According to a June 12, 2015, report by Glen Miller and Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post, it appears that the Obama administration’s Syria strategy is facing a political test on Capitol Hill, in the form of a budget fight centered on the reported CIA covert action program to fund and train Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Miller and DeYoung report that the House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted to cut the budget for the program, currently at $1B, by as much as 20 percent. Even Democrats remain pessimistic about the Syria effort, according to the Post, which appears to be alarming the CIA and White House.
Meanwhile, inside the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), according to SOFREP sources, it is assessed by at least some mid-level managers that the Syria strategy has failed to show adequate results. Some there have also questioned whether the political will exists within the White House to do what is necessary to achieve those results, presumably the eradication of ISIS in Syria. That goal would be the logical aim of the CIA’s CTC, while the Near East Division would be more focused on handling the hoped-for collapse of the al-Assad regime.
According to the Post article, U.S. officials have claimed that “the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years.” However, the House committee’s frustrations lie in the perceived lack of any real progress on the part of U.S.-trained rebels in gaining territory or winning battles. Moreover, ISIS hardly appears on its back foot in any meaningful way.
Part of the reason for the CIA’s lack of clear results in the region is likely due to the competing goals of countering the al-Assad regime and battling ISIS. These two strategies might not always be in direct conflict with each other, but they no doubt do result in sometimes contradictory efforts. In other words, there is likely a group of officials at the CIA—within CTC—focused on reporting on and acting against ISIS, while a separate group, led by the Near East Division, is likely almost completely focused on the regime in Syria, and what comes next politically in the country.
In a perfect world, the two CIA components would work in tandem, though events and circumstances in intelligence and civil war do not always make for a perfect world, to say the least. On the outside looking in, we are left to hope that the two CIA units are acting harmoniously, and de-conflicting operations and goals. Presumably CIA leadership is working toward this end.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, will soon take up its own work on a budget for the intelligence community, which will have to be reconciled with the House budget. Miller and DeYoung report that the White House plans to defend the CIA’s Syria program, recommending holding off on the House’s suggested cuts.
It remains to be seen how this apparent policy clash between the CIA, White House, and Congress will play out in terms of the country’s strategy to counter ISIS and shape political events in war-torn Syria. One thing remains clear, however. The administration’s Syria strategy has reached a critical point, and requires a re-assessment and re-focus. ISIS remains strong, and al-Assad continues to hold on to power. Both of these conditions are anathema to U.S. national interests, and thus need immediate remedying.
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