And new novel ‘Damascus Station.’
Former CIA analyst David McCloskey, who covered Syria from 2008 to 2014, on the roots of Syria’s war, the US role, and his new novel set during the conflict’s early years, “Damascus Station.”
As a CIA analyst, David McCloskey covered Syria from 2008 to 2014. He draws on his experience for his new spy thriller, “Damascus Station,” set during the early years of the Syrian war.
David McCloskey joins Aaron Maté to discuss “Damascus Station”; the early years of the Syrian war; the role of foreign powers including the US; the US decision to support the insurgency despite knowing that Al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups were its “primary engine”; allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria; and the direction of US policy in post-war Syria.
Guest: David McCloskey. Former CIA analyst who covered Syria for six years, from 2008 to 2014. Wrote memos for the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), lived and worked in CIA field stations throughout the region, and briefed senior White House officials, members of Congress, and Arab royalty. His new book is “Damascus Station“, a spy thriller set during the early years of the Syrian war.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. Joining me is David McCloskey. He is a former CIA analyst who covered Syria for six years, from 2008 to 2014, wrote memos to the President’s Daily Brief, lived and worked in field stations throughout the Middle East, and briefed senior White House officials, members of Congress and Arab royalty. He draws on his experience with Syria for his new book, Damascus Station, a spy thriller set during the 10-year Syrian war. David McCloskey, thank you for joining me.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Hey, thanks, Aaron. Great to be here.
AARON MATÉ: Your book comes with some high praise from people like General David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, who calls Damascus Station, quote, “The best spy novel I have ever read.” If we can start just by letting me ask you to lay out the plot of your book and how you came to write it.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, well, sure thing. So, the book, as is probably fairly apparent, is a spy novel. It’s set in, [as] the first page says, the early years of the Syrian war, but it’s really kind of a mash-up in some ways of what 2011 to 2013 was like. So, really, the first two years of the conflict.
It follows a CIA case officer named Sam and his Syrian recruit, Mariam, who break one of the cardinal rules of espionage and fall into a forbidden relationship. They go into Damascus to hunt down the killer of another CIA officer, and in that process come face-to-face with a lot of the tension and the conflict and the passion of their own relationship, as well as come face-to-face with a very dark secret at the heart of the fictionalized Syrian regime in my book.
Yeah, it’s a book about espionage. It’s a spy novel, after all. But it’s also about love, and I think, ultimately—or I hope—it’s a book about what it means to be human in the middle of a very inhuman conflict.
And I wrote the book… you know, I left the CIA as mentioned in 2014, and I’d worked on, among other things, Syria for a number of years up to that point. And I think a lot of times the writing, the thinking that we do in intelligence is very anodyne and sterile for a lot of good reasons, sort of removing… it’s not value-laden or policy-prescriptive. We’re trying as best we can to be very objective, but that also means that when you’re covering something that’s pretty emotional, like a horrible conflict that’s ripping apart a country, you come out of that with weight on you, and a desire to process those emotions and to think through what they mean. And so, as I started to sit down and write—and it was, by the way, that writing process, I wrote a lot in 2014 when I left and I wasn’t able to come back to it for another five years, and really finished the book in kind of that second go-round—but I really wanted to, through the eyes of my characters, to get Syria right as much as I could, to reflect the conflict through the lens of a lot of different types of people, and to bring the reader into the war and into what I think is the wide range, really the full range, of human emotion that it brings out: heroism, bravery, self-sacrifice, tragedy, brutality, and humanity on the other end. And so, I really wanted to capture that in the book as much as I could.
The second thing I wanted to do is I wanted to get the CIA right. A lot of spy fiction out there, fun as it can be, doesn’t really deal authentically with not only just the tradecraft of the agency, the way it works, but what I think is kind of the moral code or the sort of ethics of the place in a realistic or a fair way. And so, I wanted to kind of get the CIA right as well. So, I think as I was sitting down to write the book, those two thoughts were in my head as I put together the plot and the characters. And Damascus Station, the novel, is what came out of it.
AARON MATÉ: One of the themes I picked up from the book is that you’re trying to get into the heads of people, including people who are not on your side of the war, who are on the Syrian government side, of how they would act just in their best self-interest in really tough situations beyond their control. Is that a fair way to look at how you approach the book, including writing characters that were on the other side of the war?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, certainly. So, I think one of the unfortunate things about the conflict, in the way that it’s sort of been characterized here in the United States, certainly, but I think more broadly as well, I’d say there’s two ends to this. There’s one end which is a very cartoonish: there’s an us-versus-them and there’s clear good guys and bad guys, and it’s kind of easy. And then on the other hand, it’s like it’s so complicated it’s not even worth understanding. And I think, as I was writing the characters and thinking about their point of view and their mindset, I was trying to deal with the complexity, but in a way that would draw people in as opposed to have them think, ‘Oh, this is a’… there’s a character in the book who’s a Syrian security official, and he’s introduced, you kind of meet him in the book, and you think, ‘Oh, this guy is going to be the villain.’ And he does a lot of despicable stuff in the book. But I think it’d be too simplistic to call him a villain in the story. You know, he’s a more complicated character than that.
And so, I wanted to get at some of that complexity which characterizes the human experience and draw that out of my characters, irrespective of whether they were the quote-unquote good and bad guys, which I think in the genre, in spy fiction, you need good guys and bad guys, but they don’t have to be paper thin. They can be complicated. Your good guys can do bad things and your bad guys can do good things. And I think that, to me, is a more fair way of looking at humanity and in the way that people act in the middle of a conflict like this, whatever side they’re on.
AARON MATÉ: And when you were at CIA, were you thinking at the time, this could be a great spy novel? Or did this idea for a novel come to you after you left?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: It really mostly came after I left. Honestly, Aaron, if I went back and I showed you the stuff that I wrote in 2014 when I left, you would think it was terrible as I do now. I mean, it was really bad stuff, right? There wasn’t a plot, there wasn’t really a story. I think it was really the writing as a way to process what I had worked on and seen and lived through as I was working on Syria during the first few years of the uprising and the conflict. It was really more of just a way to work through that stuff, as opposed to anything structured or concrete.
