Op-Ed by SAC's Director of Government Relations and Senior Political Adviser, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem - 08/10/17
President Trump is making a dangerous mistake if he is ending a CIA program to arm moderate Syrian rebels, as was asserted by the Washington Post last month. His decision will mostly serve to empower Al Qaeda and Iran. The president should reconsider.
I have tracked the program since its inception in 2013 while serving as Government Relations Director of the Syrian American Council, a nonprofit that advocates for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. I believe that the President’s decision could not have come at a worse time.
Battles that will determine the strength of Al Qaeda and Iran in Syria for years to come are raging right now. The president’s decision undercuts the good guys.
The CIA program was never meant to defeat Assad. Known as “Timber Sycamore,” it proposed working with only a few dozen moderate rebels per month (there were around 100,000 rebels overall at the time) and providing them only with basic training and light arms.
I still remember the day the program was introduced because I received an inside report on the Obama administration’s meeting with senators to introduce it. Most senators were, to put it mildly, skeptical.
House and Senate Intelligence Committee members rightly asked how such a meager program could succeed. Some wondered if the program was meant only to be a cosmetic substitute for more robust action.
Obama Administration officials responded that the U.S. needed “skin in the game” to keep regional opposition backers in line and check extremism in the rebel camp. This was a key argument that got the program approved. And this, ultimately, was the program’s main purpose.
Even by these very limited standards, the program was set up to fail. In early 2014, a highly disciplined coalition of CIA-vetted rebels called the “Hazzm Movement” formed in northern Syria. The group was strongly committed to fighting extremism; they eventually entered into a 3-front war with ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Assad forces.
I knew the leadership of this group and even arranged meetings for them with the administration to help them gain increased support.
But the support was not forthcoming. When Hazzm fighters captured enemy tanks, the CIA would not give them the money needed to operate them, so the weapons sat idle. The CIA at one point shipped 36 rifles to a commander who had requested 1,000. When the Hazzm Movement was overrun by Al-Qaeda in early 2015, its commanders reported receiving just 16 bullets per fighter per month.
A leader of the group later described depending on America for support as “a losing bet.”
Trump has cited the CIA program’s cost inefficiencies and indirect benefits to Al Qaeda as reasons for ending it. Neither argument is valid in southern Syria, where the CIA and regional partners adapted to failures in the north by devising a new, more egalitarian system of weapons provision that helped moderates to unify.
A coalition of Free Syrian Army rebels rose to prominence in early 2015 and has dominated southern Syria until today. This coalition has kept Al Qaeda weak in southern Syria; contained suspected ISIS affiliates at the Israeli border; and kept Iran and Hezbollah away from Jordan and Israel through blistering military defeats.
Further east, affiliates of the coalition have allied with a Pentagon-trained group to expel ISIS from the outskirts of the Syrian capital.
Even in northern Syria, it is wrong to call the CIA program a flop. Former CIA-vetted rebels remain heavily involved in anti-Qaeda efforts in northern Idlib province, where Al Qaeda hopes to establish an emirate. Groups such as the Free Idlib Army and Levant Front have kept pockets of democracy alive.
Local rebels waged a major battle against Al Qaeda last month, and former CIA partners north of Idlib are now the best hope to destroy Al Qaeda at its main base in that province.
That the CIA program achieved successes even though Obama set it up to fail is a testament to the potential of the collaboration. Trump now needs to decide whether he will bring this potential to fruition, or complete Obama’s failures.
Under Obama, Iran became much stronger in Syria, because Obama’s Syria policy was largely premised on appeasing Iran to secure a nuclear deal. As a result, the CIA program in northern Syria failed to hold Al Qaeda at bay; but Trump’s cancellation of the program might be the finishing blow for moderate forces that will give Al Qaeda its cherished emirate.
It could also give Iran its ultimate goal: a direct ground corridor to Lebanon, allowing it to supercharge Hezbollah and threaten U.S. allies in the region like never before.
The CIA-backed “Lions of the East” resistance group is the main obstacle to such a historic Iranian victory at this time. The Lions came under fierce attack from Iranian proxies after contesting Iran’s route to Lebanon through eastern Syria.
The Pentagon carried out multiple airstrikes against those proxies before backing off; the Lions persevered and last week launched a furious new offensive. With proper support, these forces could cause major damage to Iranian interests in Syria. Without aid it is only a matter of time before they are defeated.
The idea of Trump’s decision to end support sends a chill up the spine of anti-Assad democrats across Syria. Thousands of Syrians will take it as a signal that America no longer wishes to support their struggle for freedom – be it against Assad, Iran, or Al Qaeda.
Thousands of fighters who received salaries from the program will no longer have a livelihood, forcing them to join better-funded extremists or leave the field altogether for Al Qaeda and Iran to flourish. The situation will get worse, not better.
The CIA program was far too limited and was in dire need of reform. But if Trump thinks that he struck a blow against the extremists by pulling the plug on CIA partners in Syria, then he should know that he is only extending Obama’s failed policies.
A more robust program that gives vetted rebels freedom to target ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran alike would better serve U.S. national interests.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is director of government relations and senior political adviser at the Syrian American Council and a former professor at the University of Damascus, Syria. He is stepping down this month to pursue studies at Columbia University.