As Congress struggles to pass a bill to fund the government for the rest of the year, one curious and significant item was left on the cutting room floor: a request from the Barack Obama administration for $300 million to expand the secret CIA program to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels.
The request, which administration officials had been lobbying for in recent weeks, was held up by the House Intelligence Committee, which has serious doubts about the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups that for years have been receiving arms secretly from the U.S. and its allies, two administration officials told me. Without the money, Syrian opposition leaders say, the FSA will struggle to hold its remaining positions in northern Syria, much less make progress against Islamic State and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
“The requested funds are a crucial indication of the partnership between the United States and Syrian freedom fighters. This comes at a particularly important time,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser for the Syrian National Coalition.
Nonetheless, not everyone in the White House will lament the decision to drop it from the spending bill: Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels' losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands.
Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition tell me they have now been almost completely cut off from what they saw as already meager support from the Western coalition led by the U.S. Over the last month, the flow of weapons and ammunition to FSA groups in the north has stopped, these leaders say. Three FSA-linked groups are still receiving limited financial assistance, but that’s it. “The Americans are saying they are not cutting us off, that the Saudis and Qataris are cutting us off," a senior FSA official in the northern Syria, who asked to be cited anonymously for security reasons, told me. "But we know the Americans are in charge.”
Administration officials confirmed to me that there has been an intentional refocusing of lethal assistance away from the rebel groups in the north, which are supplied from a coordination cell in Turkey, to FSA-related groups in the South, which covertly receive arms through a separate cell in Jordan. These officials insist that this is a refocus of the effort, from north to south, not a drop in the U.S. commitment to aid the rebels.
The Free Syrian Army groups no longer getting arms, however, are not so sure. They see this as one more sign that the Obama administration doesn’t see them as a reliable partner. For the FSA, its a problem compounded by they fact they are still seen inside Syria as allies of the West.
“We got the stigma of being a U.S. supported group, but without the support. We have a huge American flag our back but not a gun in our hands,” the senior FSA official said. “The Americans say the FSA is not organized and can’t deal with Nusra, and we say well if you support us then we will be able to deal with them.”
When confronted with the rebel complaints that they are being cut off from Western support, White House officials point to the new U.S.-led program to train and equip a rebel army in bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That program, which is not secret and will be run by the military rather than the Central Intelligence Agency, is key to the administration’s plan to fight IS and eventually confront Assad. But it has been hampered by delays and has a limited mission to produce only about 5,000 trained fighters a year, despite its planned $500 million annual budget.
What’s more, the moderate Syrian rebels who have been working with the U.S. for years have been frozen out of the plans. They say that General Michael Nagata, the head of the training program, has never met with representatives of the FSA or the civilian Syrian National Coalition. Recruiting for the program among rebel groups has not begun. The FSA thinks the White House is not serious about the effort.
“As of now, there is no interaction between the train and equip program and the FSA," the FSA official I spoke with said. "We’ve tried several times to make contact with Nagata, but the administration has been keeping him on a very short leash. Maybe they are just keeping the status quo and they are not interested in making any significant moves.”
A former Pentagon official who worked on the Middle East also said that the White House has barred Nagata from meeting with the rebels, complicating the military’s efforts to set up the train-and-equip program and frustrating military leaders, who want to engage more robustly with the FSA groups.
National Security Council Spokesman Alistair Baskey denied flatly that the White House was preventing military officials from meeting with the rebels. “General Nagata and his team are free to meet with members of the moderate Syria opposition as appropriate in order to advance the train and equip program. The NSC has no involvement in determining who they meet with,” he said.
But others are skeptical of the administration's resolution to help the rebels. Mike Flynn, the retired three-star general who until recently was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the administration has also not reached out to the defected Syrian military officers now living in countries all over the region, who would be perfect for building a skilled, organized rebel fighting force.
"I am aware of a large number of, possibly hundreds of former Syrian military officers that would love to be part of a vetted force to fight ISIS,” he said, using another acronym for Islamic State. "These are former military guys, who are likely to be willing to turn against the Assad regime. Why not reach out to them?”
Flynn said that the vetting and training for the program will take much longer than the administration thinks, especially because the situation on the ground changes constantly.
Top administration officials testified this week that they do not believe the FSA and other moderate rebel groups can ever militarily defeat Assad, and that the plan to fight IS is focused on Iraq first, because America has a more reliable partner there.
Some people who know Syria well think that strategy is flawed. Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the Foreign Policy Initiative Forum last week he sees two major problems: the administration seeks to stop IS in Iraq without a real plan to defeat them in Syria, and the U.S. thinks it can convince the FSA to endorse its plan to “de-escalate” the fight against Assad.
“To be very blunt, it is impossible to contain the Islamic State in even Iraq without also dealing with Syria,” said Ford. “This administration idea that the Free Syrian Army is going to fight the Islamic State without fighting the Assad regime -- I have to tell you, the word ‘fantasy’ gets thrown around a lot on Syria, that is the biggest fantasy.”
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while the administration’s concerns about the FSA's fighting ability are somewhat valid, cutting them off just makes those problems worse. “It weakens the more moderate forces vis-à-vis the jihadists, which is the opposite of what we are trying to do and it also strengthens the Assad regime relatively,” he said.
All of this raises the question: if the White House is so down on the Syrian opposition, why did it ask for the secret financing in the budget bill? There are a couple of potential explanations: it intended to use the money to support groups in southern Syria, or it decided that if it wanted to turn the spigot back on in the north, this was the last chance to get Congress to set the funding aside.
Either way, it's evidence of a confused and conflicting Syria policy. The Obama administration seems to be betting on the idea that tamping down the violence in Syria can lead to a new negotiation with the Assad regime, but there’s scant evidence that Assad, much less Islamic State, are on board with that plan. If the FSA loses its last strongholds in Aleppo because of a lack of international support, the administration’s fear that it has no reliable partner in Syria could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.