And so, when I left, I thought of the writing as a way to work through that stuff, and not as something like, ‘Oh, hey, I want to write a novel.’ But when I had an opportunity a couple years ago to come back and actually spend more time writing, I just loved the process of actually sitting down and writing so much that I got a little bit more serious. I think having some personal distance from the conflict, like I hadn’t worked on Syria or the Middle East since 2014, I was able to be a little bit more structured in thinking about the plot and the characters and really trying to write something that I wanted to read, that I would find enjoyable to write, but that other people would also want to read. And those two things are not always the same. So, it wasn’t this thing where I was working on the topic at the CIA and thinking, ‘Oh, man, this would be a great spy novel!’ Actually, I am not sure that thought ever occurred to me; I think it was more, as I got into it and realized that I liked the process of writing and found that to be energizing to me, that a story kind of came out over time.
AARON MATÉ: So, your book takes place in the early years of the Syrian war. And I’m curious now for how you look back on that period, how you would describe the forces and developments that kicked off this war, this brutal 10-year war. And are there any things about the popular narrative around the war that you think diverge from what the real reality was on the ground?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, so, I think of how to unpack that. Those first few years it’s interesting, and there’s a reason I chose it for the setting of the book, obviously in large part because I’ve worked on it, but I think also because it sort of served as this book-end of the very beginning of the crisis in March, really February/March of 2011—and I’ll come back to some of the complexities in this, but let me just paint some of the broad strokes.
I think early on it was a sort of protest movement that was largely protests, largely non-violent. It had shades of insurgency very early on, but it was largely driven by protests and by street action. And by the time you got to 2013, you had a very different conflict where that had pretty much all disappeared for a variety of reasons we can talk through, and it was replaced by civil conflict and probably by that time what you call a civil war.
And so, you had this full range of experience in that couple year period, and it was one of the most impactful and momentous periods of the conflict because so many of the dynamics that came to characterize it sprouted, obviously, in those first couple of years. And I think so many of the narratives about the war have become grossly oversimplified that when you really kind of peel back and think about what was going on in that time period, I think so much of the issues you had to talk about were, what were the dynamics on the ground, it really was kind of this both/and.
So, you had for Syria what were unprecedented protests against the regime in many parts of the country. I think one of the things that got overlooked early on was how quiet some parts of the country were. The Alawite-dominated cities, many of them, central Damascus and Aleppo early on were very quiet because you had significant portions of the population that feared what might come next and understood that widespread unrest could be catastrophic. And so, you had this really interesting… I think there’s been a tendency to look at the early years through the lens of the activists and the oppositionists and not through the lens of folks who sat it out or who had really vested interests in not overturning the applecart.
So, I think that’s probably one thread, although I will say this is where I think we can often get worked around, turned around a bit when we talk about Syria, is that the country… there are so many different perspectives about the war and so many interests at play early on that you had, on the one hand, what I think were reasonable and rational and sort of motivations we should applaud to get into the street and to demonstrate for more dignity and more opportunity. You know, you had that, and that was a very real thing.
One of the things I’m trying to capture in my book is that people felt that way, that was real. There was real persecution at the hands of the security services, there was real repression politically, economically, there was incredible mismanagement of the country that occurred on Assad’s watch. And so, there were these tremendous forces that were pushing up and demanding these things. And then on the other hand, you had a bunch of people who felt very afraid of what would come next. And so those two things existed, right? And they’re both real. And I think that some complexity has been lost when we talked about that earlier.
AARON MATÉ: But even before it became a full-on war, wasn’t there a sectarian element in the protest from the start, like, the chants of “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the grave”?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah. So, this is a great example. I tend to think, to answer your question, yes, there was a sectarian element very early on. I do not think that… well, let me let me back up. It was clear, I think, to many, many, many Syrians that if the state were to weaken—I’m saying this early on, even before protests started in Syria, when we’re watching Tunisia and Egypt and in late 2010, early 2011, and when Syrians looked at Lebanon and how that civil war unfolded, and when Syrians looked at Iraq and how that conflict unfolded after our invasion, the organizing principle of what happens in a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic society in the Middle East right now—when you break the central government, is that the organizing principle can become sectarian or ethnic very, very quickly. That’s how the battle lines tend to get drawn. And I think a lot of Syrians understood that and got that and feared it.
I will also say that early on you had a tremendous amount of energy in the protest movement that was not sectarian, that was very cognizant of that dynamic and soft in the way that they organized and protested. And in the way they tried to portray themselves and often authentically portrayed themselves. They were not sectarian. And you also had, to your point, groups that would grow in power over time but that were there early on that were radically sectarian in their outlook and looked at the crisis and of the destabilizing impacts could have as an opportunity to upend Assad and Alawite control in Syria. And I think that those forces, in my opinion, were not as strong early on as the more broad-based non-sectarian groups early on, which were very fragmented and not organized. But I think both of those tendencies were there. But what quickly happened was the sectarian narrative became the dominant one. And the groups that were able to drive that narrative were the ones who ended up doing better in the war.
AARON MATÉ: And if I understand the perspective of your book correctly, as told through some of the CIA officials, some of the CIA characters in the book, how they talk about the war, that the Syrian government at first kind of waffled in their response to the protests. There wasn’t this large scale, violent crackdown initially. They waffled; they even tried to offer some limited political concessions. They released political prisoners. Looking back now, do you think it was a mistake for the opposition and their foreign allies not to engage with those concessions? And maybe you could talk about what those concessions were and whether you think they were significant or just cosmetic.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah. So, I think you’re right that I’m sort of speaking through… I think the scene you’re probably referring to is the one where I’ve got a couple CIA analysts at headquarters briefing an outgoing case officer on what’s going on in Syria. And it certainly is my view that the Syrian—for really what I would probably call the first, I don’t know, nine to ten months of the conflict, so most of 2011, an uprising really, at that point—the Syrian government response was… waffling is a perfect word because what it was characterized by on the political concession side was, I would argue, a too slow, too cosmetic, too half-hearted platform whereby they did things, like, they repealed the emergency law that had been in place since, I think, ‘63.
