Operation TIMBER SYCAMORE, the formally-covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has, since approximately 2012, ostensibly provided support to vetted Syrian rebel units fighting against Bashar al-Asad’s regime. This program, begun by President Barack Obama, was never raised to a level that could alter the course of Syria’s conflict in favour of the opposition, and indeed one of its most concrete effects was denying certain categories of heavy weapons to the rebellion. While providing subsistence to some rebels, the program was mostly a political instrument, shielding Obama from criticism as he tilted U.S. policy in Asad’s favour by empowering his patron, Iran. President Donald Trump abandoned even this fig-leaf of opposition to Asad in July 2017, announcing the end of the program, a termination that went into effect last month.
President Barack Obama articulated his administration’s policy for Syria in August 2011: the ruler, Bashar al-Asad, must “step aside”. This was at the height of the “Arab spring” and it was believed, as the administration would tell Congress in December 2011, that Asad would soon fall of his own weight, a vindication for their policy of masterly inactivity. It soon became clear that Asad would survive unless the U.S. acted because he could rely on outside powers, and equally clear that the Obama administration was not prepared to take such steps. Obama spent the next five-and-a-half years trying to take back his initial policy.
In the summer of 2012, with the regime falling apart, Iran orchestrated an international (Shi’a) jihad that rescued Asad. Tens of thousands of Shi’a Islamists, including designated-terrorist organizations like Lebanese Hizballah and Kataib Hizballah that have killed many Americans, were flooded into Syria by Iran. The U.S. made no effort to interdict the flow. On the contrary, the Obama administration’s view was captured in late 2016, when the U.S.-led counter-terrorism operation in Syria overflew the position of Iranian terrorist groups imposing the siege of Aleppo to strike at al-Qaeda-linked jihadists trying to break that siege.
Russia had provided weaponry and specialist intelligence capacities to the regime from the earliest days, as well as political support. The Obama administration played along, outsourcing its Syria policy to Russia, first by going through the United Nations where the Kremlin has a veto and then with the chemical weapons “deal” in 2013 that rewarded Asad with international legitimacy after his chemical atrocity in Ghuta, an arrangement Obama remains “very proud” of. In late September 2015, Moscow was forced to intervene directly, under a joint plan with Iran, to save Asad for a second time The Russians were allowed to move into Syria unhindered; there are certain things U.S. intelligence can certainly detect, and a conventional movement of this kind by Russia is one of them, yet nothing was done (even rhetorically) to push back on it. Once the Russians were in, they systematically targeted U.S.-allied rebels and the rebels were told they were on their own. The Russian presence then became one more alibi for Obama’s inaction; to work against Russia was to risk world war three, so Moscow—and thereby Iran and Asad—must be not only accommodated, but partnered with.
The Obama administration, in short, revoked its ostensible regime-change policy—and spent five-and-a-half years on a messaging strategy intended to disguise that fact. The reasons somewhat shifted. The dominant initial reason related to Iraq—indeed this became the “one-word answer to any and all criticism”. But Obama always had an eye on détente with Iran, facilitated by a paper agreement over the nuclear-weapons program, as his legacy. A nuclear accord with Iran was the foreign policy version of “healthcare for us”, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s notorious head of communications. Letters had been written to Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i in Obama’s first year and later letters would propose a regional partnership between the U.S. and Iran using the Islamic State (IS) as a common foe, which is in fact what happened. No later than July 2012, when Obama established the secret contacts that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Syria became a subset of Iran policy, a sphere of influence to be traded to Iran in exchange for its signature. It was the reason Obama stood down from his threat to attack Asad for using chemical weapons of mass destruction (CMWD) and was ultimately content for Asad to remain in power.
Why, then, did the U.S. spend considerable resources on a program designed to fight Asad? Remember, this is not the Pentagon-run train-and-equip program against IS that failed so publicly and spectacularly. The answer is that the program was a means of appeasing American allies and domestic pressure as the hecatomb in Syria unfolded. Resources were never given—neither time nor material—by the U.S. to the Syrian opposition on a scale nor in a manner that would actually change battlefield dynamics, and this was by design.
President Obama made clear: American support for the opposition was not intended to depose the Asad tyranny—“we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force”—but was instead a means of pressuring Asad “to shape a political settlement”. This is as much as to say it was meant to be ineffective. Regimes like Asad’s do not bend; the dictator was not going to agree to his own departure, not even, as became evident early on, for a settlement that left Syria ruled by Asadism without Asad (the “Alawite general” scenario). Regimes like Asad’s can only be broken, and everything that stopped short of that was irrelevant.
In the course of events, the most lasting effect of U.S. policy might well have been to prevent certain categories of weapons that could have tipped the balance against the regime getting to the rebellion.
THE ORIGINS OF THE TIMBER SYCAMORE OPERATION
The TIMBER SYCAMORE operation began in mid- or late-2012. The U.S. began supplying non-lethal resources to the Syrian opposition, including vetted elements of the armed opposition that had branded themselves Jaysh al-Hur (The Free [Syrian] Army or FSA), in 2012, only providing weaponry the next year (see below). It is not clear at what point the provision of non-lethal supplies came under the TIMBER SYCAMORE heading.
After a meeting between President Obama and Turkey’s now-president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 25 March 2012, Rhodes let it be known that the U.S. was considering joining the Turkish government in providing non-lethal resources to the rebels. Rhodes specifically mentioned medical supplies and communications equipment; in time non-lethal supplies would also include food and military vehicles. A State Department official was quoted in The Washington Post on 15 May 2012 saying, “We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition” [italics added]. “The State Department has authorized $15 million in nonlethal aid, like medical supplies and communications equipment, to civilian opposition groups in Syria”, The New York Times reported on 21 June 2012. CNN reported on 2 August 2012 that “President Barack Obama has signed a … secret order, referred to as an intelligence ‘finding’, which allows for clandestine support by the CIA and other agencies” to Syrian opposition. This included “$25 million for ‘nonlethal’ assistance to the Syrian opposition, with another $64 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people”. “It was unclear when the president signed the authorization for Syria, but the sources said it was within the past several months”, CNN added. The U.S. Treasury granted a licence to the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an opposition lobby organisation, to provide “financial, communications, logistical and other services”—though not weapons—to the FSA on 23 July 2012.
Though the U.S. did not supply weapons initially to the rebels, it did have a role in the weapons flow. The primary action under the TIMBER SYCAMORE rubric in its early days seems to have been to control—read: restrict—the flow of weaponry to the Syrian rebellion. The above-mentioned Times story from June 2012 reported that CIA officials had been in southern Turkey steering the weapons supplied to the insurgency by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey away from bad actors for “several weeks”. And it remained down to the end U.S. policy to prevent the opposition acquiring surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS). In early 2013—in tandem with Saudi-bought infantry weapons from Croatia, channeled through Jordan—some Chinese-made SAMs made their way to rebel groups, supplied from Sudanese stocks and paid for by Qatar, but this was soon cut off. The “limits” the CIA had put on Saudi arming efforts would be maintained against “advanced weaponry” all along the way. One can only speculate on the effect these weapons would have had if supplied in greater numbers. The obvious comparison is the Stinger missiles in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which had a major impact in assisting an insurgency far less capable and sophisticated than Syria’s (Syria has universal conscription, for example, providing a level of military familiarity that the Mujahideen did not have).
The creation of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) under General Salim Idris on 15 December 2012 was the last of the efforts to form a single, unified rebel command structure that the U.S. could deal with. It was to the SMC that the first direct supply of non-lethal aid was given by the U.S., via the SSG, in May 2013. As can be seen by the length of delay between the decision to provide non-lethal supplies and their actual delivery, there was no vivacity in executing the stated American policy. The U.S. would not even recognize the political opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, as most Arab and European states did. The escalation to providing arms directly to the Syrian opposition was forced upon the Obama administration by the Asad regime’s resort to CWMD.
MILITARIZING TIMBER SYCAMORE
Obama famously drew a “red line” around CWMD on 20 August 2012, saying at a press conference:
We have been very clear to the Asad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. …
We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
In early December 2012, there were leaks to the press that American and European intelligence had detected the regime moving chemical stockpiles around, though the purpose was unclear. Warnings of retribution should these munitions be used were apparently relayed through the Russians to Asad.
I want to make it absolutely clear to Asad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences, and you will be held accountable.
In the days that followed, U.S. officials let it be known, again via the press, that the U.S. had prepared military options to respond to the use of CWMD, and a public statement from Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said much the same thing.
