Mike Flynn’s ascension to lead the National Security Council was instantly controversial and short-lived, but it has been a continuing source of frustration for the Trump administration. Barely a week goes by without a scandalous new revelation regarding his conduct, but yesterday’s twin revelations were by far the most disturbing.
On Wednesday night, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump’s transition team was fully aware that Flynn was facing a federal investigation into the suspicion that he was working on behalf of the Turkish government without having registered as a foreign agent. The Trump team made him national security advisor anyway.
Coinciding with the release of that report was an eye-opening dispatch from the Miami Herald. It revealed that, ten days before the inauguration, the Obama administration asked Flynn for his input regarding the ongoing ISIS campaign. Specifically, as NSA-designate and the point person for the Trump transition team on issues related to foreign and military affairs, Flynn was asked to approve a siege of ISIS’s de-facto capital of Raqqa—an operation the Trump administration would inherit.
“Flynn didn’t hesitate,” the Herald reported. “According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.” Not only did Flynn disapprove of that mission, but so did the Turkish government. Ankara feared the prospect of a Kurdish-led mission to seize Raqqa. Given Flynn’s commitment to the Erdoğan government, reasonable observers have questioned whether he was acting in America’s interests or Turkey’s.
Now, there is a reasonable explanation for Flynn’s apparent deference to Turkish interests that does not necessarily put them before those of the United States. The Obama administration, too, took Ankara’s concerns into account. Despite the Pentagon’s urging, the Obama administration also balked at arming Kurdish militias in Syria. The Obama White House assured Turkey that the Kurdish forces that would be used to take the city would be evacuated in favor of an Arab-majority occupation force after it fell.
The last administration even engaged in a crash program to raise a Syrian-Arab rebel army that could supplement the Kurdish militias—an objective shared by Turkey. Yet the 20,000 soldiers the coalition estimated it would need to sack and hold Raqqa were never assembled. “Turkey has been able to muster only about 2,000 Arab fighters in its battle to reclaim Al-Bab, “ the Times reported in January, “and that campaign has been bogged down by fierce resistance.”
The Trump administration seems to have come around to the view that Turkey’s objections are unreasonable. Two weeks ago, the Trump administration approved Pentagon plan to lay siege to the city of Raqqa relying primarily on Kurdish militias. Those Kurdish proxy forces, including the Marxist YPG, would be provided with Americana heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, armored cars, and other supplies over Turkish objections. When fully supplied, Kurdish-led forces expect to march on the ISIS capital sometime this summer. It seems inarguable, though, that the delay cost lives.
For many months, Western intelligence agencies have known that the Islamic State’s command and control structures in Raqqa were responsible for planning, inspiring, and exporting terrorism into Europe, Asia, and North America. In January—just days after the Obama White House requested Flynn’s input—39 people were killed, and 70 were wounded when an ISIS gunman, allegedly acting on direct orders from Raqqa, attacked a nightclub in Istanbul. ISIS had been exporting sectarianism and radicalism into Egypt for months prior to the Palm Sunday bombing of two Coptic churches in which 45 people died. An Egyptian branch of ISIS claimed credit for the attacks, which, before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Raqqa in 2014, was called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
This week, a U.S. official told CNN that ISIS was developing a “chemical weapons cell” in the ISIS-held city. Read between the lines of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s public statements, and the ISIS-held city in which the Islamic State’s laptop bomb plot is being devised (and where a key Western source is evidently located) could very well be Raqqa. This is to say nothing of the daily horrors suffered by the people who struggle to survive under the thumb of a medieval death cult. Yet all these threats and horrors were months if not years in the making.
The faster Raqqa can fall, the better, but we cannot know if these operations would have been disrupted more than they have been by the coalition’s ongoing air assault in and around Raqqa. Moreover, the fall of the city will not neutralize the ISIS terror threat. “The coalition said Thursday that Islamic State had moved its external attack planning operations to Tabqa after their defeat in Manbij to avoid coalition airstrikes in Raqqa,” the Voice of America revealed last week. Only ISIS’s decimation and defeat and the dismantling of its propaganda network will contain the resurgent Islamist terror threat.
Flynn’s many errors in judgment have put the administration in which he served in great jeopardy. The administration’s ill-considered decision to hire him in the first place renders it hard to have any sympathy for its predicament. It is, however, impossible for us to say whether Flynn came to the same conclusion about Raqqa that Barack Obama did as a result of his service to the Turkish government. That’s what special prosecutors are for.