But they didn’t meaningfully change the posture of the security services toward society. They legalized other political parties, but made it pretty clear, because basically the Ba’ath Party had been the dominant political party in society, going back to the ‘60s, and they had a bunch of different other pro-regime groups that weren’t the Ba’ath Party that were under this umbrella. They legalized other political parties, but kind of only created enough space for groups that the government could control to compete in things like municipal elections. There were a number of attempts, very locally, to deal with problematic security officials as the protest movement began to spiral, and you got this cycle of violence and protests and funerals and violence, and it would keep things moving that way. They made an attempt to deal with some of these officials, moving them around, trying to bring them back from Daraa down in the south when some of the protests started to Damascus. There were some small attempts to deal with, on the surface, with the kind of patronage networks and the economic influence of Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, but those were sort of paper-thin.
So, I think my view on the concession side of it in those early years was that things that probably six months earlier would have been welcomed as tremendous progress in the Syrian context were instead seen in the midst of what was going on in the region, of which I’ll get to in one second, the security solution as the regime viewed it, that they were exercising in the first year, it was never going to be enough to deal with the sort of change that I think had happened in people’s minds about what was possible. And I think that the security approach that they adopted, ultimately, was self-defeating, because they were trying to use their four principal security services to manage the crisis.
And I think one of the things that you pointed to earlier has been really thrown out of whack, when we talk about the first year of the war. There weren’t widespread military deployments until late 2011, early 2012. It was the security services that were doing it, now sometimes quite militarized in terms of the weaponry and whatnot that they brought to bear against the protesters. But the Syrian regime didn’t really start its military crackdown, using the actual military, until much, much later. They were using the security services, and the problem with that was that they were using an instrument that had been sort of corrupted by a couple things. One was, or at least in the eyes of the population, had been corrupted by the fact that it was predominantly Alawite, and it was policing and trying to secure a largely Sunni Arab population which created a sectarian lens to the way that they dealt with the protests, right off the bat. Even if no one was talking about it, it was there. And secondly, these security services had this incredibly intimate relationship with the population, because they were really one of the few effective levers of power that the regime had at that point in time. And that bred this kind of malignant or malign intimacy between ordinary Syrians living in Daraa or Homs or in a Damascus suburb and the principal group required to manage the protests. And so, what happened was, you ended up with, in some places, really a patchwork of responses where, in some places, the security services were able to deal with the local demands of the protesters, and they were able to deal with the protests non-violently, or they just let them happen and maybe even burn themselves out. And in other places, they reacted with violence, and it killed people, and it led to this cycle of funerals and more protests, and it just spiraled. And so, you had this tremendously clumsy overall response to the crisis that, I think, meant that just on the one hand, the Syrian regime who never offered and couldn’t, in some respects, offer enough to satisfy the demands of those out on the streets. And then on the other hand they didn’t have the tools at their disposal to really deal with the protests in a way that might contain them, corral them, and let them manage them. So, I think waffling is absolutely the right word.
AARON MATÉ: And when, to you, does the violence against the Syrian government start? Because there are reports from April in Daraa, and also in Jisr al-Shughur, of mass killings of Syrian government soldiers. So when, to you, did the violent attacks on Syrian government forces begin?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Well, I’m pretty sure that if you went back and looked at the body count as early as April of 2011, you would see Syrian security officials in that tally. I mean, this is the thing about this war, right? Any kind of broad ideological narrative you try to bring to it, the conflict was so complicated it’s going to fight it, right? So, if you try to argue that everything was peaceful for the first six months, I mean, or the first nine months, it’s crazy, right? There was the sort of very early seedlings of armed resistance against the government as early as, I’d probably say, late March, early April. Jisr al-Shughur, as you mentioned, which I think was May of 2011? Or was it June?
AARON MATÉ: I may have gotten that wrong. I said April; it might have been later than that. [Editor’s note: the Jisr al-Shughur attack, in which insurgents killed more than 100 Syrian government security officers, was in June 2011].
DAVID McCLOSKEY: So, in there, like, in the first few months of the war, I think over a hundred security officials were killed by armed groups in Idlib.
And by the way, I mean that event was a real watershed for the Alawite-dominated security services, who looked at that and said, “This is the enemy we’re fighting.” And I think on the flip side of what I just said about the ideology—it’s going to fight you on Syria no matter what you believe in—I think that it’s true that there were groups early on that were trying to kill Syrian officials and security services, and there were security officers, there were assassinations. It’s also true that those security officials, and Alawite community more broadly, were several steps in front of where the reality was on the ground, in terms of their sort of paranoia, I think, and the demonization of the opposition more broadly.
But you’re absolutely right on Jisr al- Shughur. That was, I think, one of the first moments where there was a sort of coordinated attack against a security installation that resulted in, and I think, if I recall correctly, I believe those officers were… many, many of them were beheaded. And it was a very brutal attack. And I think quite sectarian, I would imagine, in its desired outcome.
AARON MATÉ: And what is your sense of when the foreign powers got involved—Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia—arming the insurgents? And the US. I mean, Timber Sycamore, the CIA program to arm and train insurgents officially kicks off, I think, in 2012 or 2013. But there’s that one document from the Defense Intelligence Agency that talks about shipments going from Benghazi, Libya, to Syria as early as October 2011. Was the US involved that early, or is that just strictly the US as partners? What was the foreign role there, and when to you did it start?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Well, so I’ll give you an answer, one that I know is going to bug you, which is I can’t talk about the American side of this, other than to sort of direct you to… I’d probably direct Secretary Panetta and Secretary Clinton’s books on some of this to get the timeline and the scope and scale of the involvement.
But I’ll say that from the Iranian-Hezbollah side, when we look at the military intervention, we’re talking about 2012. In its early stages, late 2011, early 2012. When we are looking at the Saudi-Turkish side, I think we’re looking at something that’s, in an organized fashion, happening a little bit later than that. So probably in about the middle of 2012.
And then, obviously, when we look at the end… and by the way, what I would argue is this sort of coalition in the region, the Gulf Arabs and the Turks supporting the Syrian opposition, never as organized or as coherent or as focused as the Iranian-Hezbollah-Russian intervention in support of Assad, so much more fragmented on the opposition side. And then, of course, on the Russian side, they’d been providing military equipment to the Syrians for decades. There was sort of state-to-state military sales that were ongoing in the early years of the war, and then the very kind of full-throated intervention on the part of the Russians happened in September of ‘15. So, I think that 2012 was a real watershed year in that respect, because it was a time when the Syrians really fully deployed their military against rebel-held pockets of the country, in Homs, [inaudible]. That’s when some of the conflict began in Aleppo, they deployed forces to Daraa to the south, and you had the sort of regionalization and internationalization of the conflict that started at that same time, and obviously just made it much more violent.
