Recent news of the Trump administration’s decision to end the CIA program of assistance to select Syrian rebel groups has sparked debate about the decision-making process and its soundness. In a report for the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn highlights that a centerpiece for the discussion was the infamous video from last year featuring members of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki movement, a rebel group with Aleppo origins, beheading a youth accused of fighting for the regime. The group had been a recipient of aid under the CIA’s program but was cut off from the program in 2015, likely on account of allegations of criminal behavior and its particularly close working relationship with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Yet this fact did not stop Trump from demanding to know why the U.S. was backing supposed extremists.
The focus on the beheading video seems to illustrate a case of decisions being based in significant part on emotional reactions to single incidents. In reality, beheadings are a widespread phenomenon in the wars in Iraq and Syria and have been committed by militias fighting for the Assad regime, Shi’a militias in Iraq, and Iraqi Sunni tribal forces. By itself, a beheading is not a useful criterion for determining a group’s supposed extremism.
A closer look at Zinki’s own conduct, meanwhile, points to an opportunistic faction that latched onto Jabhat al-Nusra as a “strong horse.” Indeed, the group joined but recently left the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham merger movement that was mainly a successor to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra of summer 2016 that officially dropped its al-Qa’ida affiliation despite remaining committed to jihadist ideology.
Going beyond the simplistic focus on Zinki, however, does not demonstrate that the CIA program was a success. Rather, it was a resounding failure. As it was originally conceived, the program was not designed to bring about a military overthrow of the regime, but rather to bring about enough pressure on it to agree to a political transition with the opposition, thus preserving the Syrian state to prevent a total collapse into anarchy while securing Assad’s departure.
The problem with this rationale is its vagueness. At what point exactly would the regime, which regards Assad as its indispensable head, have agreed to a transition? Where instances of pressure were felt, as in late 2012-early 2013 and mid-2015, the result was only more extensive intervention by the regime’s main allies: Iran and Russia. In fact, pushing for a more rapid military overthrow would have made more sense, which would have required much more extensive intervention that was never forthcoming, such as a no-fly zone and provision of anti-aircraft MANPADs.
So much then for the problems with the original goals. The other main point brought up as the logic for the CIA program was that the program was necessary at least to defend and bolster the “moderate” opposition against the influence of extremists. For the “moderate” factions — particularly those under the moniker of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — a key weakness from the outset, despite CIA support, has been an inability to achieve meaningful unity. Instead, these factions have had a tendency to function as very local and divided outfits, contrasting with the much better organization of the jihadists. Thus, the question of whether CIA support could help to defend and bolster the “moderate” opposition depended considerably on the border policies of the two main countries out of which CIA support was provided: Jordan and Turkey. The former pursued tight border policies, partly out of a desire to limit fighting in the south and prevent large-scale refugee flows. The result is that while FSA factions in the south remain divided into dozens of groups despite the broad coalition of the Southern Front, the jihadist influence has been limited, though not negligible. In the north of Syria, however, the opposite picture emerged, as Turkey’s negligent open border approach over the years helped jihadists to penetrate thoroughly the ranks of the rebel forces, which themselves broadly justified the idea of military cooperation with the jihadists on the grounds of necessity. The problem has become especially apparent in the northwest province of Idlib, where Jabhat al-Nusra’s successor organization — Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — is now by far the strongest and dominant rebel actor.
Unfortunately, these bigger picture points have tended to be obscured in the debates on account of an obsessive focus on data-gathering, compiling infographics and lists of factions with estimates of numbers of fighters. Certainly, one could give a list of the multiple CIA-backed factions in Syria’s northwest, but a list by itself is of little use in explaining the dynamics of power. The signs were already very alarming back in late 2014 when Jabhat al-Nusra easily wiped out the largest FSA coalition in Idlib — the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF).
In its move against SRF, Jabhat al-Nusra had partly been abetted by its allies in more Islamist-leaning groups, whose links with Jabhat al-Nusra were subsequently strengthened in the formation of the Jaysh al-Fatah alliance in early 2015 that captured all major towns in Idlib province from the regime. The only long-term result of this alliance, though, was the enabling and empowerment of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors. The FSA groups, lacking powerful coalitions, played little more than auxiliary roles in the military advances that year. Unable to develop major contiguous zones of influence or control key supply routes, these groups remained as highly local outfits, liable to be picked off by Jabhat al-Nusra individually or forced to seek protection in a larger group such as the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, which at the same time was Jabhat al-Nusra’s main enabler and partner in the Jaysh al-Fatah alliance.
In fact, it is arguable that in so far as some FSA groups have been allowed to exist in the northwest, it is only to ensure the continuation of an aid and arms flow from which Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have almost certainly taken a slice. This point is now also applicable to many of the more Islamist groups that were closely allied with Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib. The current marginal role of the northwest FSA is further apparent in the lack of any major role for these groups in the recent infighting that principally took place between Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, in which the former has suffered major defeats.
In short, therefore, the common points of debate such as whether the CIA-supported groups were really “moderate,” or whether the Trump administration’s decision to end the program was a concession to Russia, are misplaced. In the northwest in particular, now the main epicenter of the insurgency against the regime, the relations of power on the ground meant the program could not act as a bulwark against the jihadists. More broadly, the CIA program failed to achieve the original objectives.
Nonetheless, simply cutting off the CIA program with no thought as to an alternative is a mistake. In the south, management of relations with the rebel groups through the Pentagon, as has now become the new status quo, is the way forward. Rebel-held Idlib on the other hand is likely going to be subject to a major offensive by the regime and its allies. If the desire is simultaneously to counter Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s influence while preventing a new humanitarian crisis and more large scale refugee flows into Turkey and Europe, then a Turkish intervention on the model of the “Euphrates Shield” project in the north Aleppo countryside pocket is the only viable option at this stage. Though the situation in the north Aleppo countryside pocket is far from perfect, the Turkish presence has broadly helped keep out Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which refuses to cooperate with the Turkish army, while creating a de facto safe zone for the native civilian population and large numbers of IDPs. The same benefits could be conferred to Idlib in the event of a direct intervention.