Rogers in The Wall Street Journal: Covert CIA Mission to Arm Syrian Rebels Goes Awry

January 26, 2015

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan who led the House Intelligence Committee, says the trickling pipeline of supplies drove some U.S. allies into the arms of Islamists. “We didn’t commit to them, so why should we expect them to commit to us?” he asks.

The Wall Street Journal: Covert CIA Mission to Arm Syrian Rebels Goes Awry

Plagued By Red Tape and Skimpy Supplies, U.S. Shifts Program’s Focus

Adam Entous

Jan. 26, 2015

HATAY, Turkey—It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.

After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.

All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clinging to power after more than 200,000 deaths blamed on the war. Moderate fighters control only a fraction of northern Syria, while Islamic State and al Qaeda’s official affiliate, the Nusra Front, have gained ground. Last fall, Nusra overran one trusted commander and seized another’s equipment.

Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.

“We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,” a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting after Nusra’s advances.

The CIA recently stopped offering help to all but a few trusted commanders in Syria. Much of the U.S.’s focus is shifting to southern Syria, where rebels seem more unified but say they get just 5% to 20% of the arms requested from the CIA.

Some Obama administration officials say the covert effort accomplished about as much as it could considering the chaotic circumstances in northern Syria and policy disagreements in Washington and elsewhere.

While the initial goal was to help moderate rebels fight the Assad regime, officials at the White House and CIA didn’t anticipate the rapid rise of Islamic State, which has upended rebel alliances and become the U.S.’s top priority in Syria.

Officials defend the decision to keep the arms pipeline small and tightly controlled, citing concerns that weapons could fall into the wrong hands. “This was consistent with the administration’s legal responsibilities and strongly held views in Congress,” a senior administration official says. Despite the controls, some weapons still wound up on the wrong side.

Critics say the failings might make it harder to win future support from moderate rebels. Pentagon officials are establishing a new program in Syria, and the general in charge of the effort has told lawmakers that he wants to establish more consistent supply lines and provide air support to approved fighters.

But the new mission also calls for building a rebel force to fight Islamic State, not the Assad regime, which will make it tougher for the Pentagon to attract rebel commanders to the program, some U.S. officials say.

“I think we’ve lost our window of opportunity,” says Robert Ford, the State Department’s ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014.

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan who led the House Intelligence Committee, says the trickling pipeline of supplies drove some U.S. allies into the arms of Islamists. “We didn’t commit to them, so why should we expect them to commit to us?” he asks.

Rep. Eliot Engel, (D., N.Y.) the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, adds: “We need to get them the materials they need to sustain themselves. It’s the right thing to do.”

This account of the CIA’s program is based on interviews with U.S., Turkish and Arab officials involved in the effort, as well as current and former trusted commanders. CIA officials have trained nearly 5,000 fighters in Syria, but the financial cost is classified and few details have been disclosed publicly.

The CIA program had a rocky start. President Barack Obama balked at the idea in 2012. Officials say he was concerned about a slippery slope that could lead the U.S. into another war. A CIA analysis delivered to the White House predicted the program would make little difference.

Mr. Obama gave the go-ahead in 2013 to proceed on a limited basis, partly in response to prodding from key Arab allies, former U.S. officials say.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers shared the administration’s ambivalence, with some warning they would hold the CIA responsible if guns fell into the wrong hands, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official. The warnings deepened the agency’s cautious approach.

In northern Syria, the U.S. and its allies created a joint operations center, or Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi in Turkish, to oversee the program. Rebel commanders met with CIA officers at hotels in southern Turkey.

Once the CIA assessed the commanders, they were asked to sign agreements committing their units to using supplies against the Assad regime and maintaining certain accounting standards.

The U.S. intelligence officer who ran the joint operations center, called MOM for short, impressed commanders with his classical Arabic. Once, he singled out a rebel commander who failed to execute a promised mission, asking him to apologize in front of other commanders. The commander was then kicked out of the meeting.

Because U.S. officials concluded that the moderate opposition Free Syrian Army wasn’t able to safeguard U.S. supplies in Syria, the CIA decided to deliver weapons directly to the trusted commanders. Some military officials warned that the CIA risked creating warlords and undermining cohesion in the ranks of local fighters, but the CIA saw no credible alternative.

At meetings, the MOM heard requests for ammunition and then deliberated, often for as long as two weeks. The panel included the CIA and intelligence services from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

According to rebel commanders, by the time many requests were approved, the proposed operation was no longer feasible. If they were told no, they usually weren’t told why.

When some commanders asked for ammo last spring to expand an offensive against the Assad regime that seemed to be going their way, they were rejected with no explanation.

“Why did you give us hope if you were not going to do anything about it?” complains one trusted commander. His frustrated fighters quit the CIA program to join a new alliance with Islamist brigades.

At the end of each month, the commanders submitted payroll information, picking up money a few days later for salaries and administrative expenses. MOM payments were made in cash with $100 bills that commanders said were so new they were hard to count. One rebel commander says the cash his group got fit neatly into a small carry-on bag.

Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.

One trusted commander got fewer than three dozen rifles after asking for more than 1,000. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia funneled supplies under the table to their favorite commanders, according to U.S. officials and other rebel commanders.

The high point for the trusted commanders came when the CIA decided to supply them with a small number of American antitank TOW missiles to attack the Assad regime’s tanks.

The CIA limited who got TOWs and how many. To get new ones, commanders had to hand over spent missile launchers at a designated border crossing with Turkey.

Trusted commanders also were instructed to film their use of the TOWs in battle so the CIA could monitor them and offer pointers on how to use the missiles more effectively. Commanders got permission later to post some of the videos online as propaganda.

The best TOW missile operators often got paid two to three times as much as regular fighters, commanders say. Bidding wars sometimes broke out between different trusted commanders for the best operators because the CIA gave more missiles to groups using them most successfully.

In other ways, the decision-making process befuddled, disappointed and angered rebel commanders. Last year, Hazzm expanded its arsenal of tanks to three dozen by capturing them from the Assad regime, but couldn’t convince the MOM to provide cash for shells or fuel.

“So they sat,” a Hazzm leader told U.S. lawmakers. A senior U.S. official says complaints about late deliveries and inadequate supplies are common with any large-scale operation.

“If it’s not worth it to them, I guess they could decide not to pick up the stuff,” the U.S. official says. “But that’s never happened.”

Tensions deepened as Islamic State gained strength last year and some trusted commanders began pressing for arms to go after Nusra. U.S. officials said no because they thought fighting Nusra would drain the program’s resources. The Obama administration also was debating whether to expand the CIA effort beyond the Assad regime.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration also was conflicted about Nusra. Aid groups told the State Department that Nusra didn’t interfere with their humanitarian deliveries, while elements of the Free Syrian Army, which included trusted commanders, sometimes did.

Nusra gained money, power and recruits after the U.S. launched airstrikes in September in Syria against Islamic State. In the first wave of strikes, the U.S. also bombed the Khorasan terrorist cell, linked to Nusra. That gave Nusra an opportunity to paint itself as a U.S. target.

Trusted commanders weren’t consulted before the airstrikes, felt betrayed and looked weak for being associated with a U.S. offensive that wasn’t targeting the Assad regime.

After the airstrikes started, Nusra leaders turned against the Syria Revolutionaries Front, or SRF, which got some aid through the covert effort but wasn’t fully trusted by U.S. officials. Leaders of the group and Hazzm had tried unsuccessfully to get weapons from the CIA to go after Nusra.

“Al Qaeda moves faster than the MOM,” a top SRF official says.

The Mountain Hawks group, which also got help from the MOM, decided not to take sides and deployed its forces defensively to keep its U.S.-supplied weapons out of Nusra’s hands, says leader Hasan al-Khalil.

The Fursan al-Haq Brigade made a similar calculation. “If we fight Nusra, then the public will hate us,” a top Fursan leader said.

When Nusra forces surrounded Hazzm’s headquarters at a town in Idlib province called Khan Assubul, some fighters let Nusra pass, rather than fight. Other trusted commanders watched. Some units joined with Nusra.

In a speech at the schoolhouse used as Hazzm’s headquarters, the rebel group’s local commander, Abu Abdullah al Khouli, told his remaining fighters to pack up their things. He had long questioned Hazzm’s participation in the CIA program, claiming the costs outweighed the benefits.

“Leave now,” he told his men, according to an opposition activist who was there. Mr. Khouli told them to pretend to be members of Islamic Front, a brigade aligned with Nusra in some areas, if stopped at a checkpoint.

Hazzm officials say Mr. Khouli was taken prisoner later. They don’t know if he is still alive.

Nusra and its allies took military equipment, included some provided by the CIA, from the captured headquarters. Nusra also seized four or five Syrian tanks. While Hazzm still is in the CIA program, the amount of help it gets has shrunk.

In recent weeks, the Mujahedeen Army, which joined the MOM last summer and sent 50 fighters to Qatar for CIA-backed training, walked away from its partnership for an alliance with Islamic Front.

U.S. officials say the trusted commanders were supposed to be on the same team, but it turned out that “everybody was out for themselves,” according to one senior U.S. official.

Mr. Ford, the former Syria ambassador, asked a Hazzm leader at a recent meeting in Washington why the rebel group had joined the U.S. program.

“We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns,” the Hazzm leader said, according to people at the meeting. “It was a losing bet.”

Write to Adam Entous at adam.entous@wsj.com