The CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria amid concern that moderate, U.S.-backed militias are rapidly losing ground in the country’s civil war, U.S. officials said.
But the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the agency has sent additional paramilitary teams to secret bases in Jordan in recent weeks in a push to double the number of rebel fighters getting CIA instruction and weapons before being sent back to Syria.
The agency has trained fewer than 1,000 rebel fighters this year, current and former U.S. officials said. By contrast, U.S. intelligence analysts estimate that more than 20,000 have been trained to fight for government-backed militias by Assad’s ally Iran and the Hezbollah militant network it sponsors.
The CIA effort was described as an urgent bid to bolster moderate Syrian militias, which have been unable to mount a serious challenge to Assad or match the growing strength of rival rebel factions that have hard-line Islamist agendas and, in some cases, ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
The CIA is “ramping up and expanding its effort,” said a U.S. official familiar with operations in Syria, because “it was clear that the opposition was losing, and not only losing tactically but on a more strategic level.”
The CIA declined to comment.
The latest setback came last month, when 11 of the largest armed factions in Syria, including some backed by the United States, announced the formation of an alliance with a goal of creating an Islamic state. The alliance is led by Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has sworn allegiance to the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
Operating under constraints
The descriptions of the CIA training program provide the most detailed account to date of the limited dimensions and daunting objectives of a CIA operation that President Obama secretly authorized in a covert action finding he signed this year.
U.S. officials said the classified program has been constrained by limits on CIA resources, the reluctance of rebel fighters to leave Syria for U.S. instruction and Jordan’s restrictions on the CIA’s paramilitary presence there.
But the limited scope also reflects a deeper tension in the Obama administration’s strategy on Syria, one that has sought to advance U.S. interests but avoid being drawn more deeply into a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 100,000 people since it began in 2011.
The constraints have become a source of frustration within the CIA and drawn criticism from senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee meets regularly with senior officials from the CIA and other agencies, said there is a “high degree of frustration in the executive branch” with the Syria strategy.
“The situation in Syria is changing faster than the administration can keep up,” Rogers said. He declined to discuss CIA operations, which are classified, but said that U.S. support for moderate opposition groups is “less than robust” and has been hobbled by “inconsistent resource allocation with stated goals.”
CIA veterans expressed skepticism that the training and weapons deliveries will have any meaningful effect. In Jordan, operatives involved in training and arming rebels lament that “we’re being asked to do something with nothing,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of agency operations overseas.
Some have also questioned the wisdom of expanding the CIA’s mission at a time when many think the agency has become too paramilitary in focus and should return to its traditional intelligence-gathering role.
‘Basic infantry training’
The agency’s training effort is centered in Jordan, where the CIA has long-standing connections to the domestic intelligence service and access to bases guarded by the Jordanian military.
The program is aimed at shoring up the fighting power of units aligned with the Supreme Military Council, an umbrella organization led by a former Syrian general that is the main recipient of U.S. support.
The training is led by small teams of operatives from the CIA’s Special Activities Division, a paramilitary branch that relies heavily on contractors and former members of U.S. Special Operations forces. Officials said the instruction is rudimentary and typically spans four to six weeks.
“It’s basic infantry training,” the former U.S. intelligence official said. “How to have some discipline hitting a target, how to reload a magazine, how to clear a room. They’re not marching. They’re learning basic infantry procedures.”
Officials said the main CIA training effort does not involve instruction on using high-
powered weapons such as rockets and antitank munitions, which are being supplied by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, although the agency is involved in tracking those arms flows and vetting recipients.
Islamists ‘good at fighting’
The pace of the CIA program amounts to a trickle into the ranks of opposition fighters, who total about 100,000. U.S. intelligence officials said that as many as 20,000 of those are considered “extremists” with militant Islamist agendas.
Those hard-line factions have drained momentum and support from moderate rebel groups. The most prominent Islamist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, include fighters who have extensive experience from the war in Iraq, have ties to al-Qaeda and have carried out high-profile strikes against Assad’s government.
Former deputy CIA director Michael J. Morell said in a recent CBS interview that the most effective organizations on the battlefield in Syria are the Islamist factions. “And because they’re so good at fighting the Syrians, some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them,” he said.
Those defections have been compounded by mounting skepticism of U.S. commitment and intentions, officials said. Rebels’ requests for weapons were rebuffed until earlier this year, when Obama allowed the CIA to begin providing arms. But even then, officials said, the deliveries were delayed for months and restricted to light arms, which are already abundant in the conflict.
Rebels were also angered by the U.S. decision not to launch missile strikes against Assad after he was accused of using chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 people in August in an attack on the outskirts of Damascus. After initially threatening strikes, the Obama administration set those plans aside last month to pursue a potential deal with Russia in which Assad would surrender control of his chemical weapons stockpiles — and probably extend his hold on power.
Islamist factions have taken advantage, luring fighters away with offers of better pay, equipment and results. A spokesman for the ISIS said the group had added 2,000 Syrian recruits and 1,500 foreign fighters over the past two months.
“More and more Muslims in Syria and outside are realizing that we are the only true force able and willing to defend the Syrian people against this monstrous regime without any Western agenda,” said the spokesman, Mohammed al-Libi.
Pessimism among refugees
Recruiting efforts by militias working with the CIA have sagged, officials said.
At the largest refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 100,000 Syrians take shelter, aid officials said dozens of military-age males leave every day by bus to return to Syria, presumably to fight. But the flows have diminished, and the mood among refugees has grown more pessimistic.
“Support to the rebellion is reducing,” said an official who has worked at the Zaatari camp. “We’re seeing fewer people leaving and less [recruiting] activity.” Among those who depart, officials said they have seen no evidence that any go elsewhere in Jordan for training before returning to Syria.
The Obama administration has explored the idea of using the U.S. military to expand the training program to what some officials have described as “industrial strength.” But Defense Department officials said there has been no decision to do so and cited significant obstacles.
It is unclear whether Jordan would welcome such a large U.S. military footprint, which would mean converting a covert program into one officially acknowledged by the United States. There are also legal impediments, including a measure known as the Leahy Law that would require a determination that no recipients of U.S. military assistance had committed human rights abuses.
For the CIA, the constraints in Syria mark a significant departure from the wide latitude the agency was accustomed to over the past decade in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other countries patrolled by armed drones, including Pakistan and Yemen.
Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong.
“What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East. Even if the CIA can produce records to defend its training program, “we’re going to face congressional hearings,” the former official said. “There is no win here.”