When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration is in a quandary. It has thus far provided more than $650 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, but has also notably shied away from providing actual weaponry or logistical support. The result is a dangerous quagmire where the rebels have enough support to continue fighting, but not enough force to consistently repel government troops or inflict a blow strong enough to halt the mounting slaughter.
The administration’s hesitance stems from the relatively sizable threat Assad poses to the region, as well as the factional nature of the Syrian rebellion. Although much of the opposition is fighting for the installation of democratic rule, many smaller groups – including Al Nusra, a faction associated with Al Qaeda – are using Assad’s downfall as an opportunity to establish a hard line Islamic republic – an outcome the United States understandably fears. Given the inconsistent and shifting allegiances among rebel factions and the chaotic nature of the fighting, the administration has no guarantee that supplied weapons – especially anti-aircraft munitions – will not end up in the hands of extremist groups or in the air against Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Enter the CIA. The nature of the agency has been refined in Afghanistan, where it has evolved from an information and reconnaissance group to an active overseer of drone strikes and Special Forces raids. A recent New York Times expose on the operational dynamics of the CIA – and particularly, its tendency to outsource operations to private security companies like Blackwater – sheds remarkable light on the agency’s reach, and, critically, its seeming immunity from judicial scrutiny or recrimination. In effect, the agency is able to operate in a sphere of realpolitik, carrying out unsavory – or questionably legal – work that many in the adminstration consider necessary nonetheless.
This week’s article in the New Yorker highlights an interesting application of the CIA’s effective, but unscrutinized behavior. The article notes that “contrary to its own rhetoric, it [the US] is also secretly providing limited military support. According to American and Middle Eastern officials, C.I.A. operatives are training small numbers of Syrians to train other rebels…C.I.A. operatives have begun helping more moderate rebels conduct operations against Al Nusra.” Through its use of the agency, as opposed to the Army, Air Force or Pentagon checkbook, the White House is accomplishing three goals in one action. Through the CIA’s assistance of select, democratic rebel groups, the administration is expediting Assad’s downfall – a humanitarian and political necessity. Secondly, the CIA’s boots on the ground can administer and monitor weapons and tactical support, and ensure that they are used against extremist groups, as well as the Assad regime. Lastly, the CIA’s selective assistance gives the administration more time to mull riskier political and military intervention; although the American public is sympathetic to the Syrian crisis, it is equally exhausted by two wars, and any intervention more serious than a no-fly zone is bound to win both condemnation and praise. To wit, the CIA provides some of the necessary anti-Assad measures, while allowing the administration to maintain plausible deniability of involvement. The Syrian fence is certainly hard to sit on, but for the time being, the CIA makes it a bit less painful.