By this time, the regime looked seriously threatened. On 18 July 2012, a mysterious bombing had killed four senior Asad regime officials. Within days, both Damascus and Aleppo were in full-fledged rebellion. Large areas of eastern Aleppo would be held by the rebels for the next four-and-a-half years, and pockets of resistance in Damascus would hold out eighteen months after that. The regime was desperate enough to issue a public threat that it would use CWMD. By the end of 2012, the rebellion was ostensibly preparing a final assault on Asad’s capital. The fall of the regime seemed to be “not too far off”, as one seasoned analyst put it. “You can feel it. You can sense it.”
The Obama administration still refused to apply the minimal pressure that could have pushed the Asad regime into its grave. In-keeping with the “but Iraq” answer the administration gave when asked what it was going to do about Syria, the Pentagon produced a study in late 2012 that said even a minor intervention would require tens of thousands of troops, an assessment that was duly leaked. Around the same time, the CIA was pressured into coming up with a misleading study that said U.S. support for insurgencies never ends well—selectively leaving out the Cold War successes in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, the semi-successes in Indochina and Africa, and the post-Cold War victories in Kosovo and Libya. In other circumstances, when this was passed to the press the story would have been “cherry picking” and “politicized intelligence”, but in this case the Obama administration’s strategic messaging was largely reprinted as packaged.
In January 2013, Taftanaz Airbase fell to an insurgency where, despite nationalists remaining powerful, the balance of power had shifted in favour of the Islamists. These were the last strategic gains by the insurgency for two years. (The next such gains marked the continuation of this trend towards jihadization of the northern insurgency.) In late May 2013, after years of covert involvement, Lebanese Hizballah openly intruded at Qusayr to evict rebel forces, inflaming sectarian tensions. In combination with the U.S.’s decided slowness in assisting the rebels it claimed to be allied to, this weakened the nationalists still further.
In the time between Obama’s second statement on CWMD and the spring of 2013, it was already apparent that Asad had defied U.S. warnings. On 23 December 2012, Asad used CWMD in Homs city. Further attacks followed in March and April 2013 in Khan al-Asal and Utayba, Adra, Jobar, Shaykh Maqsud, Daraya, and Saraqib. A United Nations report identified twelve CWMD attacks between October 2012 and May 2013.
The Obama administration did not view these “small scale” CWMD attacks as a breach of the “red line”; indeed it had come to regard them as “ordinary”. Obama’s advisors were surprised and distinctly displeased that the President had given such a straightforward soundbite in the first place. “The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” one senior official told The New York Times. Obama intended his warning against mass-casualty chemical attacks, the official explained, but that “nuance got completely dropped”.
Overruling the military leaders who advised Obama to react with force to these smaller CWMD attacks since they were designed to probe his “red line”, and meeting these provocations early would prevent anything disastrous, Obama opted to parse and wriggle every-which-way to avoid living up to what everyone understood as stated policy.
It late March 2013, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said, “I think that it is abundantly clear that that red line has been crossed”. A month later, the British government said there was evidence, albeit “limited”, that Asad had used CWMD, and the U.S. gave a similarly ambivalent assessment. Days later, on 25 April 2013, the U.S. slightly shifted position by abandoning the untenable ground of denial, admitting Asad had probably used CWMD, but invoked the failures of intelligence over Iraq to defend inaction on the new terrain of demanding an impossible standard of proof before acting.
As Obama had put it, when reiterating for the third time his warning about CWMD on 20 March 2013, the day after the Khan al-Asal and al-Utayba attacks, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer” [italics added]. Obama happened to be in Israel when he made this statement and within thirty-six hours Israel announced that it had evidence the line had been crossed; the Obama administration moved in hard to have Jerusalem revoke this statement.
Thus began a messaging strategy to ensure that the threshold for action was never met, whatever facts had to be conceded. In tandem, the dreaded lawyers were set loose to explain that “international law” and the displeasure of Russia and China meant that the U.S. could not act. Amidst this evidential and legalistic evasion, there were some members of the administration willing to be more forthright in admitting that this was a political decision, asking rhetorically: “If [Asad] drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Authorising Weapons, Not Delivering Them
In June 2013, the Obama administration decided that the use of CWMD had something to do with them, after all. “Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Asad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year”, Rhodes announced. “The Asad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.” It was quickly established that this meant Obama was going to provide lethal assistance to the rebellion.
Arming the Syrian rebellion had been proposed to Obama in the summer of 2012 by virtually the entire Cabinet—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey—and had been rejected. In late May 2013, Britain, with French support, had gotten the European Union to drop its arms embargo against Syria. The SMC had also shown itself to have worth by this point, so the U.S.’s stated shift to providing lethal resources was a “bet on Idris”, as one administration official put it.
Yet nothing happened for three months. This was an early example of what Michael Doran called “the Syria two-step”: “The president or a member of his administration issues a statement of support for the FSA that is long on pious intention but short on practical details. After gaining credit from the media for taking action, the president then quietly backs away from his own initiative, taking care never to admit that he is doing so.”
Asad Finally Exhausts Obama’s Patience, Sort Of
The massive CWMD attack in Ghuta on 21 August 2013, which murdered 1,400 people in a morning, finally ran over Obama’s red line in a way “nuance” could not even save him from. This was a blatant violation of all known customs and laws of war—and an open challenge to Obama personally. Obama was apparently preparing to strike at six regime installations to “punish” Asad for his criminal behaviour. Britain voted to do nothing about CWMD attacks; France was ready to go. And then Obama while stood down, after a walk in the grounds of the White House with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, saying at a press conference on 31 August that Congress must authorise the strikes, something he knew well Congress would not do—could not do, not even with AIPAC at work, destroying forever the idea that the “Israel lobby” directs Middle East policy.
While Obama was waiting for the inevitable defeat of his proposal in Congress, the new Secretary of State John Kerry redirected events. Kerry had made a Churchillian speech on 30 August, saying,
It is directly related to our credibility … [W]e need to ask, ‘What is the risk of doing nothing?’ … [I]f we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will. This matters also beyond the limits of Syria’s borders. It is about whether Iran … will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons.
Later that the day, Kerry compared Asad to Hitler. Yet Kerry was not even in the room when Obama decided to ostensibly delay the strikes. Despite this personal embarrassment, Kerry went along with the new policy. And it was Kerry, on 9 September, who committed the “major goof” that led to Obama cancelling the strikes entirely. In a very strange press conference, where Kerry said the Obama team was proposing an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” against Asad, Kerry then added that the U.S. would abandon the military option if Asad handed over his CWMD within a week.
In the Obama administration’s telling, the Russians pounced on Kerry’s statement and a deal was struck. But Russia proposed this scheme in June 2012, at the latest, a full fifteen months earlier, and just days before, on 6 September, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin had voiced it again to Obama personally. Obama had broadcast his desire to be taken off the hook and the Kremlin obliged. On 11 September 2013, Obama revoked his threats against Asad, saying he had found a “peaceful” solution. Russia was returned to the Middle East with the appearance of a Great Power and, despite Kerry’s unhinged claim in 2014 that “100 percent” of the CWMD was removed from Syria, the regime never surrendered its WMD. Asad had an excellent reason to hold on to the WMD: for as long as he was disarming not disarmed, it created an interest in his survival to retain control of the weapons.
On the ground, the Obama-Putin “deal”, soon ratified by the United Nations, became the very “license to kill” its authors promised it would not. Asad was now a partner in disarmament and his savage military operations against a rebellious population were necessary to provide a stable route to ship the CWMD out of Syria. As well as incentivising crimes against humanity, and giving them international cover, Obama’s policy was “devastating” to the Western-aligned rebels; the Islamists in the insurgency were bolstered, able to claim they had come to assist when the West would not. Obama says he is “very proud” of what he did in the summer of 2013.
The U.S. had—at long last—begun to ship light weapons to the Syrian opposition in September 2013, shortly after the Ghuta atrocity, seemingly as a way of splitting the difference and trying to mute the criticism, domestic and regional, from Obama’s humiliating climb-down.
The Rise and Fall of the CIA Program
The southern rebels were supplied by the Jordan-based Military Operations Command (MOC) and the northern rebels through the Joint Operations Centre or Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM) in Turkey. These “operations rooms” allowed U.S. and regional intelligence to coordinate their support—weapons, money, intelligence, tactical advice—to insurgents; formally covert, Jordan was especially aggressive in denying in public it was hosting any such thing since Amman always retained lines to Damascus. Most of the weaponry given to the FSA factions, at least in the south, was from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and both countries also took rebels out of Syria for training.
