By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support),The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market…..
American involvement in Syria comes in two main flavors. The first is a limited covert operation to support moderate rebels in their quest to unseat Assad. The second is an overt military campaign to combat ISIL. .
Deliberations over what the United States ought to do militarily in Syria began as early as 2012. The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small “50-man cell” of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light. Since then, America’s CIA covert operation against the Syrian regime, known as Timber Sycamore, has grown substantially. In 2014, reports suggested that the United States was “ramping up” its support to the rebels through the provision of TOW anti-tank guided missiles. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that America wasn’t acting alone. Timber Sycamore had become a joint effort with Saudi Arabia: The Saudis provided cash and arms, while the Americans provided training.
To date, efforts to replace Assad or bring him to the negotiating table haven’t succeeded….[and]America’s efforts to replace Assad are further complicated by a parallel but distinct effort to degrade and destroy ISIL…
Covert intervention allows major powers to “back stage” their role. As a result, any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the “audience” (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate. “Back-staging” outside meddling can protect the “front stage” performance of a localized war with limited geopolitical stakes and the potential for diplomatic resolution. The CIA’s Timber Sycamore program embodies this logic in key respects. By rejecting an overt and acknowledged relationship with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama White House has retained greater flexibility to tweak the program as the war evolves. Even relatively porous secrecy may help to evade the daily media reporting, public justifications, and regular congressional involvement that so often accompany overt programs. Moreover, by embracing a “back stage” role in Syria, the United States has avoided a naked geopolitical challenge to other states. Doing so reduces the chances of a public diplomatic crisis should American-supplied weaponry advertently or inadvertently be used in a clash with, say, Iranian personnel in Syria. Russia’s “front stage” air intervention and American overt air strikes against ISIL only strengthens this limited war logic. With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia’s ally in Damascus low-profile makes U.S.-Russian crisis prevention measures easier.
Excerpts from AUSTIN CARSON AND MICHAEL POZNANSKY, THE LOGIC FOR (SHODDY) U.S. COVERT ACTION IN SYRIA, from War on the Rocks, July 21, 2016