A civil defense member looks for survivors amid the rubble of damaged houses after an air strike on rebel-held Old Aleppo, Syria. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)
Opinion writer

America’s top spymaster offered contrarian assessments of some key issues: warning against “hyping” the threat posed by the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate (terrorist group) Jabhat al-Nusra, cautioning against Obama administration plans to share intelligence with Russia on Syrian targets and questioning Turkish claims that last Friday’s coup attempt was organized by a cleric living in the United States.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper made the characteristically blunt comments in an interview Wednesday. He expanded on a warning he made in an interview in May that the United States can’t by itself “fix” the problems of the turbulent Middle East. Clapper’s skeptical view is shared by President Obama and has reinforced the administration’s wariness about committing military force in Syria.

Clapper began the wide-ranging discussion by questioning the recent “groundswell” of concern about Jabhat al-Nusra. He said that the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate poses only a “nascent” danger to the U.S. homeland and “doesn’t approach the threat” posed by the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra’s ability to attack the United States and Europe is “aspirational” rather than “imminent,” he said, describing as overly “strident” recent news reports about increasing evidence of external plots by the group.

Clapper’s skepticism about Jabhat al-Nusra is matched by his wariness of collaborating with Russia in strikes against the group, an approach that Obama has tentatively approved. “I’ve expressed my reservations about, for example, sharing intelligence with [the Russians] . . . which they desperately want, I think, to exploit — to learn what they can about our sources and methods and tactics and techniques and procedures,” he said.

Based on Russia’s record of failure to deliver on promises, “what is it they’ve done that gives you confidence that if we do more with them or share more intel . . . they’re going to improve?” Clapper asked.

Clapper underlined that Obama faces a bleak set of alternatives in Syria. “All our policymakers have are bad choices. There is no good choice here.” He continued: “It seems there’s a lot of rhetoric that makes you think, ‘Gee, this is really simple. If we just did this, we’re good to go!’ Well, no. Syria is just unbelievably complex. It just makes your head hurt.”

Like Obama, Clapper doubts that earlier U.S. military or paramilitary intervention in Syria would have helped. “I was around for all the deliberations in 2012. . . . There was the big debate then about supporting the opposition, being much more aggressive and all that. Had we been, I don’t know that we’d be in any different situation now, other than that we would have invested more blood and treasure.”

Asked whether Turkish allegations that cleric Fethullah Gulen planned the attempted coup passed the “smell test” of credibility, Clapper answered: “No. Not to me.” He said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry “was right on the ball” to press the Turks to back up their extradition request with evidence of Gulen’s involvement. “We haven’t seen it yet. We certainly haven’t seen it in intel.”

The coup attempt “complicates the Syria situation, because a lot of the people purged were key interlocutors with the U.S.” against the Islamic State, such as the Incirlik air base commander , he said. “This is going to set back [counterterrorism] in general, because the Turks are going to be consumed with this and its implications.” Clapper said that in this period of uncertainty, “it’s vital that the Turks stay in NATO.”

Clapper said that the United States should stop hoping for quick fixes in the Middle East and hunker down for a protracted period of instability and violence by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and successor groups. “We’re going to be doing this for, I think, a long time. This is going to be the normal for us.”

Clapper, a Cold War veteran, offered a final contrarian observation: that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be as strong as he appears. “We watch public opinion in Russia, and I think his popularity may be a little brittle. Given the strains on the economy and the impacts on individuals — unemployment, wages, pensions — it’s not clear to me that the rhetoric about Russia as a great power exerting itself in far-flung places like Ukraine and Syria is going to continue to resonate with the Russian public,” he said.

“This is giving me a headache, talking about this,” Clapper remarked at one point during the 90-minute conversation. He noted the “amazing” contrast between the “simplicity” of campaign debate and the “complexity” of real decisions. People may imagine that U.S. military power can just “clean clocks” in places such as Raqqa and Mosul and be done, he said, but the world doesn’t work like that.

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