The fundamental problem with the CIA’s rebel program—that it was more about restraining the rebels than bolstering them—was felt right from the beginning of the armed-support phase:
FSA units in Deraa said the international backing came with too many restrictions and was not sufficient to let them make major advances. “In the summer [of 2013] there was a meeting … [MOC] said we are not to attack major regime military installations without approval, that we are only to engage in hit-and-run operations and should not try to hold territory because the regime’s air power means it can hit us if we do,” said an FSA fighter briefed on the talks. FSA units also had to pledge they would not transfer weapons to militant Islamist groups …
“The command centre has been good for us, it has helped a lot, but we’d like more commitment from them. They don’t really share intelligence information with us, they don’t give us enough weapons to do the job,” said [another] FSA commander. “We all think they want to keep Assad stronger than us, they want to keep a balance—we get enough to keep going but not to win,” he said.
In describing Jordan’s policy, this was essentially true: after 2012 if not before, Amman wanted a rebel buffer on its border but did not want regime collapse.
The SMC had its non-lethal supplies paused in December 2013 after its warehouses are raided by al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Front or JI). JI had originally been intended as a coherent merger when it was created in September 2013, but it broke down quickly and became a kind of Salafized alternative rebel brand to the FSA, dominated by Ahrar al-Sham. JI’s formation was mostly a sign of the atmosphere of the moment, in the aftermath of Iran/Hizballah’s overt sectarian entry into the war and almost in direct reaction to the U.S. standdown after the Ghuta chemical attack, which devastated the credibility of the nationalist rebels. As IS sought to exploit this situation, rebel groups tried to blunt its political advances by distancing themselves from the Western-backed structures and flaunting their own religious rhetoric.
The Islamizing trendline among the rebellion was reversed in January 2014, when the SMC/Idris-backed Harakat Hazm is created with American support, and along with many other rebel groups, go on the offensive against IS and drive it from north-western Syria. Alongside Hazm, two newly-minted rebel formations were notable: the Saudi-backed Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), and the Qatar-backed Jaysh al-Mujahideen, which dominated by anti-Qaeda Salafis under the Jabhat Asala wal-Tanmiya brand, most prominently Harakat Nuradeen al-Zengi. We will be coming back to these groups.
Shortly after the rebels routed IS in north-west Syria, Idris was defenestrated, a result of two dynamics that would only become more toxic: (1) the Saudi-Qatar schism; and (2) the decoupling of the political opposition, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC or ETILAF), and the armed opposition. The SMC would fade even in name as the MOC and MOM ceased paying even formal obeisance to it.
Hazm begins receiving TOW anti-tank missiles in March 2014, and the TOW program is expanded to include pre-vetted FSA groups in June 2014. There is very little proliferation of the TOWs though—see the end of this post—that is not the uncomplicated good news it appears. About a year later, in the summer of 2015, after the SRF and Hazm have been taken apart by al-Nusra, but when there was still a sizeable number of capable moderate rebels in the field—albeit numbers do not tell the whole story about an insurgency—the CIA expands the vet-and-supply list to include non-FSA-branded rebel groups of a more Islamist hue as the al-Nusra/Ahrar-led Jaysh al-Fatah coalition completes its capture of Idlib province. Note: whatever one thinks subjectively about Jaysh al-Fatah, the CIA was referring to the fact its advances, supported by vetted FSA rebels, had threatened regime survival as a “catastrophic success”; toppling the regime was never supposed to happen. In the course of events, these advances triggered the Russian intervention that decimated many of the CIA vetted groups; al-Nusra and IS get off comparatively lightly from the Russian rampage, of course.
In the three years from mid-2014 to mid-2017, the TIMBER SYCAMORE operation expanded include about half of the 100,000 Syrian insurgents, who would be given every support short of help.
AMERICA’S IRAN POLICY TAKES OVER ITS SYRIA POLICY
Obama’s election campaign in 2008 advocated a strategy that “refocuses on Afghanistan”. Iraq was a “misguided war”, Obama said, one that “distracts us”. This dichotomy between “a good war of necessity” and the “bad war of choice” was politically convenient, shielding Obama from accusations of pacifism and weakness. Adopting Afghanistan over Iraq as the country where one will seek positive outcomes was a blunder that soon became apparent, but the political message was successful and the lessons Obama and those around him took from the Iraq experience left a heavy imprint on policy, in Syria above all, which was never viewed as a situation on its own merits. The spectre of an “Iraq-style invasion” was ever-present. “In the Obama world”, wrote the late Fouad Ajami, “it is either boots on the ground or head in the sand.”
The Iraq Factor was surely at work in the “non-strike incident” of 2013, but there was another, larger factor that had by then become crucial: Iran. For about a year before the Ghuta chemical attack, the Obama administration had been working with Iran—behind the backs of U.S. allies—to come up with the “interim” nuclear deal that was signed in November 2013. Note that this means the U.S. did not begin its outreach after Iran swore in the “moderate” president Hassan Rowhani in August 2013. Obama made the crucial first moves—and concessions—to an Iran when Mahmud Ahmadinejad was president.
Israeli intelligence was quick to conclude that Obama’s desire not to upset Iran was more important even than his well-known aversion to the use of force in his refusal to punish Asad for the Ghuta chemical attack. And, while the Israelis might be expected to say this since they frame everything through the Iran prism, this analysis was confirmed by later reporting.
In Jay Solomon’s book, The Iran Wars, probably the most in-depth investigation of the Obama administration’s diplomacy leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, he documents:
Iranian officials briefed on the talks with the United States in the summer of 2013 said Tehran made it clear to the American delegation that the nuclear negotiations would be halted if the United States went ahead with its attack on Assad. Iran’s military and clerics would view such strikes as equivalent to the United States’ declaring war on Iran. “The Iranian diplomats said it wouldn’t be their decision to end the dialogue, but that support in Tehran for the negotiations would evaporate,” said a senior Iranian official briefed on the U.S.-Iranian diplomacy that August. “The Revolutionary Guard and the [supreme] leader’s office would view this as another sign of the U.S.’s efforts to weaken the regime. They couldn’t lose Syria.”
This existential view of Syria permeates Iran’s regime. Mehdi Taeb, a former member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a close ally of Khamene’i’s, once explained: “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] … [T]he priority lies in maintaining Syria, because … if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” From late 2012, Iran orchestrated a regional Shi’a jihad to flood thousands of Shi’a militiamen into Syria to rescue the crumbling Asad regime. The spring 2013 insurgent gains would prove to be the last for three years.
The tide of war was decisively turned in Asad’s favour at Qusayr with the open intrusion of Hizballah/IRGC in May 2013. This inflamed sectarianism in Syria and, with the U.S. clearly an unreliable partner, having thrown Asad a lifeline after Ghuta, even moderate groups had to placate the radicals into late 2013. This was occurring simultaneously with the revelation that one of the extremist insurgent forces, Jabhat al-Nusra, was the advanced party for IS, and IS was trying to take public ownership. Al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), had rejected this, but IS’s emir, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), and his deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), had already moved to infiltrate and pull apart al-Nusra.
Iranian-American Collaboration Under the Cover of the Anti-IS War
By the time the rebellion went to war with IS in January 2014—which did change the atmospherics considerably; moderation was incentivized in a way it had not been months earlier—and Al-Qaeda expelled IS from its ranks and took al-Nusra in as one of its own, IS was already one step ahead. A majority of the foreigners and a considerable number of field emirs in al-Nusra defected to IS and provided the numbers and infrastructure for IS, which lost its footholds in western Syria to the rebels, to consolidate in north-east Syria and begin expanding again. Already gaining strength in Iraq throughout 2011, IS had replenished its ranks with the “Breaking the Walls” campaign in 2012-13, restoring hardened loyalists from Iraqi prisons to the battlefield, one of whom, Adnan al-Bilawi, planned the takeover of Mosul in June 2014. The caliphate was declared later that month, and, as was predictable and predicted, weapons seized in Mosul flowed into eastern Syria and allowed IS to break the resistance in Deir Ezzor.
With the beheading of American journalist James Foley, the nascent genocide against the Yazidis around Sinjar, and IS’s push towards Erbil, Obama was unable to avoid re-engaging in Iraq in August 2014, with airstrikes against the jihadists. The logic of this was unavoidable, even to Obama: with IS having abolished the frontier, airstrikes were going to have to be extended into Syria, too. And so they were. On 23 September 2014, after three years of trying to avoid a conflict that had burst its frontiers and destabilised the Middle East, NATO member Turkey, and soon all of Europe, the order was given for a round of airstrikes into Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, targeting IS, with an odd tack-on strike package further west against Al-Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group”, a story all of its own.
