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Mission Impractical

The Washington Post today provides fresh details about the anemic CIA program to train moderate Syrian rebels. Reporter Greg Miller writes that “the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that the CIA is providing so little support is not accidental, nor is it due to logistical constraints. It’s due to the mission statement given to the covert operators by their political masters in the White House. Writes the Post: “The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Now there’s an inspiring battle cry: Go out and risk your lives for a stalemate. One can only imagine what morale must be like among not only the Syrian rebels who are expected to risk their necks but also among the CIA handlers who are expected to prepare them for this pointless mission. Indeed the Post story suggests the CIA is already in CYA mode: “Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong. ‘What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East.”

History shows that covert operations, like standard military campaigns, are only likely to produce results if they are designed to produce victory–as in the case of the program to arm Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Aiming for stalemate is a prescription for failure.

Why would the Obama administration make this their goal? Their de facto policy–not their declared policy but their real policy–appears to be a variation of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip that it was a shame that both sides couldn’t lose in the Iran-Iraq War. Likewise in Syria it’s hard to choose between Hezbollah and the Quds Force on one side and, on the other, al-Qaeda affiliates such as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the al-Nusra Front, even if the latter make up only a minority of rebel fighters. (The Post cites intelligence estimates that jihadists comprise 20 percent of the 100,000 rebel fighters.)

The problem is that, while it’s possible for both groups of extremists to lose (which is what would happen if moderate rebel factions prevail), it is also possible for both sides to win–which is what would happen if today’s stalemate were to continue indefinitely. Under those circumstances, the current trend of the country being split between jihadist and Assadist areas will accelerate: the al-Qaeda groups will continue to exercise sway in the north while Iran’s allies control Damascus and the Alawite strongholds.

This is not a win for the United States. It’s actually our nightmare scenario. And President Obama’s half-hearted policy of not really supporting the moderate rebels–or only supporting them enough to perpetuate the stalemate–is helping to bring it about. Incidentally, American apathy is also enabling the war to rage on and to kill thousands more people every month. This is neither moral nor strategically smart.


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