AARON MATÉ: Right. And I understand there are aspects of that that you’re still not allowed to talk about.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: So now we know from declassified documents that there was an understanding inside the US government that the US was basically on the same side as al-Qaeda in Syria. There’s an infamous email from Jake Sullivan to Hillary Clinton in February 2012, where he says, “Al-Qaeda is on our side in Syria.” There’s also that Defense Intelligence Agency report from August 2012, which talks about how the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and al- Qaeda in Iraq are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria. Do you recall that being debated? Was there any debate about whether or not the US was going to take the side of al-Qaeda, our sworn enemy, in Syria?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, no. I mean, I think the Sullivan email you’re quoting, if I remember the context correctly, was sort of pointing out some of the fact that this was a policy, sort of a problem from hell from the standpoint of an American administration that is trying to diminish Assad and isn’t willing to commit a tremendous amount of national power to doing that, and it sort of has very weird bedfellows in Syria as a result. And I don’t use ‘bedfellows’ there in terms of actual collaboration; I mean more in terms of just shared strategic interest, or at least the perception of shared strategic interest.
I think anyone trying to argue that US policy against Assad has been a success, [been] coherent, is not thinking about the problem correctly. We have not done a good job of aligning national resources against objectives to make that happen, or, conversely, to modifying objectives to sort of accord with the reality of what we’re willing to commit to the conflict. So, I don’t think anyone could argue that it’s been a success.
I think the point of your question on our [US] connection, sort of the shared… the fact that we’re sort of anti-Assad and al-Qaeda is anti-Assad, that was a tremendously problematic aspect of the conflict. And I think one that probably limited—and this is my own personal assessment—probably limited what we were really willing to do to unseat him, weaken him, because there was an understanding on the part of the American government that the opposition to him, to Assad, was problematic. And I think that realization was powerfully in the minds of the Obama administration officials that were making policy in his early days, and among many other things, but that limited their appetite to get more involved.
AARON MATÉ: My problem there, though, in terms of this notion that they limited their involvement is that I think if that were true, they would have shut down the program completely. Instead, the US spent a lot of money. According to The Washington Post, it was a billion dollars per year on the CIA program to arm and train insurgents. And I know that that wasn’t directly arming al-Qaeda, but a lot of these weapons did end up in the hands of al-Qaeda. I mean, that’s what helped them capture Idlib, if I understand the history correctly. And so, I’m just wondering if there was a serious awareness of that, that US weapons were ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda and their allies, and whether there was some awareness. But here we are arming the people who attacked the US on 9/11 and who we were waging a two-decade global war on terror against.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah. Well, so let me… there certainly are aspects of this that are hard [that] I can’t really speak to. But let me put it this way: I think that the original sin of much of our policy—and it’s going to directly get to the point you’re raising, Aaron, which I think is a good one—the original sin of the policy, in my opinion, was that when you sort of rewind the clock to 2010, 2011, and you look at the whole region, if you’re at the National Security Council, if you’re in the White House, you look at Tunisia, you look at Egypt, you look at Libya, you look at the protests in Bahrain, you look at some of the stuff in eastern Saudi, you look at Yemen. You have this view, and it’s not hard to get there, although it’s proven to be spectacularly wrong. It’s not hard to get to a point where you say, there’s a sort of fall-of-the-wall moment happening here across the region, and there’s a domino effect, and it’s just sort of historic. It’s like an inevitability that these places, these governments, are going to collapse. I’m talking about the first six to nine months of 2011. You cannot be analytically nuts and kind of come to that view.
And I think the assumption, which, of course, it’s wrong—because Syria is Syria, it’s not Libya, and it’s not Tunisia, and all these places are different. And it’s not right. But you can have this view that, like, hey, stuff is just going to happen, like, we’re going to get what we want out of this for free. And that’s sort of a coarse way of putting it, but I think that that assumption then underlaid this idea that we didn’t have to do that much to get the outcome that we wanted, which was a political transition in Damascus, and we could just stand back in some ways.
And I think as time went on, the policy proposals that are laid out in Secretary Panetta and Secretary Clinton’s books about what to do with respect to Syria and the opposition start to become like ways where we can maybe get a little bit of what we want for something that, to Washington, may not appear to be that expensive. And it’s a way to sort of still have some skin in the game, still push toward an objective that we want, without having to undergo a more full-throated military intervention.
And so, I think it’s a little bit of, again, if that was supposedly true, like splitting the baby in half in a way and trying to get something that we want for not a whole lot. And I think that, again, what I think underlaid that was this view that, like, okay, it’s just… he’s going to fall at some point. We, others may not have to do that much to achieve that outcome. I think that was the kind of fundamental analytical problem with that.
AARON MATÉ: I get that that’s the outlook. My problem here is the reality on the ground as was acknowledged privately by Sullivan and by the Defense Intelligence Agency, is that the primary drivers of the insurgency were groups like al-Qaeda. So, there’s talk about there not being a heavy cost and that Assad will fall easily. If it’s consciously done knowing it’s going to give rise to al-Qaeda, I’m just surprised at the ease with which this was carried out and why, to the extent that I’m aware of what happened internally, at least why there wasn’t more debate around that. Because, again, we’re allying not with freedom-loving moderate rebels, but with groups like al-Qaeda who did commit very horrible atrocities even inside Syria, as your book actually touches on. You don’t shy away from talking about atrocities committed by all sides.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, I mean, well, because it’s true, right. I think that both rebel and regime have committed terrible atrocities. Although I do think that, and I put most of the weight, the moral weight for the bloodshed, and certainly much more of the body count has come from the Syrian regime itself.
