Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn apart by war and sectarian tensions, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said on Thursday, and many in those countries no longer identify as Iraqis or Syrians, agreed the head of the CIA.
The candid remarks at odds with the Obama administration's official policy came at an industry conference and followed by a day Defense Secretary Ash Carter's reminder to the Pentagon's senior intelligence corps that they are expected to give him their unvarnished views.
Carter's admonition followed allegations that the military command overseeing the war against the Islamic State distorted or altered intelligence assessments to exaggerate progress against the military group, according to The Associated Press.
The Obama administration's official policy is that the countries remain whole, and senior officials have expressed opposition to proposals that would officially split them up along ethnic lines, though both have seen large swaths of territory seized by the Islamic State and a self-declared caliphate straddles the border between both countries.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the Defense Intelligence Agency head, told the conference that Syria may be split into two or three parts as the result of its civil war.
In Iraq, he said, it is difficult to imagine the autonomous Kurds submitting to the rule of the central government in Baghdad.
"I'm having a tough time seeing it come back together," said Stewart.
He said both scenarios are looking increasingly likely even though that is not the U.S. goal.
CIA Director John Brennan, also on the panel, added that people in those countries now more often identify themselves by tribe or religious sect, rather than as Iraqis and Syrians.
He noted that the countries' borders remain in place, but the governments have lost control of them.
After it was publicly disclosed last month that the Pentagon's inspector general was investigating allegations of skewed intelligence reports, Carter directed his top civilian intelligence officer to reinforce the need for honest assessments.
Publicly, many senior civilian and military officials have said that while the counter-IS fight is difficult and likely to drag on for years, the U.S.-led coalition is making significant progress against the militant group in both Iraq and Syria.
Others have been more circumspect. For example, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said while traveling in Europe this week that the war is "tactically stalemated."
A U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has inflicted considerable damage, but the U.S.-trained Iraqi army has yet to recapture key cities lost over the past year, including Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Also, the U.S. has made little progress in training moderate Syrian rebels to form an effective ground force against IS.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook
was asked Thursday whether Carter shares Dempsey's view that the war is stalemated.
"I don't know if he would use the exact words as Chairman Dempsey, but I think the secretary's been candid about the difficulties, how hard this fight's gonna be, but that he does believe, ultimately, we're gonna prevail, for a variety of reasons," Cook said. "He believes the strategy right now that is being employed is the right strategy."
Asked about Carter's level of concern that intelligence reports reaching his desk may have been improperly changed to inflate war progress, Cook said he would await the outcome of the inspector general's investigation, which was launched after an intelligence officer at Central Command lodged a complaint in July.
A report by the Daily Beast on Wednesday said more than 50 intelligence analysts at Central Command have formally complained that their reports on the Islamic State and al-Qaida's branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials.
Cook said he could not confirm the report, and he would not say whether Carter would punish anyone found to have skewed intelligence assessments.
"I think we're going to wait to see where the IG's investigation goes," Cook said. "I don't want to prejudge the outcome of their investigation and whether or not they find anything like that has happened."
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