To emphasise how little the Obama administration wanted to do with Syria, the initial U.S. attacks into that country were presented as an adjunct to the Iraq campaign. The Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said the attacks were “not necessarily to kill militants” but to destroy the oil facilities, to take revenue away from IS. More directly, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin said: “Iraq is our main effort … and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq”.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, representing a Baghdad government shot through with Iranian agents that was itself enabling Asad’s war effort, explained that he had played “mediator” between the U.S. and Iran, and this had involved “deliver[ing] a message” from Secretary Kerry to Asad sometime in September 2014 that U.S. airstrikes into Syria would soon be coming, but they “would be limited to Daesh bases”. This confirmed reporting by Reuters that a meeting had taken place in New York where “Iran was assured [by American officials] that Asad and his government will not be targeted in case of any military action against Daesh in Syria”, and Tehran was then “informed separately in advance” of the onset of military action.
The U.S. air campaign against IS in eastern Syria allowed Asad to perform an “economy of force”, focusing on the destruction of the mainstream rebellion in the west. Asad’s hard-fought effort to make jihadists dominant in the insurgency was coming to fruition. IS had been left alone to grow its caliphate all through late 2013 and early 2014; just six percent of regime airstrikes hit IS. The narrative of Syria’s war was going Asad’s way: the belief was becoming prevalent that this was a binary struggle between an unlovely autocracy that threatens only Syrians and a rampaging army of madmen that threaten the whole world.
The U.S. was not blindly drawn into putting its air force at the disposal of Asad (and Iran). Obama refused to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria because this would “constitute an act of war” against Asad, a man Obama ostensibly wanted rid of. Obama would not protect the anti-IS assets in Syria from regime airstrikes, and made U.S. Syria policy a willing hostage to Iran, pointing to the fact Iran might respond to anti-Asad moves by murdering U.S. soldiers working alongside Iranian proxy militias in Iraq—and taking that as a veto of the anti-Asad moves, not something Iran should be deterred from even thinking about.
The Syrian war has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists, some of them academics and/or respected public intellectuals. An immense number of these conspiracy theories are dispelled once it is accepted that the U.S. made no serious effort to depose Asad. Among those who do accept this, Left-wing Obama supporters and so-called Realists (many of whom are also at least sympathetic to Obama), there is a counter-part myth, namely that this was a brave decision, taken in defiance of conventional wisdom, which is wrong at both popular and elite levels.
Samantha Power, Obama’s U.N. ambassador in the second term, wrote in her 2002 book A Problem from Hell (pp. 509-10), “American leaders have both a circular and a deliberate relationship to public opinion. It is circular because their constituencies are rarely if ever aroused by foreign crises, even genocidal ones, in the absence of political leadership, and yet at the same time U.S. officials continually cite the absence of public support as grounds for inaction. The relationship is deliberate because American leadership has not been absent in such circumstances: It has been present but devoted mainly to minimizing public outrage.” Put another way: leaders persuade populations that nation-building at home requires abandoning the rest of the world, then cite the polls reflecting this view back at them to justify doing nothing about atrocities and worse in the world. Power meant this as a criticism when she wrote it; she found it a helpful instruction manual once in office.
In terms of elite opinion, in December 2013, the RAND Corporation convened a workshop with its own experts, officials “from the U.S. intelligence and policy communities, [and] Washington think tanks”—i.e. a cross-section of the U.S. foreign policy-making elite. Assessing the options for Syria—this at a time before IS has even overrun Falluja, let alone rampaged through a third of Iraq and declared its caliphate—the luminaries assembled by RAND “saw regime collapse as the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests”. For good measure, the assembled noted that regime collapse would be the most damaging to the Iranian revolution, destabilising the dominance of its Lebanese wing, Hizballah, and empowering U.S. allies on the Gulf. This view was mainstream among analysts and practitioners of foreign policy, having been expressed publicly months earlier by then-CENTCOM commander James Mattis, who noted that Asad’s fall “would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in twenty-five years”. Regime victory, by contrast, would embolden Iran “to become more aggressive in the Persian Gulf region”, the RAND group documented. Nonetheless, “The participants believed that regime victory would not be the worst possible future for the United States because al-Qaeda and ISIS are being empowered by the Syrian civil war”. And this approach was consensus in the foreign policy “community”, dominant among the officials of the Obama administration and in the press, despite the posturing of Ben Rhodes and the others as outsiders against a militarist “Blob”. Rhodes literally wrote the Iraq Study Group (ISG) or Baker-Hamilton report in 2007, the textual foundation-stone of this worldview in which Sunni jihadism is the central problem and conciliation with Iran and Asad’s Syria is the path to stability.
Still, the U.S. coordination with Iran in Syria was positively coy next to what was happening on the other side of the border, where, under the cover of the anti-IS war, U.S. warplanes provided direct firepower for the advance of IRGC-controlled Shi’i militias under the command—often personal—of Qassem Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Force, the expeditionary unit of the IRGC charged with exporting the Islamic revolution that seized Iran in 1979. This template was hardly a secret, even from early on, yet it was pursued for two and more years until the fall of Mosul. Sulaymani’s proxies, at the head of a militia conglomerate with a superficial Iraqi nationalist coating called al-Hashd al-Shabi, steadily consolidated control on the ground with American assistance coordinated through the thinnest of “deniable” membranes, namely the Baghdad government and its security forces. The effects of this were almost immediately heinous, as the Iranian-directed Shi’a jihadists rampaged in villages and towns, accusing all who had lived under IS’s rule of collaboration. A notable case was Amerli, not even a month into this U.S.-Iranian campaign to “liberate” Iraq from IS.
The PKK Dimension
The turning point for U.S. involvement in Syria came in early October 2014, when IS’s siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani, held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which in Syria uses the name Democratic Union Party (PYD) and calls its armed division the People’s Protection Forces (YPG)—became an international media spectacle. Kerry had said on 8 October that the U.S. “strategic objective” was to target IS’s commanders and revenue streams, to eliminate its “overall ability” to wage war, which was achievable without saving Kobani, “horrific as it is to watch in real time”. Kerry reversed himself on 20 October, declaring that the Kobani siege was “a crisis moment” and the U.S. did not want Kobani to “become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to … help those who are fighting ISIL”. Kobani had been transformed into a “prize” that it would be “irresponsible” to let go. Within days, the YPG was receiving massive air-drops of American weaponry. Over the next three months, more than seven-hundred airstrikes—three-quarters of all those launched by the U.S. in Syria—would be in support of the YPG in the Kobani area.
IS usually withdraws from urban areas when faced with an adversary it clearly cannot overcome, yet in the case of Kobani it went all-in at the cost of hundreds of lives. The likely explanation is that IS was willing to pay a price in blood to make a political point, and since insurgencies live or die by political trends, rather than ephemeral military battles, this has to be reckoned as more sensible behaviour than perhaps it initially appeared. The point that IS made at this moment was that it stood athwart the PKK’s revolutionary project, a posture that appeals to Arabs and Kurds alike, although the resonance with Arabs was clearly greater. Actions by the U.S.-led Coalition helped reinforce this narrative. For example, the U.S. refused to provide support to the FSA rebel units fighting alongside the YPG in defence of Kobani. As the U.S. solidified its relationship with the YPG and helped the group push out from Kobani, displacing IS across a swathe of northern Syria centred on Tel Abyad, IS’s claim that it alone cared for the interests of the Arab tribes, while a global conspiracy was afoot to impose an alien occupation upon them, found an audience.
What had begun ad hoc between the U.S. and YPG in Kobani was expanded into a partnership. The reasons given for this are generally that the YPG was the most capable fighting force. There is some truth to this at a tactical level: since the YPG is the PKK, it has the experience of four decades of warfare against Turkey, the second largest army in NATO, and its totalitarian ideology gives it a unity of command that a popular, anti-autocratic rebellion can only aspire to. But it is much overdone. Any force provided with an American no-fly zone—neutralising the most devastating instrument of Asad’s war machine, which has not only massacred but politically destabilised rebel areas—and intelligence, money, training, weapons, and close-air support on the scale that the U.S. provided to the YPG/PKK is going to find itself making military progress against any adversary. These cumulative advantages the Americans supplied to the YPG enabled it to fasten its rule on something like a fifth of Syrian territory. What is noticeable is that when this is tested—in a dense urban battle like Raqqa or over the last month in Efrin—the YPG comes up short.