AARON MATÉ: But moral weight, why? Because they’re defending their country from a foreign-funded proxy force. So, do they not have the right to defend themselves from that?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Well, again, Aaron, this is where I think that I put more of the moral weight on them because they’re the stronger party and were the stronger party early on. And they are the government of the country and so have a responsibility, I think, to hopefully, at least, be trying to provide some kind of security and stability and dignity for the people that they govern. And I think that my view of what they were fighting early on, and in particular this is where I like to kind of take that snapshot of 2011, because it was before you really had a tremendous amount of foreign involvement in this conflict.
And I think the battlespace at that point was primarily Syrian. And they were fighting or trying to suppress or trying to manage protesters, and they were trying to manage a budding insurgency or fight budding insurgents who were primarily Syrian. And it’s not to say that there haven’t been foreign fighters involved in the conflict. Of course, there have. But early on, in my view the predominant nationality fighting in Syria was Syrian.
AARON MATÉ: If there were sectarian militias in your town, and they were being armed and supported from abroad, like, say, Saudi Arabia, would you think it would be fair for your government to respond, including responding militarily?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Oh, yeah. Look, I’m not trying to argue here. That in particular, if you take a snapshot of the Alawite community, and you look at… let’s go with where you’re headed here. So, let’s put aside the fact that there were real mistakes made on the part of the regime and a real, I think, analytical problem that they had in viewing the crisis appropriately, early on. I don’t think they had a good way to look at it. I think they looked at it like it was the ‘80s. I think that was not right. You know, there were shades of it, but it was a gross oversimplification.
AARON MATÉ: The ‘80s as in the Muslim Brotherhood uprising…
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, as in the Muslim Brotherhood uprising, right. The regime internalized it; those guys around Assad internalized it through that lens. And there was enough on the ground, like we talked about Jisr al-Shughur, we talked about some of the insurgent groups early on, like, there was enough on the ground where you could take that, and you weren’t fully wrong. But it was not a complete view of what they were up against, and they messed up in their early assessment of what they were facing.
Now, if you fast forward just a little bit, so let’s put that aside for a second and just talk about the reality of, ‘Hey, I’m the character in my book,’ right? I’m Ali Hassan, made-up guy. But he’s an Alawite, his brother’s an Alawite, they came from the Alawiyin Mountains in northwestern Syria along the coast. The family had businesses in Homs, they come to Damascus, they’re sort of entrenched in the security services—not because they’re fanatical Assadists, but because this is a way to make money and to just be a part of a society that had traditionally not welcomed Alawites. I mean, or at least I’m trying to get out in the book, like, if you’re that person and you were looking at the dynamics on the ground in late 2011, particularly early 2012, and you’re looking at what’s going on on the other side and the growing militarization and the sectarianism that had become much more common on the part of the insurgents and the rebels, you were absolutely going to do whatever you think is necessary to beat them. And you are going to come at this with a view, which is what a lot of these Alawite security officials did.
They came at this with a long historical view of what had happened in the 80s, with the Muslim Brotherhood uprising and the sectarian nature of that assassination campaign and the violence that had been meted out on the Alawites. They’re going to come at this and they’re going to look at it from the standpoint of stories told from their grandmothers and grandfathers about being in pseudo-slavery prior to the early 1900s. And they’re going to be like, “Well, there’s no future for me in this country if I don’t do what is necessary to survive.” And I think that lens is, we can say, “Hey, you guys made mistakes to get to that point,” but the urge you’re talking about to protect yourself, protect your family, to protect something, the institutions that you are running, is very real. And it’s one that, I think, again, when we get to this sort of cartoonish villain, us-versus-them thing in Syria, it sort of breaks down and you miss that point. But these are real people, too. And everyone has done a lot of despicable stuff. But these are people and they’re responding to very real threats that they feel.
AARON MATÉ: And that’s what I’m wondering. I mean, was there an awareness inside the US government, inside CIA at that time, that the militias that the US was arming, including in the Free Syrian Army, like when they launched that operation on Latakia in August 2013? There were sectarian killings going on. Human Rights Watch even found this, that there was what they called the systematic killing of entire families during that operation, including by militias that were backed and armed by the US government.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, I mean, I can’t really comment on the US government position there, but I can give you mine, if that’s helpful.
AARON MATÉ: Please. Yeah.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Okay. I think that it is the case that when we looked at Syria in the same way that when you look at what happened in Afghanistan, that there’s a tendency to kind of think you’re going to have… let me think of how to put this the right way. I’m sorry, I’m trying to dance around stuff.
I think there’s an understanding that al-Qaeda affiliated groups and Salafi jihadist groups were the primary engine of the insurgency. I think that viewpoint was widely known inside the US government as it became much more widely accepted as the conflict went on. But what we never were really able to do was to come up with a way that we could treat the realities of the war, the conflict, the battlespace, as it went from uprising and protests to civil war. We were never quite able to square that reality with the policy around, what do we do about Assad? Those two things were fundamentally in tension with one another.
AARON MATÉ: What I don’t get there is if you know that the primary driver of the insurgency is al-Qaeda and their allies, what right do we have to empower them? And, I mean, is it not preferable, even if you presuppose that the US has the right to overthrow a foreign government, which I don’t, but even from the narrow point of view of the US government, why is it preferable to continue to fuel an al-Qaeda dominated insurgency than just leave Syria alone and let Syrians handle their own government?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, well, I mean, I’m not sure I would disagree with that statement. The sort of $64,000 question about Syria, when you go back and you look at those first couple years, is like, should we have done more? Should we have done less? Because everyone looks at what happened and they’re like, well, we didn’t get the outcomes that we wanted in any respect; Assad’s still there and you have an insurgency that was increasingly dominated by its more radical fringes. And so, I’m of the opinion that when we go back, when we look at what happened, and especially if you just look at US experience more broadly over the past 20 years, we, from a very narrow standpoint can be quite effective at breaking governments. We did it in Iraq, we did it or helped do it in Libya. We did it in Afghanistan. But we’re not good at building things that are representative. Democracy is kind of a loaded word, but just like rebuilding something back from that, the track record is clearly not good. And my opinion on Syria is that the fundamental mistake of the policy was to get over our skis on what we said should happen. When, from a geostrategic standpoint, not a human standpoint but a geostrategic standpoint, Syria is a country of 22-23 million people, pre-war. It’s not a massive US geostrategic interest, so I think we probably should have married up that reality with what we chose to do.
