The President’s decision to end the covert CIA program to arm and train “so-called moderate” Syrian rebels, is based on an Executive assessment and professional acknowledgement that the long covert program would fail to either dislodge Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, or bring his regime to the negotiating table — at least from the standpoint of an armed effort to put enough pressure for al-Assad to capitulate.
The Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year, has morphed into a complex civil war with a dizzying array of armed actors and fronts-within-fronts and external players that has drawn in more than a dozen international and regional powers to include the United States and Russia. The impact of a new U.S. strategy the covert CIA program training and arming of Syrian rebels knows as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight the government of Bashir al-Assad and dates back officially to 2013, but unofficially to 2012 or perhaps earlier, has been ended by President Trump.
The President’s shuttering of the CIA program however does not mark the end of U.S. involvement in Syria, but expeditiously and effectively transfers and streamlines the effort to destroy Islamic State, aka ISIS, and is by and large an attempt to bring stability to the region. At the same time, the move by President Trump will not end a similar ongoing Pentagon program backing rebel fighters against the Islamic State. In addition, some of the vetted CIA-backed rebels may also be redirected to the Pentagon’s effort as well. In addition, President Trump signed off in May on a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a force led by Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, a Kurdish rebel group in Syria, using Department of Defense funds, that offers a more effective effort with a more reliable group with allegiances to U.S. support.
President Trump reportedly made this ultimate decision to shut down the training program about a month ago after consulting with his National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster and his CIA Director Mike Pompeo. President Trump had foreshadowed the decision, repeatedly criticizing U.S. backing of the ineffectively vetted and unreliable rebels forces during the 2016 presidential campaign because he believed based on a number of reasons; mismanagement of the program, dangerous leaks, the Obama administration’s political exploitation of the program, and less than honest and forthcoming rationale for the program was contributing to fueling Islamic extremism.
Unfortunately, many on the political left and some on the right are making this out to be a victory for Vladimir Putin and Russia. Their central thesis is that they are claiming that the President Trump’s decision is an aspect of his interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the Obama administration’s anti-al-Assad program as an assault on its regional interests. Those supporters of the Obama policy, particularly in the mainstream media, left-wing political pundits and Republican neocons note that Russia targeted some of these Syrian fighters with airstrikes when it intervened in the Syrian civil war and now claim that President’s Trump’s change of policy has resulted in, and are declaring Putin won in Syria.
However, many experts and those experienced in dealing in the realm of covert operations, clandestine warfare, and asymmetric conflict, including myself — who have supported covert CIA programs of this type, have critically questioned this particular program’s effectiveness and efficacy for it to remain a viable covert mission under the CIA. The program which was originally initiated and covered by an Obama administration Presidential Finding, from the beginning was legitimately suspect and questionable. Meaning, a Title 50 program; the President may authorize the conduct of a covert action if he determines such an action is necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States and is important to the national security of the United States. Such programs are covert and clandestine in nature, and are often described as programs that provide the CIA’s authority to conduct its intelligence operations and covert actions, necessary to protect national security. Many based on what has transpired over the years of the Obama administration saw the effort as an excuse to hide efforts to attempt to bring about regime change in Syria.
Furthermore, many, including myself, believe and admit that U.S. leverage against the al-Assad regime has grown limited at this point, if not being no longer effective, particularly with the entering and introduction of Russian forces. So from that standpoint, we must concede that ending the program under the CIA was not a concern, and actually necessary. And again, it certainly was not and is not a condition offer for the cease-fire agreement which President Trump reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In follow-up reporting, commenting on media reports that the President Trump ended a CIA covert program General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command said the story in the mainstream media was wrong in suggesting that the purported of move was to appease Moscow. General Thomas said the direction from his boss, Defense Secretary James Mattis and the President was very clear — the mission was to defeat ISIS. It’s now ‘annihilate ISIS. General Thomas further noted; “I think he put a non-doctrinal term out there to amp up the volume a little bit. We all got the message.”
At the same time, to go so far as to claim that President Trump’s decision to end the program means it is completely shut down is actually incorrect, because it merely ends the program under the CIA, and transfers it to the Department of Defense (DoD). The effort continues as part of the ongoing military effort led by U.S. Central Command with the U.S. primary military focused on ISIS. Secondly, what also ends is any effort to use the program as a tool for regime change and or removal of Syrian President al-Assad by using and supporting Syrian rebel military operations against the regime to execute that effort or bring about the conditions for al-Assad to exit, such as and by way of a U.S. backed or supported effort. Unfortunately, the likely goal of the Obama administration to toppling al-Assad with no apparent successor in place to ensure stability afterward was always questionable. Third, ending the CIA program and the ending of the U.S.’s backing of dozens of fractious rebel factions brought with it the risk that weapons and money would end up in the hands of extremists. Finally, what also ends is the funding of support for training the Syrian rebels using CIA covert funding lines. This will now be conducted with DoD and State Department funds.
