What Happens When Arming the Rebels Goes Wrong?

October 30, 2014
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Photo: U.S. troops working with Sunni leaders in Iraq during the Sunni Awakening.

The rapid and violent rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has sparked growing calls for deeper U.S. involvement in the arming and training of rebel forces in Syria.

The trouble is, such efforts might not always work as advertised.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on a still-classified internal CIA review — commissioned during the Obama administration’s deliberations over its Syria policy — that concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces have had little effect on the long-term outcome of the conflict. As the Times reported, “They were even less effective … when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.”

Although the Times analysis did not detail specific examples from the CIA report, several of the agency’s failed attempts at foreign intervention are widely known.

As recently as 2006, for example, a covert effort to finance secular warlords in Somalia was criticized for leading to the resurgence of Islamic militias in the country. The policy reached a low point that year when Islamist militias broke the warlords’ hold on the capital of Mogadishu. In time, the insurgency would give way to the even more hardline group Al-Shabab, which eight years later, remains the principal threat in war-torn Somalia.

In the 1980s, the CIA armed Nicaragua’s Contras, but the fighters were not only defeated, they were also labeled by Human Rights Watch as “major and systemic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict” for their attacks on civilians. Similarly, the agency’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 ended in defeat for the CIA-sponsored Cuban guerrilla force after just three days.

To be sure, there have been successful covert attempts to train rebels in the agency’s 67-year history, most notably, its support during the 1980s for the mujahedeen in their fight to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

“It’s pretty hard to say that that was anything other than a spectacular success at a cost of roughly $4 billion without a single American casualty,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and the author of What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. “They turned Afghanistan into Russia’s Vietnam, and ultimately made it so costly for the Russians that they withdrew from Afghanistan; within six months the Berlin Wall had fallen … the Cold War was over and we were the winner.”

The big asterisk in Afghanistan, however, is that in time some of the rebels once supported by the U.S. would go on to form the core of Al Qaeda. A second caveat to the operation is that it appeared to contradict a key finding of the CIA’s recent review. As the Times report noted, “the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.”

As FRONTLINE reported this spring in Syria: Arming the Rebels, the U.S. has been training small numbers of rebels outside of Syria, but according to a report in The Washington Post, they are only being trained to defend territory, not to seize it back from the Islamic State.

Of course, there is no predicting how U.S. intervention may play out in Syria, but as Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, wrote this summer, there may not be much cause for optimism. As Lynch explained:

In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve. … Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. The University of Colorado’s Aysegul Aydin and Binghamton University’s Patrick Regan have suggested that external support for a rebel group could help when all the external powers backing a rebel group are on the same page and effectively cooperate in directing resources to a common end. Unfortunately, Syria was never that type of war.

That’s not to say there are no advantages to be had, according to Daniel Byman, director of research and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. For one, it’s far cheaper than deploying military force. It also creates opportunities for better intelligence-gathering on the ground. But, he said, there have to be realistic expectations.

“If you’re training foreign fighters, it’s usually not enough to tip the balance in favor of the foreign fighters, but it’s enough to to prevent the regime from winning,” Byman told FRONTLINE. Citing the former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, he added, “Covert action is not a foreign policy.”

The administration must also be willing to take on a certain amount of risk, according to Riedel.

“You have to take the risk that some of the people you support are going to be less than Jeffersonian Democrats and that some of the arms that you provide and some of the training you provide are going to end up in the hands of the wrong people,” Riedel said.

Still, Riedel says there are clear lessons from America’s success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that can work today in Syria. The key in Afghanistan, he said, was an ally in Pakistan that was willing to host the American-backed guerillas and train them. We have that today with Jordan, according to Riedel. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the U.S. was able to split the costs of the effort with Saudi Arabia, something the gulf nation, along with the United Arab Emirates, appears willing to do again today.

“My sense is this administration is very ambivalent about the whole idea at best,” said Riedel. “They don’t really want to do this, but they don’t really have an alternative anymore.”

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