AARON MATÉ: And in terms of what the geostrategic interest was—and again, I personally don’t accept the premise that we have the right to overthrow foreign governments, no matter what our interest is—but just taking the US government position that we do have the right, just for a second, do you know what the geostrategic interest was? Because you have Assad before the war trying to play ball a little bit with the US. He held and tortured prisoners at the behest of the CIA. There were talks about opening with the West. Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry came to visit him during the first Gulf War; they supported the US effort. So, there’s a history there of some attempts to engage with the West. And meanwhile, you have a war that the US knows is empowering al-Qaeda. So, it certainly can’t be that we cared about democracy because our allies, for example, in this effort are some of the world’s worst dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So, was it the fact that Syria basically is allied with Hezbollah and Iran? Is that what you think the main imperative was here, or what was the guiding motive?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Well, I think that what you mentioned is certainly one of them. We could have a much longer argument about whether or not that, in any way, whether or not removing Asaad, if you just got rid of him, whether what emerged would have been less in line with Iran and Hezbollah, I think is a different question. But I think that’s certainly one of them.
I think that if I were thinking more specifically about just the way that—again, my view—we thought about the policy during the early years of the war, I think it was primarily driven by a sense that this was a… I don’t think it was about democracy, necessarily, but I think there was a view that Assad’s violence against the Syrian population was or had crossed some kind of threshold that we weren’t willing, at least rhetorically, to tolerate. And again, it was coming on the heels of all these other regional states looking like they were about to go, and so it made our willingness to jump in with this view that he should go much easier to do.
So, I think it was, on the one hand, this idea that we have a member of the Resistance Axis, or whatever you want to call it, sort of wobbling, and a perspective as the conflict worsened that he had lost. And again, I’m not addressing what I think is clearly the hypocrisy on the part of, or at least the fact that we clearly work with very unrepresentative governments all over the world if they share our broader strategic interests—that’s clearly a fact. But I think we came to view his violence against Syrians—again, I’m speaking about my perception of the way that policymakers viewed it—I think we came to see that as he had lost his moral right to govern. And I’m sure we could have a longer conversation about whether or not that’s actually true, but I think those two things created the fuel at that point, to say he needs to go.
AARON MATÉ: Meanwhile, you had the US help Saudi Arabia crush the uprising in Bahrain, where the US Navy has the Fifth Fleet there. Look, we don’t have to rehash the early period, but when I look at it—and I’ve picked this up from your book and also speaking to you today—I see even those early months of the conflict as not being quite the picture we were told, that there was actually violence against the Syrian government from the start. And regardless of whether you accept that characterization or not, I just don’t see how one can see the answer to initial violence being more violence and billions and billions of dollars in weapons going into Syria with extremists coming in, jihadis coming by the tens of thousands across the border in Turkey. Joe Biden himself admitted that US allies were funding al-Nusra, and they were the most extremist elements.
Joe Biden: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I’ve just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being, who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.
AARON MATÉ: I mean, everyone knew that. It’s common knowledge now. So, I don’t see how the answer to a perception of early violence on the part of Assad, the answer then becomes just massive violence involving the world’s most powerful governments flooding the country with weapons. It doesn’t make sense to me.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah. Well, I’m pretty sympathetic to that view. I think that you can, on the one hand argue… and then again, I’ll just come back to this point around ideology kind of breaking down on the shoals of what actually happened in Syria. You can argue that the Assad regime, which I would, is an essentially extremely ruthless, morally reprehensible militia right now that has done atrocious things inside Syria, to many Syrians, and that from a moral standpoint it has done… from a macro moral standpoint it has done absolutely repugnant things to stay in power, that is true. You can also argue that the United States wouldn’t have been able to broadly affect the outcome of a conflict there without doing much more than we did, and much more than we were willing to do. And as a result, we should have been more honest, early on, about what we were really willing to do and to commit to in Syria. And I think that…
AARON MATÉ: Would you say also be more honest about who we were actually supporting? Because the narrative we got publicly was that these were all moderate rebels, which it sounds… it’s pretty clear now that that was not the case.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, I think that you sort of drill into a good point here. I think that the patchwork… again, this is where, when you looked at all the groups that were active in Syria from an opposition standpoint—in, let’s just call it 2012, which is when you had the regionalization of the conflict, really, I think, starting in force from all sides—Iran, Hezbollah, but then the sort of anti-Assad axis, too. And I think when you look at the dynamics on the ground then, you could sort of build any narrative that you want about who was active and who might have a chance if supplied with the right stuff to make an impact on the battlefield. And so, you could point to groups at that time that did not appear to have any al-Qaeda affiliation. And…
AARON MATÉ: Were any of them powerful and credible?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yes. But the groups—and this is, again, I’ll give you my view here—the groups that, at that point, were the most battle-hardened and had the best people, had the best funding sources, and were gathering the energy on the ground were increasingly at that time Salafi jihadist groups. And that was a reality of that time in the battlespace, where I think it was incredibly chaotic and complex. And there were hundreds of groups that varied from some more organized outfits, like, at the time, with an Ahrar al-Sham or Liwa al-Islam that had very Salafi jihadist credentials at that point inside Syria, all the way to other groups under the Free Syrian Army brand that did not. So, I think at the time, again, I’ll just restate, I think that the space was chaotic enough, where if you were trying to pick a winner or pick people, you could come up with a different answer depending on your predisposed notions about Assad and what you wanted in Syria.
AARON MATÉ: Who, to you, is the most credible moderate group, that if they had succeeded, if they had gotten more support from, say, the US and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, that if they had won, that they would have ushered in a democratic form of government?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Oh, I mean, I don’t think that was ever in the cards.
AARON MATÉ: Right.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: I guess what I’m saying, Aaron, to your question is, I think there were groups at the time who were legitimate Syrian actors and who were not expressly Salafi jihadists. I do not think that it would have been possible for the Saudis to raise, or the Qataris to raise, an army that would have been able to beat back, or that they would have ever wanted to raise an army that would have been moderate Sunni opposition to Assad. I think by the time that the conflict had worsened in 2012, 2013, that was no longer in the cards.