Interesting as arguments over capabilities are, it is the politics of the alignment with the YPG make nonsense of the idea it was an exigency measure. If it was so urgent to destroy IS, then the U.S. should have sent in its own forces, and withdrawn them once there was a viable local administration to hand over to. If it was not so urgent, there was time to find or construct a locally legitimate and sustainable military-governance structure to evict the jihadists and hold the area. Under no circumstances was the answer to have the PKK occupy the Arab-majority areas cleared of IS. A PKK statelet in Syria simply is not viable.
The truth is that the YPG option recommended itself to Obama for reasons little to do with Syria: (1) it allowed him to keep up the “no boots on the ground” mantra that (he believed) had got him elected and re-elected; and (2) it avoided any confrontation with, or damage to, Asad’s regime—and therefore Iran, by this time in control of the Syrian regime’s security sector—since the YPG/PKK has close ties to the pro-Asad coalition.
While the Western press coverage might have presented “the Syrian Kurds” as natural values allies, the fact that the YPG/PKK is and always will be structurally a part of the Asad-Iran-Russia axis—despite brief flights of fancy and hubris because of over-romantic CENTCOM officials telling the YPG that the U.S. is just about to dump Turkey—is not something that was especially well-hidden. The areas that the YPG held in northern Syria had been handed to it by the Asad regime in the summer of 2012. At that moment, the Asad regime faced a crisis in its capital and Aleppo city had erupted in rebellion; it did not have the manpower to hold down the Kurdish-majority zones as well, so it entrusted them to the YPG. The advantages of doing so were many. The YPG, hostile to Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan government, would prevent these Western-aligned actors having any influence in their zones. And it created an immediate problem for the rebellion and Turkey, one of the rebels’ main supporters, diverting resources to fighting on a second front that could otherwise have been directed at the Asad regime. The regime was also sure that in time, once it had dealt with the rebellion, it could fold these areas and the YPG back under its control.
Rupturing Relations With Turkey
The U.S.’s support for the YPG thus created an immediate crisis in relations with Turkey. The Turks were not even amused by, let alone convinced by, the effort to rebrand the YPG as the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) in October 2015. Ostensibly a multi-ethnic coalition, with Arab and Christian forces joined to “the Kurds”, not even its most starry-eyed supporters deny that the SDF is dominated, militarily and politically, by the YPG. The truth of it is that this construct is controlled by the PKK commanders who run the YPG; the few genuinely independent Arab units that joined the SDF were swiftly neutralised, and the remainder reduced to dependency, acting as local intermediaries to Arab populations to enforce the YPG regime.
Despite their fury with the Americans for supporting the YPG, nonetheless the Turks supported the operation to get IS out of Minbij in 2016, having been promised that the YPG would be used for the military phase of the campaign and thereafter the city would be turned over to its Arab inhabitants. Instead, the YPG used Minbij as a springboard to push west and try to link up with Efrin, which would have given them control of the entire border with Turkey. This triggered the first of Turkey’s incursions, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, which cleared IS from Turkey’s border and a significant urban area, al-Bab, while putting an end to the maximalist dreams of the YPG. The Americans’ broken promises over Minbij—soon added to by the non-recovery of weapons provided to the YPG for the Raqqa operation and much else besides—have helped sour U.S.-Turkey relations considerably.
Turkey is hardly the most sympathetic ally of late. Alongside the objective problems of Turkey’s backsliding on democratic standards, her president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has conspired to make himself—and by extension his country—near-perfectly abrasive to Western audiences. But Turkey was not alone in being alienated by Obama’s pro-Iran policy; every major regional ally felt the same way. The driving impetus that led to American support for the PKK also led to demands that Saudi Arabia “share” the region with the Iranian revolution and that Israel get comfortable with a clerical theocracy pledged to its destruction being within dashing distance of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the charge brought against Turkey by those who see the alliance forged in the Cold War as at an end, that Ankara has moved closer to Russia, is not untrue, but removes some crucial context. While the former Obama officials are currently making quite the performance on Twitter and MSNBC of their hardline views on Russia, and their many lurid accusations of “collusion” between Trump and the Kremlin, the reality is that America’s alignment with Russia began with Obama in Syria.
Obama Hides Behind Russia
The Russians came into Syria openly in September 2015, having long supported the Asad regime through less visible means. By this time, Moscow already had the Americans invested in a “deal” that incentivised the survival of their client regime as a partner in disarmament. Now, Obama’s public stance was that Russia was getting into a “quagmire”, and as such it did not require any American action. Who gets into a “proxy war” in 2015?
It was fairly evident even at the time that, taken at face value, this was terrible analysis: “If Putin’s intention was to pacify Syria, then yes he would be doomed. But Putin doesn’t want to pacify Syria: he wants to keep the Asad regime alive, re-establish a Russian presence in the Middle East, establish the principle that Russia can use force at will in the Middle East, and make himself the go-to player in Syria—which, as the central theatre of the contest for regional order, makes Moscow the throughway for all matters in the region.” At this distance, it would have to be conceded the Russians got nearer to mission-accomplished in Syria than the U.S. did in Iraq.
There was, however, more than just incompetence at work. There was considerable dishonestly. With Iran unable to prevent the Asad regime melting away on its own, Sulaymani headed to Moscow, right after the nuclear deal was signed, to plan this new escalation of support for the regime. The Obama administration was quite content for the Russians to enter Syria: it provided them a final, irrefutable argument against doing anything to hinder the Asad/Iran system’s reconquista—such would lead to World War Three. Former Obama officials nearly always resort to this talking point when asked why more was not done about Syria. Additionally, by placing Asad off-limits, it appeased the Iranians on their core demand, made them more amenable to signing a paper accord over the nuclear program, and it road-tested Obama’s notion that the region could be overseen by a “concert system” that would not require American hegemony.
For evidence of this, one can look at the very start of the Russian intervention: at what point did the CIA know the Russians were going to make a major move into Syria? Now, it is entirely plausible that the CIA did not know anything about this before it occurred—the Agency missed the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan and Saddam Husayn’s annexation of Kuwait. But, in an era of satellites and social media reporting every detail in and around Syria, even the CIA must have had some inkling of what was happening. When this was passed to Obama would be interesting to know because if the administration had even twenty-four hours notice, and chose to make no public statement aiming to dissuade the Russians, it would be deeply instructive.
THE REBELLION’S COLLAPSE
Russia’s intervention was not subtle, though for those determined to be gulled it provided just enough. For six months, between September 2015 and March 2016, Russian fighter jets mauled the mainstream rebellion and left IS alone. Then, a brief offensive was staged—that is to say, in all important senses fabricated—to push IS out of Palmyra and rewrite the story of the intervention as an anti-terrorist operation. This narrative of Russia coming to the rescue of civilisation against barbarian jihadist hordes was given physical expression in the celebratory ceremony put on in Palmyra amid the Roman ruins in May 2016 with a full orchestra.
The march on Aleppo city, the final urban bastion of the rebellion, then began; besieged at the end of July 2016, with the PKK’s help, the insurgency briefly secured some respite in early August before the regime coalition closed the ring once more and began an unmerciful final assault, also assisted by the PKK, that crushed the rebellion at the end of November and deported tens of thousands of survivors over subsequent weeks. During this period, the U.S. has given rhetorical support—some of it walked back—to Russia’s and the regime’s claim that they were fighting terrorism in Aleppo, and Obama signed a direct military pact with Russia to target Asad’s enemies, something the U.S. had already done by killing Usama Nammoura (Abu Umar al-Saraqib) during the siege. The accord was only scuppered by an outrageous act of wanton criminality from Russia, though even after that Kerry had tried to keep the deal going and was humiliatingly rebuffed by the Kremlin.
In the summers of both 2014 and 2015, the pro-Asad coalition—in tandem with IS—had launched assaults against rebel-held Aleppo city, and failed. The breakthrough in 2016 was attributable partly to the damage the year-long Russian air campaign had done to the rebellion; this could not explain everything, however. The Asad regime had not lacked for fighter jets before this and in 2016, unlike prior years, IS was not jointly attacking the rebels. To the contrary, during the regime coalition’s Aleppo offensive, IS grabbed Palmyra again. There was a lesson in the pro-Asad forces preferring to destroy the mainstream rebels in Aleppo, rather than the IS terrorists in Palmyra, but it was a hardly a new lesson. The x-factor that allowed the fall of Aleppo was Turkey withdrawing support from the rebels in the city. This was a sharp reversal of policy for Turkey, which up to the summer of 2016 was really the key backer of the rebels—Ankara not only supported various rebel factions; it made possible everyone else’s support—and it was U.S. policy that caused Turkey’s course change.
