’s position in the current mess in the Middle East. The book is a collection of Hersh’s recent pieces for the London Review of Books tackling the narrative of the bin Laden killing, and the Obama administration’s involvement in the war in Syria.

If you are familiar with Hersh’s controversial articles, you will find little new in this slim volume, save for a pithy denunciation of Obama’s administration in the introduction. Despite the lack of new material, the book and its reporting on the decision-making of history’s most secretive White House is critical reading. With a new US president on the horizon, attempts to make sense of how the US position (or lack thereof) on the Syrian Civil War affects traditional allies in the region is timely, but, sadly, being ignored.

The retelling of the killing of bin Laden, in which Hersh alleges that the administration deliberately lied about the events of the assassination, provides the context for his explosive material on Syria. According to Hersh’s anonymous sources, the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) had known of bin Laden’s whereabouts for nearly a decade and placed him in a Pakistani resort town near one of the country’s largest military bases to keep tabs on his whereabouts and activity.

Seeking the $25 million reward, a former Pakistani security official walked into a US consulate and tipped off staff as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. What follows is an account of collusion between Washington and Islamabad as to the extraction of bin Laden and the covering up of Pakistan’s involvement in harboring the world’s most wanted terrorist. Hersh has received much negative commentary for his use of anonymous sourcing and partly for good reason. But his reporting shines as he unpicks the myriad inconsistencies in the administration’s account of bin Laden’s killing.

In many ways, one could arrive at the same conclusion — that the Obama administration has continuously lied about how it killed bin Laden — by evaluating how White House statements have changed and sometimes contradicted each other. For example, was bin Laden armed at the time of his assassination? Did he use women and children as human shields? Was he nothing more than a cripple unable to stand? Each freedom of information request to clarify what really transpired when Navy SEALs descended on bin Laden’s compound has been rejected on national security grounds. And, far from the administration’s claims, bin Laden had no operational influence in al-Qaeda.

After Hersh published his piece in the London Review of Books, much of the US media subjected him to a campaign of character assassination. The Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter gave an interview to NPR’s On the Media in response. The host asked Hersh a straightforward question: how do you expect us to believe there was a vast conspiracy between the governments of the United States and Pakistan, not to mention their security services, to conceal the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man?

Hersh replied that no one would have imagined a vast government agency that employed thousands of people would spy on the communication of virtually all Americans, and, indeed, many of the people on this planet. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency demonstrates, he argued, that such an organization exists and, as such, we should think more critically about what the government is capable of.

The Osama bin Laden chapter is backstory for the charged material concerning the Syrian Civil War in the book. Through a network of anonymous sources from various branches of the US government and those close to foreign diplomats, Hersh reports that a highly classified annex to the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been set up to funnel arms to rebels in Syria based on a 2012 agreement between Obama and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Hersh notes that “by the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria.”

Since the beginning of the war, Turkey has been one of the most vociferous anti-Assad actors in the conflict. Early in the fighting, Ankara had opened its southern border to Sunni militants and the Free Syrian Army and gave them the freedom to move fighters and weapons. According to Hersh, the United States facilitated the trafficking of weapons to these militants, many of whom would later join ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. When images of al-Nusra Front fighters with advanced surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down a commercial jetliner began appearing on social media, the United States pulled the plug on the operation.

This sent Erdoğan through the roof. Fearing that Obama was backtracking in Syria, Hersh reports in one of his most profound revelations, Turkey assisted al-Nusra Front fighters in the production of chemical weapons. Thanks to Obama’s famous red line, in which he promised US military action if Assad used chemical weapons, Turkey felt that it could manufacture a chemical weapon attack carried out by rebel fighters but made to look like the Assad regime. Such an attack would force Obama’s hand and the United States would launch a war against Assad. This almost happened.

Hersh’s insight into the US military’s perspective on Syria is fascinating and critical, even without the explosive claim that a NATO ally was involved in the procurement of chemical weapons later used on a civilian population by a terrorist organization. According to his sources, the US intelligence establishment did not believe Assad had used chemical weapons. With field analysis obtained by British intelligence, US generals intervened at the last minute to prevent Obama from going to war. Much to the chagrin of Erdoğan and his allies, “it was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course in Syria.”

The real obstacle in Syria, according to Hersh’s sources in the US government, is Turkey. Erdoğan emerges in the narrative as a major roadblock in a solution to the Syrian crisis thanks to his neo-Ottoman plans for Turkey. “American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdogan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra Front) for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State,” Hersh notes. The debate about Turkey’s relationship with ISIS is a controversial one. After running a story detailing Turkish intelligence efforts to arm extremist rebels in Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid, Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, found himself in jail. He has since been charged with espionage and divulging state secrets.