The Failed Obama Policy
If there is any blame or the pointing of fingers as to who won or lost — that goes to the Obama administration and President Obama’s failure to respond to Russian intervention against increasingly successful rebel forces in 2015 — that set the stage for al-Assad’s eventual triumph. Likewise, the Obama administration also gave up on some high-profile efforts to train and equip the proxy force in Syria, most notably a $500 million effort that ended in absolute disaster and became a laughingstock across the Middle East, and perhaps the world.
Former President Obama started the covert CIA program according sources, prior to 2013, even though it is officially reported as 2013, backing the so-called FSA factions in southern and northern-western Syria that the administration although incorrectly deemed to be moderate continued to support. The program was run in coordination with Jordan, the Gulf Arab States, and Turkey, with the CIA program giving the U.S. influence on the ground and perhaps some sway over its regional allies’ policies in Syria. But, the effort became unyielding when it got to the point when key rebel backers, Turkey and Gulf Arab states, also poured in money and weapons to support their own preferred groups which proliferated to well over 30 Islamic rebels groups competing with and fighting against each other for power, territory, and influence. Further, a separate $500-million Pentagon train-and-equip program in 2015 to create a 5,000 strong rebel force highlighted the challenges and dangers of assembling fighters to take on the so-called “Islamic State” ended up with defections and attacks by al-Qaeda jihadists on the U.S.-backed force, which lost its weapons before disbanding with less than a dozen fighters in the same year.
The Obama administration’s egregious funding of al-Qaeda backed unvetted FSA Syrian rebels brought the total of U.S. funding to over $815 million for the again, so-called moderate rebels who actually turned out to be allies of al-Qaeda and its proponents of jihad and Sharia. In addition, the Obama administration offered an additional $300 million in life-saving humanitarian assistance aid to Syrians caught up in the country’s civil war.
As indicated, however, account after account provided further evidence of failure in the program in which it became evident when the FSA funded and armed by the Obama administration, admitted in 2014 to fighting alongside numerous terrorist organizations in Syria including the Islamic State. In fact, it was reported in 2014 that the moderate rebel groups backed by the White House even went as far as to sign a non-aggression pact with the Islamic State in order to focus their efforts against the al-Assad government. In May of 2015, a declassified U.S. government document obtained by the conservative Washington, DC watchdog group Judicial Watch also revealed that the Obama administration moved forward with support for the Salafist groups despite its own intelligence analysts predicting it would lead to the rise of an entity like the Islamic State.
Further, the Pentagon as a result of the Obama policies and changes in strategy for the region, foresaw the likely rise of the Islamic State as a direct consequence of this flawed strategy, and warned that it could further destabilize the region. At the time, the Pentagon indicated that despite anticipating that Western, Gulf States, and Turkish support for the Syrian opposition– which included al-Qaeda in Iraq – said it could lead to the emergence of an radical Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, i.e.; ISIS. Pentagon assessments however provided no indication of any decision to reverse the policy of support to the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, the emergence of an al-Qaeda affiliated ‘Salafist Principality’ as a result is described as a strategic opportunity to isolate Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
In fact, Lt. General Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director for the Obama administration – who resigned as national security adviser for the Trump administration this year – stated during a media interview in 2015 that the Obama administration made a ‘willful decision’ to support terrorist groups in the fight against al-Assad. Noting in his interview Flynn said, “I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision. Since then, every day presented more proof that the Obama administration’s missteps and miscalculations lend leverage to the side of ISIS and the Islamic caliphate to proliferate and spread its power and influence and to expand its strategy to target and call for the destruction of the West.
In the end, as previously noted, that program ended up with attacks by al-Qaeda jihadists on the US-backed forces, which lost its weapons and defected and before disbanding with less than a dozen fighters in the same year. Further proof that these rebels pledge loyalty to al-Qaeda and or its affiliates.
More recently, the U.S. military working closely in the region has found common cause with the Syrian Kurds as its preferred partner on the ground to fight ISIS in northeastern Syria. In that effort the U.S. has helped consolidate together the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which also includes; Arab, Christian, and Turkmen fighters. The U.S. has some 800 special operations forces embedded with the SDF/YPG which it is supplying with weapons and combat air support against ISIS.