AARON MATÉ: I know that there were peaceful protesters against Assad. But in terms of the armed groups, is there one armed group in particular that the US supported that you view as particularly credible?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Aaron, you keep asking about the US support. You know I can’t talk about that.
AARON MATÉ: Oh, right, I’m sorry.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: I know you’re not that sorry, though.
AARON MATÉ: It’s my job, you know.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: I know, I know. Yeah, I don’t really think I can answer the question around the American side of that equation. What I will say is that early on some of the more, what you would call the FSA defectors, it was not obvious. Well, let me put it this way. There were hundreds and hundreds of different armed groups on the ground, and those groups that were definitely members of the insurgency that were not expressly Salafi jihadist. Small neighborhood groups. Some of the groups that ended up in Turkey. But they lost pretty quickly in the battlespace of 2012 and 2013 to the bigger ones like Ahrar, Liwa al-Islam, those kinds of groups. Does that make sense?
AARON MATÉ: It does. Yeah. And you mentioned Turkey, and this is why I just find this hodgepodge of groups confusing. Because now you have Turkey using some of these same groups that were backed by the US and its allies, now committing crimes against the Kurds on behalf of Turkey. Basically, Turkey using them as their militia force inside of Syria. Is that fair to say, that that’s what a lot of these groups became, just basically a proxy for Turkey who are now committing crimes against Kurds, including Kurds with whom the US is allied?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, I mean, to some degree, yes. I think the Turks have a good example; right now is the relationship with HTS [Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham] in Idlib. Turks have a military relationship with them, influence, have used them as a pointing tip of the spear against Assad, and in some cases against some other Kurdish or, sorry, Turkish-allied militias have been used against Kurdish groups. So, it’s the Kurdish or, sorry, the Turkish policy there is very much sort of anti-… what they would, I think, see as counterterrorism and kind of refugee. But the way they would define the terrorism side is expressly against the Kurds and the militias that they see as allied with the PKK. And from refugee standpoint, trying to keep Idlib from spilling over into Turkey.
So, I think the Turkish policy in Syria is obviously not in alignment with ours in many respects, and they’ve been very willing to work with Salafi jihadist groups to allow Turkish territory to be a transit point for al-Qaeda linked individuals, because I think they see the destruction of Assad and of the containment and hopefully destruction from their standpoint of de facto Kurdish autonomy as being the kind of principle objectives of their Syria policy, and they’ve been very, very willing, I think, to deal with blowback to achieve those ends.
AARON MATÉ: Alright, I’ve almost kept you over our agreed-upon time. So, I understand you’ll have to…
DAVID McCLOSKEY: It’s all good.
AARON MATÉ: …and I really appreciate you being receptive to my questions. I just have two more questions.
Chemical weapons play a major role in your book. I’m wondering, have you heard of the OPCW scandal and these whistleblowers inside the OPCW, who investigated the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018? This is long after you departed the CIA. I’m wondering if you followed that story at all, and what you think of it.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: So, I’ve only seen… I haven’t… let me put it this way. I’ve seen the reports that you’re talking about, but I haven’t dug into any of the evidence cited. My understanding, if I’m remembering the ones you’re speaking of, is that there’s a line of argument that goes that rebel groups conducted the attack? Am I thinking of the right thread?
AARON MATÉ: Well, yeah. There’s certainly that theory in many cases, including in Ghouta in 2013. But certainly, yes, in the case of Douma, April 2018, you have these OPCW whistleblowers who say that their investigation found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. And these whistleblowers haven’t said that they believe it’s staged, although that’s kind of the inference of their report. And there’s been a lot of documents that have come out, including the leaked original report that was essentially kept from the public. But it says the conclusion of the original report was that there was no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma. And if you read between the lines, they’re suggesting that they’re open to the possibility that this was indeed staged by the rebels there, which were at the time Jaysh al-Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: I mean, I haven’t followed that one closely. I do know, if I’m remembering correctly back to some of the open-source stuff early in the conflict, there was obviously a desire on the part of al-Nusra and others to gain access to chemical weapons stores—certainly, a desire to frame the regime for attacks, if they could. And so, I think that would certainly make sense from the rebel side. I think the other thing that would make sense is just the Syrian regime using it, too. So, I couldn’t speak to any of the specifics of what actually happened, but just suffice it to say that most of the chemical weapons attacks that have occurred during the war had been perpetrated by the regime. But that, of course, on the opposition side, on the rebel side, I think there would be plenty of reason to try to frame the Syrian government for using it as well. So, I couldn’t speak to it from a specific standpoint, but from a motivation standpoint that’d be how I’d think about it.
AARON MATÉ: You probably can’t speak to this, but I’m going to ask anyway. Obama told [The Atlantic’s National Correspondent] Jeffrey Goldberg in 2016 that James Clapper came to him about Ghouta—the chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013, in which hundreds of people were killed by sarin—that Clapper came to him and told him that the intelligence was not a slam dunk.
Are you privy to any of that intelligence or anything you can say about it? Because that revelation, in my mind, coupled with other reporting from people like Seymour Hersh who reported on, again, documents from the Defense Intelligence Agency that raised suspicion that al-Qaeda had a major sarin production program, that Porton Down, the British military lab, had found that the samples were not a match between the samples found in Ghouta and the samples known to be in the Syrian government stockpile. In terms of Clapper telling Obama that it’s not a slam dunk—a reference, by the way, to George Tenet of the CIA’s infamous comments during the Iraq War. So, anything about that you can speak to?
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Nothing specific I could speak to, but I can offer you a broader comment about my view of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Which would be, they began using them in 2012 and continued using them throughout the conflict up until and then after the disarmament effort with the Russians. Where, I think, the stuff that you’re citing can come in, and which I don’t have any specific information about, but I think would sort of fit with the motivations and the ideology and the standpoint of some of the very extreme rebel groups in the Syrian Civil War would be that, in a similar way to the Syrian regime, viewing the use of those weapons as a helpful method of terror and control of the battlefield and some spaces, and just frankly, something to use that they didn’t feel like they were punished for. I think that the other side of the coin, the Sunni sectarian groups that you mentioned, would have a similar incentive to not only use it potentially, if it could, but to also try to make it appear as though the Syrian government had used it in an effort, particularly early on, to compel intervention. And so, I think there’s, again, from a motivational standpoint, I think all that makes sense. But, you know, I couldn’t speak to any of the specifics that you’re talking about.
