As the war against the Islamic State in Syria has fallen into even more chaos –partially due to the United States government’s increasing involvement there – the White House’s bright new idea seems to be to ramping up the involvement of the intelligence agency that is notorious for making bad situations worse. As the Washington Post reported late Friday, “The Obama administration has been weighing plans to escalate the CIA’s role in arming and training fighters in Syria, a move aimed at accelerating covert U.S. support to moderate rebel factions while the Pentagon is preparing to establish its own training bases.”
Put aside for a minute that the Central Intelligence Agency has been secretly arming Syrian rebels with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and antitank weapons since at least 2012 – and with almost nothing to show for it. Somehow the Post neglected to cite a front-page New York Times article from just one month ago alerting the public to the existence of a still-classified internal CIA study admitting that arming rebels with weapons has rarely – if ever – worked:
As the Times’ Mark Mazzetti reported:
‘One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?’ said one former senior administration official who participated in the debate and spoke anonymously because he was discussing a classified report. The C.I.A. report, he said, ‘was pretty dour in its conclusions.’
The Times cited the most well-known of CIA failures, including the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the arming of the Nicaraguan contra rebels that led to the disastrous Iran-Contra scandal. Even the agency’s most successful mission – slowly bleeding out the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s by arming the mujahideen – paved the way for the worst terrorist attack on the US in its history.
But as anyone who has read journalist Tim Weiner’s comprehensive and engrossing history of the CIA knows, the agency’s past is a graveyard rife with literally dozens of catastrophic failures involving covert weapons deals to countless war criminals and con artists in an attempt to overthrow governments all over the world. Not only has the CIA failed repeatedly, but oftentimes its plan has completely backfired, solidifying the very power of the actor it sought to remove and leaving the people the agency claimed to be helping in a much, much worse-off spot than before the CIA gun-running mission began.
We’ve already seen Syrian fortunes turn for the worse as the US has stepped up involvement in the past few months, as Bashar al-Assad has gone on the offensive against the US-backed rebels, and as the US airstrikes have reportedly led to Isis and al-Qaida reuniting, after being sworn enemies for more than a year. The two terrorist groups then proceeded to route the “moderate” rebels in combat and are currently in possession of many of the US-made weapons previously owned by the rebels.
Two months ago, the US Congress voted to send hundreds of millions of dollars in more arms to Syria. Even the politicians voting on sending countless more US weapons into the middle of a civil war were kept in the dark about the CIA’s internal report. That should be a scandal, right up there with the torture report the CIA is trying to keep secret, too.
But at least a few in-the-know elected officials were aware of the dangers of insanity of Congress’ Syria vote. The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Sam Steinquoted an unnamed Democratic Congressman in September who was even more blunt, insisting that the CIA’s belief in arming rebels was “doomed to failure”:
‘I have heard it expressed, outside of classified contexts, that what you heard from your intelligence sources is correct, because the CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure,’ the congressman said in an email. ‘Specifically (again without referring to classified information), the CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat Assad, al-Nusra and ISIS, regardless of whatever air support that force may receive.’
The unnamed Congressman added: “The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool’s errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands.”
But the information on the secret weapons that were already flowing into Syria has been kept in hiding from most of Congress. John Kerry refused to answer any questions about the CIA’s activities in Syria when asked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, despite the news of the agency’s involvement in Syria being on the front page of newspapers for years. “I hate to do this,” he said. “But I can’t confirm or deny whatever that’s been written about and I can’t really go into any kind of possible program.”
Perhaps the most shocking part is that we know Barack Obama himself has read the CIA study and knows that arming rebels in Syria – or anywhere – was an incredibly dangerous idea. Seemingly referencing the study, Obama told David Remnick of the New Yorker earlier this year:
Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.
So even though the CIA “couldn’t come up with much” proof of any time when sending tons of weapons into a war zone full of extremists has worked in the past, or that the agency itself has told Congressmen arming the rebels was “doomed to failure,” the Obama administration is ready to do just that.
No one doubts that Isis is a horrific terrorist group that’s terrible for the entire Middle East – as it proved over the weekend by barbarically beheading another innocent aid worker – but further entrenching the CIA and its weapons into an already awful situation can really only make things worse. Much worse.