The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) released a report on November 21st titled "Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria." The report focuses on Russia’s role in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and calls for the U.S. to maintain a presence in Syria.
The ISW presents itself as a "non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization." In reality, the ISW is a neocon think tank funded by some of the country’s largest defense contractors. The ISW has a significant influence in Washington, and its chairman even has direct access to President Trump.
The report argues that Assad does not have the resources to regain and maintain control of the rest of Syria and that his victory would not bring stability. As far as Russia’s role, the report says, "The Kremlin seeks to thwart any Western effort to replace Assad and to instead reach a superficial political settlement that legitimizes his regime and neutralizes his opposition."
The report points to an insurgency in Southern Syria as both an example of Assad’s failure to maintain stability and an opportunity for the US to spread influence. Page 32 of the report reads, "The brewing insurgency in Southern Syria may generate new local leaders with whom the US can engage diplomatically if not support outright."
The report advocates for more US forces in Syria, "The US should recommit to its partnership with the SDF in Eastern Syria to build credible and inclusive governance as an alternative to both Assad and Salafi-Jihadist Groups. The US should deploy additional forces to work with the SDF to stabilize the east and block further Turkish incursions."
Jennifer Cafarella, one of the report’s authors and research director for the ISW, has written on Syria for years and is a major proponent of US intervention in the country. Cafarella wrote an op-ed for Foreign Affairs in July 2018 titled "Don’t Get Out of Syria." After President Trump announced his unfulfilled plan to withdraw troops from Syria in December 2018, Cafarella wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled, "The Islamic State is not defeated. Trump must reverse his decision to withdraw from Syria."
Cafarella appeared on CSPAN on October 16th to discuss Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria. When presented with the fact that Trump was facing an imminent Turkish invasion and had no choice but to withdraw, Cafarella said, "The President of the United States always has a choice. We have military options."
The ISW does not provide much detail into its funding, but one page on the ISW website lists some corporate sponsors. Among them are General Dynamics, CACI International, and L3 Harris Technologies. All three of these corporations have a vested interest in keeping the US engaged in the Middle East.
For example, CACI just scored a $907 million five-year contract to provide intelligence analysis to US forces in Afghanistan. ISW employees have written extensively on the dangers of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane serves as chairman of the ISW. On August 28th, Keane and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wrote an op-ed together in The Washington Post titled, "We can’t outsource our security to anyone — especially the Taliban." The two argued against Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Graham is one of the loudest critics of the president’s Middle East policies, and Trump seems to listen to the Senator.
Just a day after Keane and Graham’s op-ed was published, Trump said he planned on keeping troops in Afghanistan. And on September 8th, he announced the peace deal with the Taliban was dead. Not all hope is lost for an Afghan peace deal, during a Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan last week, Trump said talks with the Taliban were back on.
Keane and Graham seem to be an effective duo in influencing Trump’s policies in the Middle East. According to NBC News, Keane and Graham played a vital role in convincing Trump to stay in Syria to "secure the oil." Keane reportedly showed Trump a map of Syrian oil fields on October 8th, two days after troops withdrew from areas of northeast Syria to avoid the Turkish incursion.
On October 14th, Keane returned to the White House with Senator Graham to show the president more maps and warned that Iran would move in to take the oil, and the airspace above the fields. The ISW specializes in map making and most likely made the maps Keane used.
The ISW has had a major influence on Washington’s Syria policy in the past. In 2013, the late Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry both referenced an op-ed by a former ISW employee while testifying before Congress. They cited a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Elizabeth O’bagy about Syria’s opposition groups.
O’bagy argued that "Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaeda die-hards." Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) questioned Kerry in September 2013 about the number of jihadists among the "moderate rebels" in Syria. Kerry cited O’bagy’s article and said only "15 to 25 percent" of the rebels were "bad guys". McCaul rebutted Kerry and said the intelligence briefings he received put the number of jihadists around 50 percent. McCaul’s claim is more consistent with a declassified Department of Defense document from August 2012 that said, "The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria."
When O’bagy penned this op-ed, she was also working for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group that was actively lobbying for the US government to provide aid to the Syrian rebels. The Journal failed to disclose this when they published the piece and added a clarification later. After the discrepancy, the ISW discovered that O’bagy lied about having a PHD and was fired from her position. O’bagy’s conflict of interest and lies about her credentials did not seem to bother McCain. After she was fired from the ISW, McCain hired O’bagy as a legislative assistant.
The ISW was founded in 2007 by Kimberly Kagan. The Kagans are one of the most influential families in Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Kimberly Kagan’s husband, Frederick Kagan, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and regularly writes reports and op-eds in favor of US military intervention. His most recent report about the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities says, "The US should conduct a military strike in response to the Iranian attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia in order to deter continued Iranian military escalation." There is still no evidence to prove Iran’s guilt in the oil facility attack and Yemen’s Houthis have taken credit, but that does not stop Frederick from advocating for a strike against the Islamic Republic.
Frederick Kagan’s brother, Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Robert Kagan co-founded the now-infamous neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century with Bill Kristol. Robert Kagan, like Kristol, has rebranded himself as a never-Trump Republican and is frequently published in The Washington Post, writing stories like, "If we legitimize Trump’s behavior, it’ll be open season on our politics."
Robert Kagan is married to Victoria Nuland, who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs in the Obama administration. Nuland orchestrated the 2014 coup in Ukraine from her position in the State Department while her husband wrote op-eds urging Obama to adopt a more hawkish foreign policy. Nuland currently holds a senior fellowship at the Brookings Institution and is a senior counselor for the National Endowment for Democracy (to go down the Kagan family rabbit hole watch Robbie Martin’s documentary series A Very Heavy Agenda).
The ISW represents the worst of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Overpaid hacks, collecting paychecks from defense contractors. Architects of the Iraq war infest these think tanks and are still given a platform in the country’s most-read newspapers. And President Trump is no victim of this corrupt establishment, if he had any principles whatsoever, he would have sent Gen. Keane, and his maps packing and followed through on his Syria withdrawal.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.