To reiterate, Turkey had supported the insurgent offensive in the summer of 2015 that threatened the Asad regime’s existence and ultimately triggered the Russian intervention. The Turks had continued to support the insurgency against the Iran-Russia axis. When Moscow tried to demonstrate that it was “back” as a Great Power in the region by violating Turkey’s airspace adjacent to the Latakia province on 24 November 2015, the Turks shot down the Russian jet. Yet, Turkey was told that Obama wished to “discourage any kind of escalation”. Just as had happened when Asad shot down a Turkish warplane in June 2012, Turkey was told that no help would be forthcoming from its NATO allies and an opportunity for America to assert itself on the side of its stated policy of toppling Asad was publicly thrown away. Turkey was told to handle this matter as a bilateral issue.
With an American-enabled Russian presence on Turkey’s doorstep, and America helping the PKK seize the Syria-Turkey border zone, Ankara chose to mend fences with the Russians in June 2016 and this thaw in relations accelerated after the attempted coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016. The Turkish government is convinced, probably correctly, that Fethullah Gülen, the imam of a cult-like Islamist brotherhood in Turkey, the Hizmet, which had deeply infiltrated the state during the time of its alliance with Erdogan, was behind the coup. Gülen is based in Pennsylvania. The U.S. refusal to extradite him—for sound legal reasons—embittered Ankara still further, even if in its heart and hearts Turkey really does not want Gülen back to deal with. This fed into an already widespread sense, shared by the insular and conspiratorial Turkish leadership, that America had some role in the coup attempt. Many Turks could be heard to say that the U.S. only commented in favour of the government once it was clear the putsch had failed, which was in point of fact not true. Putin, by contrast, said all the right things at all the right times to Erdogan, taking advantage of the tensions with America to drive a wedge between two NATO allies. Erdogan apologised for downing the jet, then blamed it on rogue Gülenists within the military, and then put in an order for the Russian S-400—an air defence system of dubious utility, but the point was the blood money and the great ructions the purchase caused within NATO.
A month after the coup attempt, with the PKK breaking out west from Minbij, the Turks moved in directly with Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD to break up the PKK cantons and push IS away from the border. But there was a catch. To avoid fighting on two fronts, the Turks cut a deal with Russia: Turkey withdrew support from the rebellion in Aleppo city, and indeed de facto altered its whole strategy in Syria to abandon the anti-Asad policy. Turkey did not draw away rebels from Aleppo city to EUPHRATES SHIELD, but the EUPHRATES SHIELD factions were not allowed to come to support Aleppo city, and Turkey—uncharacteristically—kept very quiet during the atrocity-laden regime coalition offensive against Aleppo city. Erdogan limited himself to a telephone call with Putin about the need for humanitarian aid to Aleppo. In exchange, the pro-Asad coalition left Turkey’s enclave in northern Aleppo province unmolested.
Once Aleppo went down, the rebel file was essentially owned by Ankara alone; the U.A.E. had barely been involved, Saudi had cut its losses in late 2015, and Qatar had given up not long after that. The remaining rebel forces ceased all revolutionary activity, being enlisted to protect the Turkish border and give Turkey leverage on the ground as it became enmeshed in the Russian-led Astana process. Through Astana and its “de-escalation zones”, Turkey—by actually sticking to the agreement and restraining the rebels—has enabled the pro-Asad coalition to manage its resources to win the war. The main struggle the regime has is manpower, but with all the other fronts being kept quiet by Turkey, the regime coalition is able to concentrate all resources on the zones one at a time.
TRUMP ENDS THE AMBIGUITY
Trump is reported to have made the decision to cut off support for the Syrian rebels after consultation with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, roughly in mid-June 2017, before Trump’s 7 July 2017 meeting with Russian ruler Vladimir Putin in Germany. The decision became public on 19 July and was confirmed the following day by General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
It seems a key factor in Trump deciding to terminate TIMBER SYCAMORE was that earlier in 2017 somebody in the administration had shown him the video from July 2016 of Harakat Nuradeen al-Zenki, a rebel group that had been a recipient of CIA aid until September 2015, beheading a child soldier. Al-Zenki was in so many ways a microcosm of the problem: it had tried to step away from al-Nusra and assert itself and found—as the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Harakat Hazm and Division Thirteen had previously—that there was no support on offer for doing what the U.S. had asked the rebels to do for years in “de-marbling” from the jihadists. There was no support for civilian anti-jihadist resistance either, if it came to that. To the contrary, Al-Zenki had to face al-Nusra’s crackdown alone and after its complete cut-off in 2015 it had to accept al-Nusra’s assistance to remain operational, and in so doing got drawn into the jihadists’ orbit, in practice if not exactly in ideology. Al-Zenki had evolved, that is to say, in the year between ending its relationship with the CIA and its terrible war crime, but that nuance and the ordering of cause and effect was lost on Trump—and many others—and its practical importance at this stage is in any case debateable.
The other apparent factor in Trump’s “thinking” was that the CIA-supported rebels were indirectly yet concretely assisting al-Nusra and in this he had more of a point.
The Rebels and Al-Qaeda
The rebels disliked having to work alongside Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. “Don’t you think we would prefer not to have Al-Nusra in our trenches?” one FSA commander asked rhetorically as Aleppo was encircled. “They represent everything we are opposed to. Sometimes, they are the same as the regime. But what can we do when our supposed friends abroad give us nothing to assert ourselves?” Faced with heavy artillery, fighter jets, chemical weapons, and no reliable external source of support, the rebellion had to take the assistance from the only people who showed up.
It is fair to say that this situation is the result of a lack of American support to the rebellion. That vacuum was filled by the Saudis and Qataris, who in their proxy competition with each other among the rebels did immense, possibly fatal damage to the cause, and Turkey’s choice of proxies empowered some of the worst trendlines in the rebellion, ultimately leaving Turkey alone holding the rebel file and possibly facing a cataclysmic refugee wave from Idlib. This is what happens when America tells its allies to handle things on their own. However it came about, though, it doesn’t change the fact that by 2017, especially with the rebellion clearly defeated in any strategic sense, the situation was deeply dysfunctional and unsustainable.
Al-Nusra embedded itself within the revolution, creating a co-dependency that can no longer be ended, and used harder methods as mentioned above to neutralise rebel units that refused to be co-opted. It was no accident, as the comrades used to say, that soon after Trump eliminated the U.S. support for the mainstream rebels, Al-Nusra, which had consolidated control in much of Idlib in the spring of 2017, moved to complete the process by breaking its final competitors.
The U.S. was supplying weapons like anti-tank TOW missiles to FSA factions, and it was true—as it always has been—that very few of those weapons ended up in the hands of people they were not supposed to—because they did not need to. Rather than U.S. weaponry helping empower the rebels out of their dependency on al-Nusra, the supplies were too meagre, so the FSA factions and their TOWs were instead, in effect, acting as specialised auxiliaries for al-Nusra-led advances.
And al-Nusra did annex other U.S.-supplied weapons, in occasionally large amounts when it disbanded rebel factions and looted their supplies, and otherwise in a steady stream by taking a cut from rebel factions under threat of annihilation. “It turns out it’s—a lot of al-Qaeda we’re giving these weapons to,” Trump said to The Wall Street Journal, which was echoed by a rebel commander speaking to The Financial Times: “Frankly so much of the weapons and ammunition were going to [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] that it’s probably a good thing [Trump cut them off]”. Allowances made for rhetorical excess on all sides—elsewhere in the interview Trump says it was “a decision made by people, not me” and “that was not something that I was involved in”, which should be factored into his reliability as a source—nonetheless the reality, never pretty, was not sustainable with al-Nusra so overtly dominant over the insurgency. The benefits of keeping a Potemkin rebel program going were at diminishing returns. From an American perspective, the cut-off was an inevitability.
This Was Always Trump’s Policy—And Obama’s
Trump, in fairness, is doing what he said during the campaign—which, as in so much of the rest of his foreign policy, means adopting Obama’s policy without the surrounding rhetorical niceties and polite deceptions. In Syria, now, Trump has renounced the overthrow of Asad as even an aspiration or bargaining chip, let alone as an active policy.
