Trump Shuts Down CIA Support for Syrian 'Rebels' After Years of Chronic Failure
The announcement last week that the Trump administration was shutting down the "covert" CIA program of arming Syrian "rebel" groups could not have come too soon.
As I've reported here in more than three dozen articles over the past three years, the CIA support program had suffered chronic failures, including defections of groups "vetted" by the CIA to al-Qaeda and ISIS, and leakage of weapons provided by the CIA into the hands of those same terror groups.
The pinnacle of this failure came in Obama's last few hours in the White House in January. He ordered the bombing of a terror training camp that also hosted fighters from a CIA-"vetted" group embedded with al-Qaeda; that same group officially partnered with al-Qaeda a few days later.
Another defining moment of the debacle came last year, when CIA-backed groups fought against other CIA-backed groups:
The Washington Post announced the cancellation of the CIA support program last week, claiming -- without evidence -- that the move was made to placate Russia:
The termination of the program was confirmed by SOCOM Gen. Tony Thomas at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday:
Gen. Thomas specifically refuted the Washington Post's Russia tie-in:
As I reported here at PJ Media in February, the CIA had already begun shutting down the weapons pipeline to the "rebel" groups:
Predictably, the "rebel" groups began flocking to al-Qaeda as soon as the CIA pipeline began to slow.
In response to the cancellation announcement, cheerleaders of the "vetted moderate rebels" complained that the U.S. hadn't supported the groups enough. But that talking point was rebutted by Obama nearly three years ago. In an August 2014 interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times, Obama dismissed the notion that more weapons would have given the "rebels" any kind of edge, and he expressed frustration at the inability to find enough "moderates":
With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”
And yet, just a month later the GOP congressional leadership passed $500 million in additional funds for an eventual U.S.-backed, Pentagon-trained army of 15,000 "vetted moderates" to combat ISIS. In less than a year, that half-billion dollar boondoggle approved by Congress turned into a disaster. By July 2015, fewer than 60 fighters had been successfully vetted and trained -- costing taxpayers nearly $4 million for each fighter:
And immediately after the Pentagon-trained and -armed fighters left their camp in Turkey and crossed the border into Syria, they promptly disappeared. As I reported here at PJ Media, most of the fighters had been captured -- along with all their weapons -- by al-Qaeda.:
The Pentagon quickly denied the al-Qaeda abduction -- but our report was confirmed by a published statement shortly thereafter:
The remainder of Obama's 54-man anti-ISIS army were plagued by more abductions and attacks by al-Qaeda:
Some reports indicated that the fighters of the Pentagon's "train-and-equip" program had been sold out by our NATO ally Turkey:
Just a year after GOP congressional leadership passed $500 million for a "vetted moderate" anti-ISIS army, Pentagon officials were telling Congress that only four or five trained fighters were still left in the field where 5,400 had been authorized to be trained by December 2015.
Obama refused to take responsibility. The White House quickly shifted the blame for the "train-and-equip" debacle:
By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.
But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place -- a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Remarkably, the Pentagon unsuccessfully pushed for another round of "train-and-equip" just a few months later. Congress wisely demurred:
All that was left following that disaster was the CIA weapons program:
Weapons Leakage, Defections, and Betrayal
One of the chronic problems with the CIA support program was that weapons would regularly leak from "vetted" groups associated under the so-called "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) to designated terrorist organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, as well as ISIS. This especially was true after the CIA began shipping U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles to the rebels.
This weapons leakage would occur with astounding regularity, and yet Obama, with the full blessing of GOP leaders, waived restrictions on arming terrorist organizations to be able to transfer weapons to the "Syrian opposition."
Initially, the transfer of weapons from CIA-backed groups to jihadist organizations was so prevalent that the U.S. and the UK suspended their weapons support programs in December 2013. One report in February 2014 claimed that ISIS had seized $500 million in weapons intended for the FSA.
Yet in April 2014, the CIA began shipping weapons again. The problem only got progressively worse:
A German journalist who spent 10 days embedded with ISIS in Iraq and Syria told France24 that ISIS was obtaining weapons supplied by Western governments and being sold by the FSA:
Todenhofer went on to say that the IS militants are being armed by the West -- if only indirectly -- as Western moves to arm moderate Syrian rebels have backfired.
“They buy the weapons that we give to the Free Syrian Army, so they get Western weapons -- they get French weapons … I saw German weapons, I saw American weapons,” he said.
“The best seller of weapons is the Free Syrian Army, which is financed by NATO, financed probably also by France, but at least by the United States.”
There were also wholesale defections from CIA-backed "vetted moderate" groups to the same terrorist organizations:
And in at least one case, there was outright betrayal by one of the CIA's "vetted moderate" partners:
ISIS leaders openly bragged about elements of the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) defecting to their side:
For a long time, Western and Arab states supported the Free Syrian Army not only with training but also with weapons and other materiel. The Islamic State commander, Abu Yusaf, added that members of the Free Syrian Army who had received training — from the United States, Turkey and Arab military officers at an American base in Southern Turkey — have now joined the Islamic State. “Now many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us,” he said, smiling.
