July 20, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Ending the CIA Anti-Assad Program

The U.S. has decided to shut down a CIA program that—distinct from the fight against the Islamic State—was aimed at arming and training ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels to fight the Assad regime.

• On July 19, the Washington Post reported the U.S. was shutting down the CIA anti-Assad program it began in 2013.

• The program, which was ineffective and problematic from the start, is separate from various anti-Islamic State campaigns run by the military and CIA.

• The history of U.S. covert, but not secret, programs is one of limited short-term success and longer-term threats.

• The decision reflects the Trump administration’s stance that the removal of Assad is not a U.S. priority.


The U.S. has decided to shut down a CIA program that—distinct from the fight against the Islamic State—was aimed at arming and training ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels to fight the Assad regime. While the reaction to the news, first reported in the Washington Post, has focused on its implications for U.S. relations with Russia, the decision was likely based on two uncomfortable realities: the program was ineffective, and the risk of arming and training rebels in a battlefield dominated by terrorist groups raises serious national security concerns. Since 2013, the program has seen high-profile losses and controversies, while failing to change the course of a war the U.S. has always sought to keep at arms’ length, even as it focused on defeating the so-called Islamic State. The shutting down of the CIA program is both an acknowledgement that it was not meaningfully serving U.S. national interests, as well as a recognition that the Trump administration does not view the removal of Assad—even through covert means—as a priority.

The ‘train-and-equip’ program, run by the CIA along Syria’s southern border, was beset from the start by the difficulties of adequately vetting rebel groups in the midst of a civil war, especially one characterized by a rising tide of violent extremism among rebel groups. There is significant merit to arguments that the Assad regime’s brutality toward its people is the root cause of most of the conflict’s terrorism and barbarism, though the mainstream opposition ultimately morphed to some degree to match the Assad regime’s savagery. Yet, the desire to see the Assad regime punished for its crimes must be reconciled with the complete inability of the U.S. to adequately vet for violent extremism among the Syrian opposition. The demands of the modern battlefield mean that moderates and extremists often mix and merge freely, and the violent extremists among the Syrian opposition demonstrated a consistent, if predictable, ability to decimate the moderates whom they viewed with suspicion and disdain as tools of the West. 

After years of failed efforts and untold millions spent, the allure of the sunk-cost fallacy tends to perpetuate these kinds of covert programs far beyond their utility. There is also a tendency to view all such programs through a narrow and inaccurate—but commonly invoked—lens of the Afghan War of the 1980’s, in which the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan is attributed almost exclusively to the CIA support of the mujahideen, rather than a sustained and costly rebellion by the Afghan people. The historically inaccurate analogy makes covert action programs seem easier, and more effective, than they have actually proven to be. 

For many U.S. administrations, covert programs also appear far less cumbersome and costly than military actions that would need approval by Congress. The CIA program was approved in 2013 by a presidential ‘finding’ by then President Obama. The program, like previous ones, was an open secret, classified in-name-only as its existence was constantly reported in the news and obvious on the ground in Syria. The program has been effectively shut down since January, and the Trump administration has reportedly been considering ending it officially since April.

The program, even in the rarest of best-case scenarios, was never bound to succeed in removing Assad, both because it was appropriately limited in scope and scale, and because the Russians—for whom the continuation of the Assad regime is considered a critical national interest—overtly joined the conflict with a decisive level of force that no covert program could match. The Syrian war is among the most complicated conflicts in modern history, and it remains unclear what the end of the program might portend for overall U.S. strategy in Syria. While the implications for U.S. cooperation with Russia will no doubt remain at the forefront of the discussion around a way forward in Syria, a shift toward more cooperation with Russia would present its own challenges and concerns.



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