“Nobody believes in it. You’re like, ‘Fuck this,’” a former Green Beret says of America’s covert and clandestine programs to train and arm Syrian militias. “Everyone on the ground knows they are jihadis. No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”
“I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans,” the Green Beret added. A second Special Forces soldier commented that one Syrian militia they had trained recently crossed the border from Jordan on what had been pitched as a large-scale shaping operation that would change the course of the war. Watching the battle on a monitor while a drone flew overhead, “We literally watched them, with 30 guys in their force, run away from three or four ISIS guys.”
Another militia commander came back to Jordan to be debriefed by CIA case officers stationed at Damascus X, the exiled CIA station now located in Amman, Jordan, since departing Syria’s capital after the civil war began. The Syrian proxy broke down saying that he might as well join ISIS—something the case officer had to talk him out of.
But perhaps this was a step in the right direction from a the recent past, when the commander of the now-defunct Syrian Revolutionary Front came in for a debriefing, telling his CIA handler that a helicopter was shot down and destroyed some of his equipment but he also claimed that he had an expensive suit onboard the aircraft that the CIA also needed to replace.
While the press has reported extensively on the over 100 armed groups within Syria vying for control, and the occasional report comes out about U.S. special operations troops in Syria and wasteful spending on covert action programs, the wider story about the U.S. Special Forces arming Syrian anti-ISIS forces while the CIA conducts a parallel program to arm anti-Assad regime forces has yet to be told—until now. It is a story of fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as bureaucratic infighting and a disgusting excess, which has only contributed to perpetuating the Syrian conflict.
The CIA underestimates the threat
After the 2009 withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraq, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center’s presence also became a pale shadow of what it had once been during the heyday of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the height of the war, the CIA could deploy targeting officers to Iraq and assign them regionally, so a targeting officer would work Mosul and focus on the leadership elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which later became ISIS), but several years after the withdrawal, the CIA was unable to tap into U.S. special operations units as a force multiplier.
In 2011 and 2012, Delta Force would deploy a single operator to Iraq as a counterterrorism liaison, but the CIA’s chief of station (CoS) in Baghdad made it clear that Delta was not welcome in Iraq. However, U.S. Army Special Forces were able to deploy by working for the State Department and training Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). In the years leading up to the rise of ISIS, the commander’s in-extremis force, a specialized counterterrorist element in each Special Forces group, would deploy in small numbers in an advisory capacity. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Iraq (CTC/I) was mostly focused on combating Shia militias.
CTC/I become CTC/SI, recognizing the transnational threat of ISIS, which now sprawled across two countries. Although some believed that CTC/SI had to switch its focus to targeting mid-level Baath party leaders within ISIS who guided the group on strategy, tactics, and propaganda, the leadership of CTC/SI and the newly formed Syrian Task Force consisted of only 10 targeting officers who were constantly forced to shift gears as the agency’s senior leadership would have them focus on ISIS, al-Nusra, the Khorosan Group, Shia militias, and Ahrar al-Sham.
Targeting the Khorosan Group was one of the CIA’s early successes in the Syrian Civil War. Tracking signals intelligence (SIGINT), the CIA was able to positively ID senior al-Qaeda leaders from those who formed the nucleus of Khorosan. Intercepting their cell phone conversations, the CIA targeted the group, eventually wiping them off the face of the earth with airstrikes. However, CTC “didn’t even track ISIS worth a damn,” a CIA officer said.
Amazingly, ISIS remained in the background, regarded by CIA leadership as little more than another insurgent group. The director of CTC, who had once been chief of station in Baghdad, did not care about Iraq one way or the other according to multiple sources in CTC who spoke to SOFREP confidentially. Since this was the party line held by the CTC director, it filtered down through the lower ranks in the CIA. The Syria Task Force was focused on Khorosan and Nusra, while Baghdad Station continued to focus on Shia militias and local car bombings. In Erbil, the CIA’s chief of base told a member of the Syria Task Force, “I don’t know why they keep sending you guys [targeting officers]. Nobody gives a shit about counterterrorism in Iraq.”
Lingering in the background was ISIS, a force of 500 to 1,000 fighters that no one took seriously. All of that changed in 2014, when ISIS spilled across the border from Syria, massacred the Yazidi ethnic minority in Sinjar—turning hundreds of girls and women into sex slaves—before moving on and capturing the major city of Mosul in northern Iraq. For a moment, it looked like ISIS was going to overrun Erbil before taking on Baghdad. Then, Jihadi John started executing hostages.
British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed Jihadi John, appeared in a series of publicly released execution videos. Delta Force launched an attempted hostage rescue mission with Jordanian counterparts to rescue two journalists being held by ISIS, John Sotloff and James Foley. Despite the sizable firefight they engaged in while on target in Syria, the two American journalists had been moved elsewhere.
That August, Jihadi John, wearing his black balaclava, forced Foley to read an anti-American statement, then beheaded him with a knife and threatened to do the same to Sotloff if the United States did not cease its intervention in Iraq. In September, another video emerged in which Jihadi John beheaded Sotloff. The brutal murders of two captured American journalists shocked the world, particularly the horrified American public. ISIS was now on the front pages of major newspapers, drawing the attention of policymakers and a public demanding that something be done.
ISIS was now on the CIA’s radar. CTC targeted the organization, but not often enough to have any tangible effect on the battlespace. Toward the end of 2014, the CIA had less than 20 targeting officers and analysts dedicated to fighting ISIS. As of early 2016, the situation had improved little. According to several sources, the CIA simply does not care about ISIS. Using an excuse that ISIS is an army rather than a terrorist organization, they have punted the job to Army special operations—the men of Special Forces and Delta Force.
In Syria, the overwhelming priority for the CIA is what some CTC officers call Director John Brennan’s baby: the removal of the Assad regime.
This is the part of a much longer article that can be read in full on SOFREP.com.