Further, part of the Trump administration’s and the Pentagon’s calculation in dropping the CIA program was a desire to also corroborated with Russia to end the conflict, which like it or not is a part of the problem and must be dealt with from both a foreign policy and military operational standpoint. This effort most certainly evident and which was disclosed by the recent Syrian cease-fire during the G-20 Summit earlier this month. While a first step, it primarily will be in southwest Syria where many of the CIA-backed Southern Front rebel alliance has operated. But again, that should not be discounted as the primary reason, but it is a useful selling point and component of the Trump administration’s foreign policy capability to convince the Russians of the need for a ceasefire, which they have been reluctant to support at all.
Russia’s Impact in the civil war
Of course, Russia’s military intervention two years ago sharply tipped the conflict in favor of the al-Assad regime, which in the summer of 2015 was threatened with a combined rebel offensive – including that by al-Qaeda — that threatened the regime heartland and is what cause President Assad to request Russian assistance.
The strategy for this new effort saw Pro-Syrian government forces – backed by both Russia and Iran – having been able to push back moderate rebels, conservative Islamist factions, al-Qaeda linked jihadists, and ISIS, on multiple fronts in this multi-tiered, multiple-level, multi-dimensional civil war.
Likewise a key factor in the Trump administration’s decision was that the Syrian civil war/insurgency has increasing become dominated by hardline Islamist groups and jihadists tied to and affiliated with al-Qaeda, especially in the rebel strongholds province near the Syrian border with Turkey. Detractors of the decision to drop the CIA program argue that it will strengthen extremist factions at the expense of more moderate rebel groups backed by the U.S. They suggest those forces may now be forced to ally with the better-armed al-Qaeda and other hardline groups. But that is unlikely with the U.S. now embedded with and working with Kurdish SDF/YPG forces. In addition, The Pentagon military programs led by U.S. Central Command to assist rebel forces will remain in effect. Likewise, our closest Arab ally working this effort, which has played a major role, Jordan supports President Trump’s decision. Jordan certainly had serious concerns since weapons from the program were being sold on the Jordanian black market, creating an internal security threat to jihadist sympathetic to ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The Strategic Context
President Trump’s shutting down of the disastrous and failed program, is a sign of his strategic and ultimate attempt to bring stability to the region, and to curtail Russia’s ever increasing attempt to gain a foothold once again in the Middle East. Some also see it as an initial U.S. attempt to force out Syrian President Bashir al-Assad through a more peaceful process rather than continuing a relentless and bloody civil conflict that has resulted in over 600,000 civilian casualties. And of course some believe shuttering of the CIA’s program is also an acknowledgment of the Trump administration’s attempt to use limited leverage and a desire to remove al-Assad from power. But, again any effort of toppling al-Assad with no apparent successor in place to ensure stability afterward is always questionable.
Again, while the phasing out of the secret program reflects President Trump’s interest in finding more diplomatic ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti- al-Assad program as an assault on its interests. This change in the program and the coordinated cease-fire with Russia are the first steps in an effort to stop the fighting and civil war, and bring stability to both Syria and to the region, which is a critical factor and a necessary priority of President Trump’s overall regional strategy. The campaign to destroy ISIS will continue and until they are destroyed is obviously priority one.
Historically, the historical context of the reasons for the current conflict must be understood in order to implement any solution. The Syrian civil war was instigated in part by the failed regional policies of the Obama administration which allowed the creation and formation of ISIS and subsequent formation of numerous Islamic groups and radical Islamists that formed to challenge ISIS the Assad regime and each other for essentially ultimate control. This resulted in nearly half the population of Syria to flee as refugees.
Prior, while Assad was brutal hardliner tied to Iran, the country was for the most part peaceful internally and under pre-Obama U.S. containment policy where we along with Israel policed its actions outside its borders. The positive aspect of the current Trump administration strategy and its support operational effort will present the opportunity to end the civil war under non-hostile, conflict conditions, and allow for the situation to stabilize itself and favorable conditions for Syrians to return to their homeland.
Moving forward in Syria and the Region
As previously noted, again, the U.S. decision to halt the covert CIA program was not done as a concession to al-Assad ally Russia. In fact, before assuming office in January, President Trump suggested ending support for FSA groups and to give priority to the fight against Islamic State.
In turn, the decision was based on an Executive Assessment on the nature of the program, what it was trying to accomplish, the viability of it going forward, and whether the need to keep it as a Title 50 program under the CIA. The decision was “absolutely not a concession to the Russians. In fact, it was a tough decision, as it was noted that some critics thought the Syrian rebels had a chance of removing al-Assad from power. A major downside of the CIA program was that some armed and trained rebels defected to Islamic State and other radical groups, and some members of the previous administration favored abandoning the program. Many acknowledged criticism that the program might not have been strong enough, but stopped short of doing so.