AARON MATÉ: So, I get that your perspective is that Syria is definitely guilty of some chemical attacks in Syria, but you’re open to the possibility that some of these attacks could have been carried out by insurgents, or some of these incidents could have been staged by insurgents inside Syria.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah. I mean, look, I’m not speaking to that from a specific… I’d have to look into a few of the incidents that you’re talking about in a much more structured way than I have. Because obviously, in the book, we have the Syrian regime planning a chemical attack. But I think from an opposition standpoint, we talked about some of the groups that have fought the Assad regime, I think they would seek to have that capability. And I think that—again, I’m not familiar with any reporting that would suggest that they were able to achieve it, and they certainly didn’t have it on the industrialized level that the Syrians did, which is why any conversation, I think, on chemical weapons inside Syria needs to start with the government’s use of them—but I think these other groups would certainly have the desire to do the same.
AARON MATÉ: Alright, well, I’ve challenged you enough. So, we’re going to agree to disagree on some things there. We’re going to wrap, so I guess your thoughts on the situation now.
I was in Damascus in June, and people are suffering, people are suffering.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: I saw the destruction of Douma destroyed by the Russian bombings, and people can’t rebuild. And a lot of people there blame US sanctions. I’m wondering if you think there’s any appetite in Washington to basically admit, acknowledge that this war is over, and that it’s the Syrian people now who are suffering the consequences. I mean, these sanctions don’t hurt people in government; they hurt the population. And your thoughts on whether there’s any shift under the Biden administration to be willing to change the approach, change the US policy after 10 years of war is over and didn’t achieve its goals of ousting Assad.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, well, supposedly there’s a policy review going on right now on Syria. But I’ll be interested to see if something really tangible comes out of that. The problem with the sanctions, at least the Caesar sanctions—there’s so many different layers of sanctions on Syria now it’s almost mind-numbing—it’s an act of Congress, which makes it complicated to undo. We’ve been pretty uneven in actually implementing them.
But you’re right that the sanctions regime that we have in place right now is this kind of strange appendage that has been patched together on Syria policy over the past 10 years and isn’t really… it’s contributing, obviously, to suffering inside Syria. It’s contributing to complications that NGOs have with getting aid in. It’s sort of a country- and sector-specific view which has all kinds of knock-on problems associated with it; it doesn’t do a great job of getting to the deep funding networks underneath the regime that continue to prop it up. So, it’s not like it’s a super effective tool. So, I would hope that there’d be an effort to rationalize it in some way, or to come up with a better Syria approach, because I think that as a tool to affect some kind of behavioral change, it’s clear that the sanctions regime isn’t really working.
And, I would agree to some degree, it is having an impact clearly on ordinary Syrians, although I do think that the sort of warlordism and just complete breakdown of the country and the shattering of the economy into more warlord governance in a lot of respects probably has a greater… and the collapse of, frankly, the Lebanese economy and banking system is probably having a greater impact than the sanctions are. But the sanctions are clearly not an effective tool for changing regime behavior or for trying to depose it or anything like that. And I’d hoped there’d be more clarity brought to the overall policy when and if the administration comes out of this review.
AARON MATÉ: Well, look—and this speaks to my broader point when I think about Syria—is even if you think Assad is the devil, that he’s worse than al-Qaeda, war will lead to horrible things. His government is using old Soviet weaponry and Vietnam-era weapons to defeat a foreign insurgency. So, in the process the society will break down. Warlordism will erupt. Corruption will increase. All the horrible things. There’s nothing positive that could come out of a multibillion-dollar war. And that’s why I don’t understand why even now that it’s over, the sanctions, which only exacerbate the impact of war, continue.
And I look at Syria. I know before the war it was not a perfect place. It was hard to be a government critic. I know people who have suffered under the Syrian government. But it was a stable country. I think you know this, having covered Syria. There was universal health care, there were high levels of education, there was food self-sufficiency. And now I look at a country that has a lot of rubble and is being kept deliberately in rubble, by, in my opinion, US sanctions by design. So, I don’t see how that can possibly seem to be in the best interest of the Syrian people.
That’s my closing rant. I’ll let you, David, leave us with some final words. And including, by the way, I’m curious what you’re going to tackle next in your spy thriller canon.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, well, let me close with first a pitch for the book, if you’d allow me Aaron, which is…
AARON MATÉ: Please. Yeah, of course.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: Yeah, I think that irrespective of your view or your political bent on Syria over the past 10 years—and I hope you could attest to this, too; you and I, we agree on some things, we disagree on others—but you know, I’d hope that as you dug into the book, you saw that we’re trying to deal pretty realistically and honestly with some of this stuff, and from a human level, stripping aside a lot of the high-level politics of it, I hope. And so, I’d hope that someone who’s interested in Syria from any lens, whether it’s really just any lens at all, that you’d come to the book and you’d be interested in engaging with the world that’s been created, because I’m looking at this from the standpoint of individuals. So, that’d be my plea to your listeners and audiences. This is a book written by a former CIA guy, but there’s a lot of stuff in here that I think will surprise you about Syria and about the CIA, and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the country to engage with it, hopefully honestly and authentically.
And I think what’s next, I do have more serious of an outline, but I’m working on a Russia-focus book right now with a whole new set of characters, obviously a new setting, and it’s in the present day. So, I’m really trying to take some of the same themes of really dealing realistically with the US-Russia rivalry, and in particular the conflict or the spy war between Russian intelligence services and the CIA. And at the same time deal realistically with the CIA, both for all the wonderful, good things it does and some of the warts as well. So that’s what’s next for me.
AARON MATÉ: Well, David, I look forward to having you back on to discuss your Russia book. It sounds interesting. And I really appreciate you taking the time, the extra time, too, to speak to me about your new book.
David McCloskey is a former CIA analyst. His new book, the spy thriller Damascus Station is out now. David, thank you very much.
DAVID McCLOSKEY: You bet, Aaron. Great to be with you.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. In 2019, Maté was awarded the Izzy Award (named after I.F. Stone) for outstanding achievement in independent media for his coverage of Russiagate in The Nation magazine. Previously, he was a host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!.