This is not new. The formal end of the anti-Asad policy was announced early in the administration. Asad’s rule is “a political reality that we have to accept,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer on 28 March 2017, adding that, rather than Asad’s removal, U.S. “priorities” in Syria consisted of things like “counterterrorism”. This was obscured by some of the administration’s rhetoric surrounding the U.S.’s 6 April 2017 cruise missile attack on Asad’s Shayrat Airbase in retaliation for the 4 April CWMD attack in Khan Shaykun. But the Pentagon, one of the few U.S. institutions left where words bear any resemblance to policy, has been entirely consistent in saying, “We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS”.
The pursuit of this policy has not been affected at all by the fact that this approach is delusional: a counter-terrorism policy cannot be run in isolation from the underlying political conflict. It is the underlying problem—i.e. Asad and the exterminationist policies he and his allies have carried out against the Syrian population—that gave the terrorists the context in which they could operate and which must be resolved if they are to be defeated. Put simply: attempting to stick to a narrow counterterrorism policy by permitting Asad to remain in place is self-defeating. Moreover, the U.S. is involved in the political conflict—it has taken territory occupied by IS, which had been held by one party to the conflict (the rebels) and handed it to another (the PKK), completely altering the balance of power in the civil war. President Obama managed to pursue this delusional course, and Trump has—after a brief feint—carried it on seamlessly.
As with all things Trump-related, it might be possible to make a case that the policy is correct; there is no defence of the method, which is disastrous. The media coverage of the decision has framed this as a concession to Russia; it might be tempting to dismiss this as wrong in the specifics (a decision taken without reference to Russia) and right in general (this was a needless concession to the Russians, and Iranians). But we have the administration’s own word for it that this was intended partly as a concession to Russia. One of Trump’s officials told Reuters the end of the rebel program is “a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia”.
Even those who advocated removing U.S. support from the armed opposition said the U.S. “should not do so abruptly or for free. America’s support for the opposition represents a substantial source of leverage, and America owes something to its opposition partners and to U.S. allies who are co-invested in them.” It would make sense to retain the rebel-held Deraa to protect people in the south that cannot survive under Asad’s rule and to provide a buffer for Israel and Jordan; it would make sense to internationally ratify the Turkish counterpart zones in the north; and, however much sin the Rojava zone was conceived in, simply handing it back to the Asad/Iran system does not seem strategically wise or humane.
The above scenario would obviously be messy and distinctly unsatisfying after all this, but it would at least have preserved something. None of that is possible now that Trump has gifted the Russian-Iranian axis a public security guarantee for their client; he has given away one of the major things they want in exchange for nothing. This is the exact wrong way to go about this—even on its own terms, where Russia and the U.S. can find some common cause in Syria.
The reality is that anything like the above scenario would have been doomed if based on wishful thinking about Russia’s willingness or capacity to help the U.S. in Syria. Trump has rather demonstrated this, signing an agreement with Russia supposedly guaranteeing the status quo in Deraa at his July 2017 meeting with Putin; the Russians show little sign of respecting it and the U.S. shows no sign of being willing to enforce it. But a Moscow-proof settlement akin to that adumbrated above was possible to imagine; the Russians are easily handled in Syria if there is the will to do so.
The dominant trendline moving forward is the regime coalition’s recapture of territory. Turkey will keep its areas for the foreseeable future, but the prospects for Homs and the south do not look good as the regime coalition looks down the list of “de-escalation zones” that Turkey is ensuring can be handled seriatim, rather than posing a multi-front challenge. The U.S. will stay in the PKK-held areas with its “partner force” until the anti-IS mission is done and probably not much beyond that, at which point the PKK will return home to Damascus. The U.S.’s few positions based on rebel proxies have already collapsed or begun to collapse.
The U.S. admitted on 19 September 2017 that it had abandoned the Zakaf base near the Iraqi border, now occupied by IRGC-controlled Shi’a jihadists.
Around the same time, in the same area, two CIA-supported rebel groups, Usud al-Sharqiya and Quwat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Abdo, told Reuters they had been asked by the U.S. and their Arab state partners—namely Jordan, which prevented the Southern Front rebels carrying out anti-regime activities years ago—to disarm, disband, and retreat into Jordan, despite having hundreds of men in the field and holding an important piece of territory that would be taken over by the Asad/Iran system. In a meeting on 9 September, the rebel commanders told the MOC in Jordan that they would rather “stay and die” in the desert than accede to their demand to leave the battlefield. Neither group was offered the chance to move to the Pentagon-run Tanf base that houses Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra.
The Tanf file is perhaps the most puzzling of all since it is the one that seems to be exempt from the general liquidation order, yet it is the most strategically insignificant. The argument that Tanf provides any kind of check on Iran and its “land bridge” is based on a faulty analytical premise; the Iranians are able to fly their resources into Syria and have been able to despite the U.S. presence at Tanf. Russia launched a “wayward” airstrike at Tanf and the Asad/Iran ground forces have gotten the point about the exclusion zone after a few probing advances in early 2017. Such direct action hardly seems necessary, however. Perhaps because the Maghawir fighters at Tanf understand the cul-de-sac they are in, some have begun to defect to the Iran-Russia axis.
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 In May 2014, Obama announced an overt train-and-equip (T&E) program that would recruit 15,000 Syrian rebels—people defined by having taken up arms against the Asad regime—and transform them into a strike force against IS. Needless to say, there were not many volunteers for this enterprise, and the volunteers that could be corralled into this scheme were the most mercenary, morally dubious, and unpopular elements that had few other avenues for advancement. Over-zealous vetting procedures were implemented to make doubly-sure there was no chance of success.
“The train and equip program was never anything but a box-checking exercise by a White House eager to be seen as ‘doing something’”, said Frederic Hof, the head of the Syria desk at the State Department in Obama’s first term. Put simply, the T&E program was designed to fail, and its failure was then used as further justification for doing nothing to assist the Syrian opposition.
In September 2014, Obama gave an ambiguous declaration of war against IS, and included as part of it “ramped up … military assistance to the Syrian opposition”. A bill was passed in Congress days later. This did not seem to hasten matters. The T&E program finally began in early May 2015, a full year after it was announced. The U.S. sought, in effect, to create a new unit, which they called the New Syrian Forces (NSF), drawn from a group called Division Thirty. The plan was to train fighters in batches of 300 and by the end of the year have a force of 2,000 men.
By this time in mid-2015, the most powerful potential U.S. partners from among the rebels, Harakat Hazm (The Steadfastness Movement) and Jabhat Thuwar al-Suriya (The Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front) had been eliminated, removing the chance that capable and locally-legitimate forces could enrol. The rebel groups ostensibly being supported by the U.S. had requested additional support to combat, or at least hold off, al-Qaeda in the summer of 2014 and were refused—this at a time when ammunition supplies were so measly that some were supplied with an average of sixteen bullets per month each. The U.S. had provided enough support to make these groups a target and not enough to defend them.
In June 2015, a large proportion of those involved in the T&E program quit when asked to sign a form promising they would not use their weapons against Asad. By 7 July 2015, there were just sixty fighters in the T&E program. U.S. officials stated publicly that they would not protect this proxy force from the Asad regime once it re-entered Syria. The NSF could call in airstrikes against IS.
The T&E program collapsed on impact with reality.
The first contingent of the NSF, fifty-four fighters, entered Syria on 12 July 2015, led by Colonel Nedim Hasan, a Turkoman defector from the Syrian army. The NSF voted to take two weeks off after they re-entered Syria to see their families after two months of isolation in training. The U.S. launched an airstrike near Salqin “against a network of veteran al-Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the ‘Khorasan Group’,” a component of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria). The next day, 29 July, al-Nusra retaliated by kidnapping Hasan and seven of his men, and nabbed ten more on 31 July in a raid on the NSF base as its members tried to return to work. Al-Nusra announced on 31 July that it had abducted NSF graduates, and warned against anybody else collaborating with the Americans. After initial denials, the Pentagon confirmed that al-Nusra had kidnapped some of its proxies.
The U.S. confirmed in August 2015 that it had lost contact with eighteen of this first contingent and that one was still in al-Nusra’s custody. On 16 September 2015, the Central Command (CENTCOM) head, General Lloyd Austin, had an infamous exchange at Congress in which he said that the U.S. had a hold of just “four or five” T&E graduates who were still fighting in Syria. Less than a week later, Colonel Muhammad al-Daher (Abu Hussam), the Chief of Staff of the Division Thirty, resigned, noting that the T&E program was not serious.