“We can handle the Saudis,” an anonymous intelligence adviser tells Hersh,
We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood […] We told him [Erdoğan] we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big — of restoring the Ottoman Empire — and he did not realize the extent to which he could be successful in this.

The surprise announcement this month that Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s prime minister and long-time “good cop” to Erdoğan’s “bad cop,” is stepping down from his post after losing a power struggle with the president is additional evidence of Erdoğan’s grand plans to consolidate power and continue unchallenged with his neo-Ottoman plans.

In the latter chapters of The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Hersh carefully examines Russia’s position in Syria. Having berated Obama for being stuck in a Cold War mentality when it comes to the Russians, and chastising the American press for adding fuel to the anti-Russian hysteria with articles about the situation in Ukraine, Hersh argues that the Russians are playing a constructive role in Syria insofar as they are attacking ISIS and other rebel groups. If the greatest challenge in Syria is the existence of ISIS and al-Nusra Front, then yes, the Russians are on the front lines fighting these organizations.


Obama seems to be waiting out the clock on his presidency and hoping that a major catastrophe does not jolt the region in the next six months. This mess will be in the hands of the next president, and that has many people worried. We do not know how Donald Trump will approach this mess, or if he even possesses the analytical capacity to understand the nuance of the chaos. As for Hillary Clinton, US allies in the region from Israel to Saudi Arabia and even Turkey will certainly embrace her hawkish position. She has spoken of supporting moderate rebels (again, the ones that Hersh demonstrates do not exist) and even enforcing a no-fly zone that would elevate tensions of a confrontation with Russia and help militants like ISIS.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel, the axis of US involvement in the region, have exercised their military force since the deal with Iran to demonstrate their continued relevance to US foreign policy. Israel allowed hundreds of Jewish extremists access to the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem last fall, knowing full well that the Palestinians would react violently. Since that time, there has been a cycle of knife attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians along with aggressive Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. The cycle of violence remains a talking point after Secretary of State John Kerry failed to achieve any movement on the now-dead peace process.

In the Gulf, the conflict in Yemen is a testament to Saudi Arabia’s feverish efforts to stay relevant. When Houthi rebels from the northern part of Yemen began receiving low-level military and strategic assistance from Iran and took over the country’s capital city Sana’a, Saudi Arabia put together a coalition of Sunni Gulf states and went to war in defense of Yemen’s embattled and internationally recognized government. After a year of bloody fighting that has cost Saudi Arabia and its allies much in blood and treasure, there is no clear exit strategy, and peace talks are faltering at best.

By going to war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has sent a clear message to the United States that it remains an aggressive force in a challenging region that refuses to be ignored. While the United States has provided military support and intelligence in Yemen, especially when it comes to containing the growth of al-Qaeda and ISIS militants using the security vacuum to their own advantage, Washington has let Saudi Arabia grapple with its Yemen problem alone. Moreover, former US diplomats have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of the war.

This fraught relationship between two allies that have nothing in common besides military and economic interests would not demand as much attention if the rest of the region was not in a state of absolute and utter chaos. In Iraq, power-sharing agreements have failed and sectarian tensions threatened to rip the country apart. ISIS still controls the country’s second-largest city, while Kurds in the northern part of Iraq inch closer to independence by the day. Baghdad’s control over the country has never been weaker and the Iranians continue to entrench their power in the country.

It is the civil war in Syria where all these tensions and challenges come to a point. Outside of their criticism of the Iran deal, Saudi Arabia has been vocal in its anger toward Obama’s strategy in Syria. Russian assistance to the Assad regime over the past six months has helped the Syrian government win back large areas of territory from rebels and angered Sunni Muslim countries like Qatar and Turkey, which have invested heavily in the rebels and the removal of Assad from power.

With secrecy and deception, the Obama administration has begun a profound rearticulation of US foreign policy in the Middle East. That this has been done under the auspices of the United States’s pivot to Asia is a testament to the administration’s deft ability to manipulate the contours of fact.

Say what you will about the validity of his sources, Hersh’s work for the London Review of Books, presented in this volume, is the clearest articulation of how US policy on the Middle East has shifted, with often damaging consequences. This book should be required reading for those seeking firm answers from US presidential candidates before they take office.


Joseph Dana is a print and radio journalist based in the Middle East. Formerly Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief, his print work has appeared in GQ (Germany), Le Monde Diplomatique, and The Nation

LARB Contributor

Joseph Dana is a print and radio journalist based in the Middle East. Formerly Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief, his print work has appeared in GQ (Germany), Le Monde Diplomatique, and The Nation.


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