When the definitive history of the conflict in Syria is written, the role of the United States in funding, training, and arming rebel groups will by necessity comprise a major chapter.
Washington’s announcement that the CIA has cancelled its program to support ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria – estimated to have cost the US taxpayer over $1 billion and which has helped perpetuate a conflict in which up to 400,000 people have died, many in the most heinous way – was made recently in the manner of a multinational corporation wrapping up a failed business venture overseas.
There was no mention made that the program had been undertaken in violation of international law. No mention either of the fact it was in support of an insurgency largely been made up of non-Syrians, who over the past six years have descended on the country driven not by the desire to establish a democracy in the country but rather to impose religious and cultural tyranny.
Imagine, for a moment, if the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine if Russia’s FSB had set up and run such a program, one in support of an armed insurgency dominated by religious extremists with a penchant for torture, enslaving women, and chopping off people’s heads – whose objective was the overthrow of the secular government of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state – imagine what the reaction would be in Western capitals. The outrage would be stratospheric – and justifiably so.
As for those who argue that the West has only ever supported moderate head-chopping fanatics in Syria, never the extreme kind, this is a preposterous distinction that the Syrian people have never had the luxury of embracing.
In a New York Times article on this story we are informed how “once C.I.A.-trained fighters crossed into Syria, C.I.A. officers had difficulty controlling them. The fact that some of their C.I.A. weapons ended up with Nusra Front fighters — and that some of the rebels joined the group — confirmed the fears of many in the Obama administration when the program began. Although the Nusra Front was widely seen as an effective fighting force against Mr. Assad’s troops, its Qaeda affiliation made it impossible for the Obama administration to provide direct support for the group.”
The sheer unadulterated stupidity of US policy in Syria over the past few years is enshrined in this passage. What did they think was going to happen? Did the CIA really believe their nice moderate rebels with their shiny new US-supplied weapons and equipment would slot into the conflict and remain inoculated from the attentions of the bad extremist rebels? Are they really so incredibly inept and disastrously ill informed about a region they have expended so much effort in trying to dominate over the past 70 years?
From the very beginning, Washington and its allies have completely and woefully misread events not only in Syria but also throughout the region. The so-called Arab Spring caught the US by surprise both in terms of its size and the speed with which it spread in 2011. The result was panic in Washington over what it portended for US influence in the Middle East, producing a monumental collapse in analysis responsible for the catastrophic military intervention in Libya under the rubric of NATO.
Driving the Libyan misadventure was not pure ideals of helping to overthrow a cruel dictator and establish a Jeffersonian democracy in his place, as claimed. Indeed, how could it be considering that while Gaddafi was in power the US, UK, and France – the main participants in the NATO intervention – enjoyed buoyant economic relations with Libya, along with near normal diplomatic relations? No, NATO’s intervention in Libya was fueled by the desire of the US and its European allies to place themselves at the head of an Arab Spring which by then had run out of steam.
Yet, regardless, the West staged a crude and wrongheaded intervention, one that only helped to fan the flames of a counterrevolutionary reflex that saw not democracy but Salafi-jihadism prosper. Informing this strategy was an Orientalist and reductive treatment of the region as an undifferentiated collection of Arab and Muslim states which are near identical in their complexion, social breakdown and dynamic, not to mention national character. Thus Tunisia is the same as Egypt is the same as Libya is the same as Syria, and so on.
There was no popular revolution in Libya, an assertion borne out by the fact that even though Gaddafi had no air force to speak of, and despite his air defense capability being weak and neutralized by NATO early on in the conflict, it still took eight months for the Libyan leader to be overthrown and butchered from the day NATO aircraft began flying sorties in the country in March 2011.
Similarly, in Syria, by the time the CIA program began in 2013, the country was being ravaged by a latter day Khmer Rouge intent on implementing its very own Year Zero, involving the wholesale massacre and extirpation of minority communities that can trace their presence in the Levant back a millennia and more.
This is not to say that every militant fighting the government in Syria was and is both non-Syrian and an Islamist extremist. It is to say, though, that non-Syrians and Islamist extremists were and remain in the driving seat in forging the sectarian character of the conflict. Confirmation of this was provided by a 2012 declassified intelligence report produced by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Yet, regardless, the CIA still embarked on its failed program to locate and cultivate a third force in a country the US has never had any legal or moral right to operate in. Not that legality and morality have ever been constraints on an organization whose deeds, throughout its history, have regularly conformed to those commonly associated with a terrorist organization.
Fortunately, in Syria, those deeds have come to naught.