By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support),The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market.
This is not the first time an American-led covert operation has gone awry, and it certainly won’t be the last. Consider Operation Cyclone, the covert U.S. arms pipeline to the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Long held up as a success story in Cold War proxy warfare, the mujahideen – supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – fell on each other after the Soviets retreated, creating an environment where al Qaeda could later thrive. This White House is certainly no stranger to these lessons of history. During early debates on Syria policy, Obama commissioned a study on the CIA’s track record in covert aid that concluded such efforts seldom work.
What, then, is the rationale for U.S. policy in Syria? Why has the White House continued to draw on the tool of covert military aid despite its shoddy track record? Rather than praise or condemn the Obama administration’s approach, our goal is to shed light on some of the considerations that have driven what’s going on and why by drawing on ourown research on past covert aid programs. Our findings suggest that escalation dynamics and unique reputational concerns help to explain why the Obama White House finds itself stuck with a covert military aid program of questionable efficacy and impact.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks