The Wall Street Journal reports: It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.
After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.
Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.
Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.
All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clinging to power after more than 200,000 deaths blamed on the war. Moderate fighters control only a fraction of northern Syria, while Islamic State and al Qaeda’s official affiliate, the Nusra Front, have gained ground. Last fall, Nusra overran one trusted commander and seized another’s equipment.
Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.
“We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,” a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting after Nusra’s advances.
The CIA recently stopped offering help to all but a few trusted commanders in Syria. Much of the U.S.’s focus is shifting to southern Syria, where rebels seem more unified but say they get just 5% to 20% of the arms requested from the CIA. [Continue reading…]