16.08.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

CIA’s Biggest Covert Operations Program Meets an Even Bigger Failure

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That’s how “spreading democracy” looks like these days.

The CIA’s one of the costliest covert action programs ever, worth US$ 1 billion, has officially come to an end. According to the decision, the CIA will no longer be providing funding to the “Syrian rebels.” The mainstream Western media has, as could be expected of it, not left any stone unturned in projecting this decision as an explicit example of the Trump administration’s ‘policy of appeasement’ vis-à-vis Russia. Such projections, based as these are on the murky projections about Russia’s covert alliance with Donald Trump and its propagated involvement in the US presidential elections, are being used to reinforce the prevailing anti-Russia mindset in the West. The irony is that such projections neither take into account the alternative of canceling the program nor try to seek deeper explanations for why it has failed to achieve its objectives. As such, by linking the end of this program to an unreal policy of appeasement, the media projections are indirectly favouring a continuation of the war in Syria, at least until this program’s cardinal objective i.e., Assad’s removal from power, is achieved. Such projections are, as such, equally hiding a fundamental truth about the reason for ending this program: America’s inability to win wars through covert operations.

What, as such, the end of this program has demonstrated is America’s limited capacity to pursue its foreign policy objectives using both direct and indirect military means to change the battel field dynamics decisively to the US advantage. The ambitious program to topple Assad did look successful in 2015 when the “Syrian rebels”, using tank-destroying missiles, supplied by the CIA and also Saudi Arabia, routed government forces in northern Syria. Their multiple successes could have very well led to the end of Assad regime if the Syrian government had not formally invited the Russian government to start its own military campaign against jihadist and non-Jihadist forces.

Thanks to Russia’s military campaign, the CIA funded ‘fight for freedom’ has been defeated root and branch. Therefore, far from being the Trump administration’s attempt to ‘appease’ Russia, the end of the program is an acknowledgement of a US failure. If the US had been trying to simply ‘appease’ Russia, it could have simply developed more covert ways of allowing Russia to capture more space in Syria than ending this program. Also, by doing so the Trump administration could have pre-empted critics of the Trump administration to level serious charges of acquiescing in to Russia.

Even within the US military establishment’s assessment, which is known for its anti-Russia mindset, the decision to end the program was due to the project’s inability to allow the US to achieve its projects. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, the commander of United States Special Operations Command, said during a conference last month that ending the C.I.A. program was a “tough, tough decision.” “At least from what I know about that program and the decision to end it, it was absolutely not a sop to the Russians,” he said. “It was, I think, based on an assessment of the nature of the program, what we’re trying to accomplish, the viability of it going forward”, he added further.

A related reason that the General seemed to have failed to mention was the CIA’s inability to control the situation on the ground. This is particularly so with regard to frequency with which the CIA supplied weapons fell into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate and globally designated terror groups such as Al-Nusra Front. Even the fact of these groups’ designation is dubious enough. This is so because Al-Nusra, once a US ally and despite being a designated terror group, has refrained from directly attacking the US. Despite being a ‘terror group’, the group, from the very beginning, had been fighting Assad, thus becoming a ‘natural’ US ally.

According to a report published in New York Times earlier this month, two factors contributed to the falling of the CIA supplied weapons in the hands of the jihadists. First is that Jordanian intelligence allegedly sold the CIA supplied weapons in the black market, and second is that a number of US trained “rebels” went on to join, after suffering battlefield setbacks at the hands of Russian military campaign, groups like A-l-Nusra. While the two factors cannot be denied, what does not add up is how come a US designated terror group, having CIA supplied weapons in its hands, never attack the US directly or even indirectly? The US, for obvious reasons, could not have publicly supplied weapons to these groups because of the tag of terror these groups were carrying. But there was equally nothing in place to prevent US allies such as Saudi Arabia to transfer American weapons to the Jihadi groups operating in Syria. It is therefore quite possible that weapons might have been just allowed to slip into the hands of Al-Nusra and other groups.

Therefore, the argument that by closing this program the US and the CIA are falling into a ‘Russian trap’ is akin to turning a blind eye to the reasons that have led to the program’s massive failure in removing Assad from power and opening up Syria for further Western imperialist incursions. It was again the threat that these CIA funded “rebels” and their offshoot jihadi groups posing to the people of Syria and the country’s territorial integrity that led Syria to call for external help. It is therefore wrong both factually and politically to put the blame for failure on Russia and call the decision to end the covert operation as appeasement to Russia.

Therefore, if the Americans really want to stem the tide of events going against them around the globe (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan), they must look inside American policy making circles to find out reasons for failure than look for scapegoats to cover up their mess.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.