The assessment in question, requested by the President Trump and his national security team determined it was not possible, particularly from the standpoint that President Obama signed the covert directive in 2012, and it begun in 2013, was illegal in many was as part of efforts by the Obama administration to oust al-Assad. This was not stated in the findings to implement and fund the CIA program. It was a totally misguided program designed by inexperience top level, I’ll call them amateurs in the Obama White House and Intelligence Community which produced little success and created a lot of problems for U.S. foreign policy, future covert and clandestine operations, and other sensitive programs and operations. It was part of the insane regime change effort that the Obama administration incorporated in support of the Arab Spring rampage that gave us Libya and Benghazi, the ouster of long-time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and much of the turmoil that inflamed the Middle East and North Africa during the two terms of the Obama administration. Finally, because of the sensitive revelations, disclosures of such operations, and the compromises of methodologies, it was better to transfer and position under the similar U.S, military efforts in the region.
The program is already in the process of being transferred to the U.S. military and will be closely tied to the effort by the U.S. military program to train, arm, and support other Syrian fighters battling ISIS in Syria and northern. U.S. special operations forces and other U.S. conventional forces are advising the Kurdish YPG militia, and other rebels fighting to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State. As seen in daily news reporting, the U.S. is carrying out daily air strikes to help U.S. forces, Syrian rebels, Kurdish YPG militia, along with other Coalition forces advance against ISIS. One other point that needs to be mentioned and will be the topic of my next article, was noted by U.S. Special Operations Command Commander General Raymond Thomas where he stated earlier this week that the U.S. military has come close to killing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in recent years. In at least one case, he blamed a media leak for ruining a promising lead for our forces to take out the ISIS leader, indicating; “There were points in time when we were particularly close to him.”
In hindsight, looking back over the Obama years, Washington media elites and the rest of the mainstream continuously failed to mention or report on the distressing number of the weapons shipped by the Obama CIA to the Syrian rebels that ended up in the hands of black marketeers and radical Islamic terrorists. Obama’s National Security Council and State Department were all well aware of this, but neither factored that into the equation, nor calculated the impact or consequences. Par for the course for the Obama White House, which never was able to grasp the nature of asymmetric warfare, the alone the strategic consequences as they pertain to the unanalyzed impact of second, third and fourth order effects of single effect decisions. In the end, some of those weapons were used to kill American forces in Syria and Iraq, and other parts of the region. Further, as has been continuously debated, the ability of the Obama administration to “vet” Syrian rebels and keep American equipment secure and away from terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, has long been questioned. Considering that sometimes the rebels, provided with weapons from the Obama administration openly threw in their lot and defected with al-Qaeda and or its al-Nusra Front affiliate because they believed had the best chance of both surviving and defeating the Syrian military and its allies.
Of course the immediate reaction of the mainstream media, noting that the move is seen as controversial, given Russia’s opposition to the rebels and Moscow’s strong support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. CNN went on to say that; “It’s a strategic mistake …. (support for the rebels) claiming the program was a pressure point on al-Assad and a pressure point on the Iranians … and the Russians. “It looks like he just gave that as a gift to Vladimir Putin for no quid pro quo and that’s not the way diplomacy works. He’s lost his pressure point … it’s crazy, frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Incorporating the now emblematic mainstream media standard known as fake news to embellish the news and misleading reports of this decision with dark insinuations about President Trump’s ties with Russia does not conceal the cold truth that regime change in Syria is extremely unlikely. Certainly the facts and the record show it was the Obama administration’s ever-failing miscalculations that made it that way. Further, there is not that much enthusiasm for plunging the U.S. into Syria’s civil war, and possibly ending up in a regional conflict with both Russian and Iranian forces. For one thing, not sure that argument could be found in any corner of the political spectrum.
Even the cynical notion of arming unsavory Syrian insurgents against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and letting them bleed each other out over the past six years proved to be a disaster because it led to a humanitarian horror show and a flood of refugees that may have changed Europe forever. Those who insinuate that President Trump is doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding by ending the CIA program to arm Syrian rebels should be prepared to explain their strategy for achieving something other than a bloody stalemate, civilian slaughter, and an endless flow of refugees. The long term impact was strategically problematic … with the consequences out weighing and chances of any success. Clearly, no one associated with Barack Obama and his administration had any strategy that offered success, let alone solutions.