That basically sums up the quality of the CIA's "vetting" efforts. These defections raise serious questions about who performed the vetting.
The Mythical "Moderate Free Syrian Army"
The "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) was a propaganda effort to sell support for the so-called "moderate" rebels to the West following mistakes made during the NATO intervention in Libya.
In reality, the FSA was nothing more than disparate militias with competing leadership and allegiances supposedly led by self-appointed military chiefs living and working out of Turkey. In March 2013, Aron Lund, an expert in groups fighting in Syria, explained that the FSA was a fictional branding operation intended to draw Western support. Another report in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar observed that the elusive pursuit of a "moderate" opposition in Syria was trying to find "a needle in a haystack," with many Syrian groups touting FSA credentials to obtain U.S. support, and using them to conceal their jihadist leanings:
Hundreds of groups claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Announcing their FSA affiliation was a mere pathway to receiving foreign support. Funders - most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait’s Salafis - were keen on the Islamist identity of the groups receiving support without requiring them to announce it publicly.
In 2013, the picture became clearer. The Islamist discourse became public and most groups organized under the rubric of new fronts that are predominantly jihadist in nature. Groups that used to claim affiliation with the FSA united with hardline groups that never once raised the FSA flag [...]
In addition to al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, who are affiliated with the Islamic Front, the southern front of the FSA’s offensive is teaming up with small jihadist groups such as the Green Battalion which is believed to be al-Qaeda-affiliated even though it is not well-known in the media.
Those who supported the Syrian "rebel" groups in Washington, D.C., needed a face to sell the pretend moderation of the mythical "Free Syrian Army." They found it in Elizabeth O'Bagy, an attractive, non-Muslim, educated, well-spoken Syria analyst at the D.C.-based Institute for War.
In late August 2013, she penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal about her travels to Syria and her purported discovery that the Syrian "rebels" really weren't bloodthirsty jihadists, but moderates worthy of U.S. financial and military support -- in particular, heavy weapons.
Her claims about the Syrian rebels, particularly the FSA, were cited and praised by Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain:
She was a regular commentator to the major networks and newspapers, and her claims about the so-called moderation of the Syrian rebels was then used by other D.C.-based analysts to reinforce the "moderate Syrian rebel" narrative:
Just a few weeks after her WSJ editorial appeared and the "moderate FSA" narrative took root in the American media and Washington, D.C. think-tanks, O'Bagy came under fire when it was reported she had failed to disclose that she was a paid agent of a Syrian rebel front.
It was also revealed that she had lied about her academic credentials, claiming a PhD from Georgetown University, when in fact she had never been enrolled in a PhD program, let alone completed one.
And yet none of these revelations exposing the leading authority promoting the mythical "moderate FSA" damaged the now-entrenched narrative, even as contrary evidence came to light.
Two weeks after O'Bagy's WSJ editorial appeared, IHS Janes published an assessment saying that nearly half of the Syrian "rebels" were jihadists or hardline Islamists. Meanwhile, the FSA was under serious pressure from the very jihadist groups that Ms. O'Bagy had assured were not a problem.
The mythical "moderate FSA" narrative survived intact and continues even until today. But the questions about whom Ms. O'Bagy was working on behalf of quickly disappeared:
The ISIS/Al-Qaeda Connection
One of the dirty secrets of the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels vetted by the CIA is that they regularly and openly fought alongside and in coordination with terror groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda) and ISIS:
Even the most ardent supporters of the Syrian "rebel" groups now admit that they were allied with terror organizations from the very beginning of the war:
And now that these terror groups have continued to assimilate or wipe out these CIA-backed groups, their leaders are now much more open about the FSA farce:
Even early on in the war, Hillary's State Department had indications where the conflict was going:
One group fighting alongside the FSA featured on their webpage an image of their fighters marching in front of a burning U.S. Capitol, as NBC News reported in September 2013:
As debate grows over the extremism of some armed factions battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, an incendiary illustration on the Facebook page of one such group leaves little doubt where its leaders envision the uprising ending – with masked Islamic fighters marching through Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Capitol burns in the background.
The image is one of eight photos posted on the official Facebook page of the “Al-Aqsa Islamic Brigades,” a small armed Sunni rebel faction fighting with the Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella military organization of the opposition forces. Two other photos posted on the group’s page feature the widely recognized black flag of the al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist group, which operates freely in Syria.
This same group had been given the all-clear in a federal court affidavit in a terror support trial. The author of the federal court affidavit? Elizabeth O'Bagy.
Moderate FSA Kidnappings
One particularly troubling aspect of the CIA's support program is that the "vetted moderate" FSA partners were repeatedly implicated in the kidnapping of American journalists. The case of James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014, serves as the most disturbing example.
Foley had been captured by the FSA-aligned Dawud Brigade, and then reportedly was used as a token of allegiance when this "moderate" group turned him over to ISIS at the time of their defection.
That's hardly the only example of the kidnapping of Americans by the "vetted moderate" FSA.