A second NSF contingent, consisting of about seventy men, entered Syria on or around 20 September 2015 near Atarib, and the commander of Division Thirty, Anas Ibrahim al-Ubayd (Abu Zayd), promptly defected to al-Nusra, taking a third or more of the U.S. supplies with him. Al-Ubayd had not been on the T&E program, according to CENTCOM, which is technically possible since, while all NSF were part of the Thirtieth Division, not all members of the Thirtieth Division were part of NSF. A member of the Thirtieth Division claimed that al-Ubayd was part of the T&E program, however.
The T&E program was formally suspended on 9 October 2015.
In the aftermath, Roy Gutman at McClatchy wrote of how chaotic the T&E program had been and how perpetually-low was morale, gathering testimony from former participants. Amin Ibrahim, the leader of the NSF contingent within Division Thirty, told Gutman he had often thought of quitting and only didn’t because he knew everyone would follow. “Every day I had a meeting with [the Americans],” Ibrahim said, “I told them the whole idea is wrong. I said: ‘We are Syrians. Our problem is with the regime. Help us to get rid of the regime.’ The response was: ‘You should not shoot a bullet against the regime’.” The Turkish government assisted the T&E program; they took this view of the Syrians and sometimes clashed with their American counterparts. “The Americans live in a fictive world,” one Turkish military official told Gutman.
By the time the T&E program started, the U.S. had already chosen its preferred proxy, the Kurdish YPG/PKK, and the half-a-million dollars for the T&E program was moved over to them once it was halted in October 2015. The “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) were soon announced, dominated by the PKK and including some of the Arabs who had been on the T&E program.
The Pentagon continued to support vetted anti-IS groups like Liwa al-Mutassem and the “New Syrian Army” (a.k.a. Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra), albeit with all the old problems of minimal resources and slowness in providing protection. A revised T&E program was officially reactivated in July 2016, operating mostly in southern Syria, and Britain rejoined the effort in October 2016.
 In the years after the Ghuta atrocity, Obama officials would fall back on the argument that the President had acted correctly because his aim was to eliminate Asad’s chemical weapons and the “deal” with the Russians removed 1,300 tons of CWMD, more than could possibly have been destroyed by any strike. This was, as so often in the administration’s messaging over Syria, deeply dishonest.
Firstly, the stated purpose at the time for military retribution against Asad’s use of CWMD was punishment and by extension deterrence, not the elimination of chemical weapons. French President Francois Hollande said his government stood “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people”. He made no remark about how much CWMD he wanted to destroy. A journalist practiced in representing the Obama administration’s policies as the administration would like them to be seen summarised it this way: “What the Obama administration is clearly hoping it can do is change Assad’s calculus, to make him decide that chemical weapons aren’t worth the risk.”
Secondly, even on its own terms this argument is bunkum. The administration wilfully misled about how much of Asad’s CWMD had actually been removed, in two senses. There was deception about the scale of the stockpiles removed. Obama himself would carefully stick to the claim that he had “eliminated Syria’s declared chemical weapons program” [italics added]. His officials were more incautious. In July 2014, Kerry declared: “We struck a deal where we got one-hundred percent of the chemical weapons out”. It was evident that this was a lie long before the end of Obama’s term in office, and it was evident because—to get to the second form of deception on this matter—it was obvious that the CWMD program had not been dismantled, not even publicly. As such, removing the produce was an irrelevance; the Asad regime could recover what it needed in weeks, and did so. These weapons were used again at Khan Shaykhun in April 2017, and this time Asad was made to pay a (small) price by President Donald Trump.
 After the insurgency overran Taftanaz Airbase in the north and pushed on Damascus in the south in January and February 2013, the next time they would make considerable progress was in 2015, by which time the extremists were far more dominant in the insurgency. An operations room, Jaysh al-Fatah (JAF), was put together that for the first time included Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, and also had its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, as a leading element. With Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar for once on the same page, JAF was provided support to capture Idlib city in March 2015. JAF then continued offensive operations, sweeping the Asad regime out of Idlib province with the capture of Abu al-Duhur Airbase in September 2015, after which an insurgent offensive loomed for the coastal heartlands of the Asad regime. This threat to Asad’s survival triggered the Russian intervention, coordinated with Iran, to save Asad a second time.
 There are broader questions about whether it makes sense to talk about “public opinion” at all given how volatile and malleable it is, and to the extent one can talk about “public opinion” just exactly how much influence that has in a concrete sense on a democratic regime; one argument says not that much more than in authoritarian military regimes, at least when it comes to core national touchstone issues.
 The formation of the Hashd is often presented as having its origins on 13 June 2014 when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued his fatwa in response to IS overrunning a third of Iraq, calling for able-bodied citizens to “volunteer and join the [state] security forces”. Even on this narrative, there can be no serious doubt that Iran swiftly co-opted the Hashd, with Sulaymani’s devoted deputy Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis) directing the enterprise and long-standing “special grounds”, some of them U.S.-designated terrorist organisations, dominant within the Hashd. In fact, as Phillip Smyth documents in his seminal paper on Iran’s transnational Shi’i Islamist networks, the origins of the Hashd go back at least to April 2014, with the launching of the Popular Defence Companies (Saraya al-Difa al-Shabi) by Kataib Hizballah, one of IRGC’s closest and most capable Shi’i jihadist units and one that is on the U.S. terrorism blacklist. The model that came later, of IRGC proxy militias leading elements of the security forces, had been ongoing for months, which is hardly surprising because, although the June blitzkrieg from Mosul into Saladin, across to Diyala, and toward Baghdad, was a devastating escalation, the crisis had begun in Iraq at least six months earlier, in January 2014, when IS had—again—overrun Falluja. It was in attempting to minimise the restoration of jihadi rule in this most symbolic town that Obama made his infamous quip about a “jayvee team” not becoming Kobe Bryant by putting on a Lakers uniform.
 Setting aside the economic dependency of “Rojava”, as the PKK calls its statelet, on the Asad/Iran system, and assuming it could—through sheer brutality—overcome the internal Kurdish and Arab opposition, it is surrounded by forces—other Arab tribes, the Asad regime, Iran, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan—that are willing to cooperate with each other, and with the internal opposition, to unravel this polity. The U.S. presence can protect Rojava; the nature of military force-protection means the U.S. troops act as a de facto tripwire and can call in devastating air power if the pro-Asad coalition or anybody else comes too close to them. [UPDATE: on 15 February, 100 or more Russian “mercenaries”—the “deniable” forces attached to Russia’s special services—were killed after they tried to storm U.S. positions in eastern Syria.] But the political situation means that this U.S. shield is unlikely to be a long-term fact. The U.S. has rhetorically staked its presence on the anti-IS operation in an almost comically exaggerated way—every statement from the U.S. on regional policy frames it in relation to Operation INHERENT RESOLVE—so, once that is over, there is little reason to think the U.S. will hang around to protect the PKK as the various contending parties in various combinations start picking apart Rojava. It is difficult to imagine the U.S. formulating a justification for this, especially with Trump’s base, which has been fed a steady diet of agitation against “endless wars”.
 A small recent example of the overlap between the PKK and the Iran-Russia axis: during the Efrin operation, the PKK’s “Shingal Protection Units” (YBS), based in Sinjar, sent troops to support the “YPG” against Turkey. Not only does this underline the integrated nature of the PKK command structure, able to move troops operating under these various names to whatever front they are most needed at, but the YBS is a part of the IRGC-controlled Hashd structure and is financed by its mechanisms. Iran has been working to bring Baghdad and the PKK closer together since at least 2012.
 Gülen’s death in a Turkish prison (the man is nearly 80) would do nothing to help Turkey’s government politically, domestically or internationally. Turkey does want is Gülen out of the United States, but it is likely that the preferred outcome in Ankara is that Gülen ends up somewhere off-stage like South Africa.
 Since the cut-off, the Trump administration’s lack of leverage with the rebels has reduced them to threatening the rebels with Russian airstrikes if they do not move away from al-Nusra. Once again, Trump’s administration was following where Obama’s had led. In April 2016, when the regime coalition was waging war despite a declared ceasefire on the pretext that terrorists were exempt, State Department spokesman John Kirby went along with Russia’s propaganda, said al-Nusra was a “legitimate” target, and warned rebels about the “inherent dangers of intermingling”, encouraging them to stand aside for the regime’s reconquest of Aleppo. Two months earlier, John Kerry himself had threatened the opposition that if they did not surrender their cause diplomatically, “It’s going to get much worse. [The Russian bombardment] will continue for three months, and by then the opposition will be decimated.” Pressed further, Kerry resorted as ever to the prospect of superpower conflict, “What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?”