While the CIA continues to arm and train "moderate" Syrian rebels, a new, still-classified internal study obtained by the New York Times finds that the agency’s gun-running tactics in conflict areas have almost never succeeded, the Times reported on Wednesday.
Many of the agency’s past attempts to arm insurgents in foreign countries—like Angola, Nicaragua, and Cuba—had a "minimal impact" on the outcomes of conflicts, the Times writes. The study was commissioned by President Barack Obama between 2012 and 2013 while the government debated over inserting itself into the Syrian civil war.
In late 2012, Obama signed a much-redrawn plan by then-CIA director David Petraeus to arm and train rebels in that country after intelligence agencies found that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians.
Later, despite the agency’s findings on the low success rate of arming foreign insurgents, Obama authorized the CIA to launch a rebel-arming operation at a base in Jordan and expand its mission in Saudi Arabia to train "vetted" rebels in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS are also an enemy of Assad. That program has the goal of training around 5,000 rebel troops per year, the Times writes.
According to unnamed officials, the study’s unfavorable conclusions did not dissuade, but in fact prompted Obama to move forward with the operation.
"One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?" one of the officials told the Times.
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When the U.S. military began its drone campaign in Iraq and Syria earlier this summer, the administration said that the intervention would not involve any American troops on the ground. But the CIA report found that the agency’s previous attempts at supplying weapons and training to rebel fighters were even less effective without that kind of direct support. One exception was the Afghanistan insurrection during the 1980s, which saw mujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet troops with the help of Pakistani intelligence officers. But some of those very same Afghan fighters later formed the core group of al Qaeda—a “cautionary tale” for the U.S. in fueling instability, the Times writes:
This only fed concerns that no matter how much care was taken to give arms only to so-called moderate rebels in Syria, the weapons could ultimately end up with groups linked to Al Qaeda, like the Nusra Front.
"What came afterwards was impossible to eliminate from anyone’s imagination," said the former senior official, recalling the administration debate about whether to arm the Syrian rebels.
The continued growth of the civil war in that country—and the formation of ISIS—has left ominous questions about Syrian opposition forces as they become increasingly divided, with many of the fighters who rebelled against Assad recently pledging their loyalties to militant groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front.
In late September, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Pentagon that defeating ISIS could not happen without boots on the ground.
While Dempsey said those forces would not have to be American, he did not rule out the possibility, telling the Pentagon during a hearing, "If you're suggesting that I might, at some point, recommend that we need a large ground force to counter ISIL, the answer to that is also absolutely."