In October 2014, American journalist Theo Padnos -- who had been captured by the U.S.-backed FSA and then given over to Jabhat al-Nusra -- told the story of his two-year captivity in the New York Times Magazine. At one point, Padnos says he escaped from his al-Qaeda captors and found himself back in the hands of the FSA, who then, again, promptly turned him back over to the terror group.
Padnos also relates this exchange with some U.S.-trained FSA fighters that exposed the glaring weaknesses of the CIA's vetting system:
I returned to the FSA troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.
“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”
“Certainly, very,” he replied.
The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.
After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”
“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”
In April 2015, NBC News corrected the claims by one of their top journalists, Richard Engel, that he and five members of his crew had been abducted and held by the Assad regime in December 2012.
Instead, it was revealed, following a lengthy investigation by the New York Times, that Engel and the NBC crew had been kidnapped by a FSA criminal network.
There was also evidence that NBC News executives knew from the time of the crew's capture that they were held by U.S. allies, but allowed the blame to fall on Assad since that didn't conflict with the Obama administration's position at the time.
And last September I wrote here at PJ Media about the claims by British reporter Anthony Loyd, who expressed amazement when he saw his former captor who shot him twice appearing in a video of U.S.-backed rebels celebrating a victory:
It was with some surprise watching a video of a victorious band of western-backed rebels that I noticed the face of America’s newest ally in the war against Isis in Syria.
It was the face of a man I last saw in May 2014 when he leant forward to shoot me twice in the left ankle at almost point-blank range while my hands were tied. It was punishment for having attempted to escape his gang of kidnappers in northern Syria who had hoped to sell me on.
He shot me in the middle of a crowd of onlookers, after a savage preliminary beating, denouncing me as “a CIA spy”. Now, it seems, he works with them.
The grainy footage of the video - posted last month on Facebook - showed Hakim Abu Jamal waving his Kalashnikov in the air to proclaim a small victory, courtesy of US air power, on a dusty street in the border town of al-Rai.
I remember him well from across the years. Now, Hakim, forage cap on his head, was standing in the middle of a group of ten other Syrian rebel fighters all belonging to a CIA-vetted group.
Multiple FSA sources confirmed that Loyd's captor, Hakim Abu Jamal, was serving in a CIA-vetted Syrian rebel group, First Regiment (al-Fawj al-Awwal), which was receiving U.S. weaponry, including TOW missiles. CENTCOM refused to comment.
Remarkably, the New York Times reported five years ago from Hakim's camp, where he was observed engaging in war crimes, namely, sending a Syrian regime prisoner to a Syrian Army checkpoint under the ruse of a prisoner exchange, but wiring the vehicle to remotely explode once it arrived at the checkpoint. In a video accompanying the NYT article, Hakim appears dejected when informed the bomb did not detonate.
Even more remarkably, the kidnapping skills and tactics that these groups utilized, sometimes against Americans, may have been taught to them by their U.S. trainers:
Nick Kristof's Complaint
There are, of course, those lamenting the Trump administration's cancellation of the CIA support program. Some, like Senator John McCain, are so heavily invested personally in the program that emotion outweighs all of the available evidence:
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sparred with Nassim Taleb over the termination of the CIA program, asserting that the agency would never support Al-Qaeda:
But as I've documented above, even the most generous reading of the facts indicates that the CIA-backed groups were openly cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, as well as ISIS. There's really no serious debate over that, or that it was widely known very early on.
And Kristof would have to look no further than his own publication to see that CIA-armed "rebels" repeatedly coordinated attacks with Jabhat al-Nusra and utilized CIA-provided weapons in their joint assaults:
According to a December 2014 New York Times report:
In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups [...]
How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: antitank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory. That means that the American-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the United States government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders.
One commander of a group that received antitank missiles said that some F.S.A. fighters were forced to operate them in the battle on behalf of the Nusra Front, which had captured them from American-backed groups — a turn of events that he worried would lead the United States to cut off support.
Clearly, the U.S.-backed FSA commanders knew their activity in support and at the direction of Jabhat al-Nusra would raise concerns with their CIA handlers, most likely leading to their weapons pipeline being cut off.
Undoubtedly, defenders of these groups would claim exigent circumstances required them to ally with Al-Qaeda. But if your choices are partnering with Al-Qaeda or not, perhaps you really need to reexamine your career goals.
By any objective measure, the CIA's assistance to the Syrian "rebel" groups has been a complete catastrophe.
The CIA's botched handling in both Libya and Syria should serve as a cautionary tale to the Trump administration about the follies of ill-informed intervention. While those policies may have been driven by the best of intentions, the results have been horrifically bad.
And contrary to the program's defenders, these efforts are very likely responsible for drawing Russia and Iran deeper into the region.
As the Assad regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, continues to make gains against the opposition's positions, and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the north of the country pressure ISIS, we can only expect that the opposition will grow even more dominated by the terrorist groups because they have largely been the only game in town. And it's likely that continued CIA support would have accelerated that radicalization process, not delayed it.
A few of us lonely voices have said this is where the Syrian war was heading all along. And the cancellation of the CIA's support program is at least a tacit recognition that we were right.
Below are the more than three dozen reports at PJ Media by Patrick Poole since July 2014 documenting the issues with Syrian "rebel" groups: