realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
Since 2013, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has operated its own covert rebel training program inside Syria, during which time it has trained and armed approximately 10,000 insurgents to fight alongside so-called moderate forces in the country.
The shadowy CIA program came under fire earlier this year, as U.S. lawmakers concerned about the costs and the anti-Assad focus of the program pushed to slash funding for the campaign by as much as 20 percent. But after two years of training and preparation, the CIA's efforts appear to be yielding fruit. Liz Sly of the Washington Post has the report:
"The U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles were delivered under a two-year-old covert program coordinated between the United States and its allies to help vetted Free Syrian Army groups in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad. Now that Russia has entered the war in support of Assad, they are taking on a greater significance than was originally intended.
"So successful have they been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer,' a play on the word Assad, which means lion. And in recent days they have been used with great success to slow the Russian-backed offensive aimed at recapturing ground from the rebels."
The anti-tank TOW missiles have developed into a game-changer of sorts in Syria's sectarian civil war, with images of the so-called lion tamers taking on Russian-made tanks flooding YouTube and social media in recent weeks.
You read that correctly: U.S.-made anti-tank missiles -- provided to Syrian insurgents through a billion dollar CIA program -- are now being used against Russian weaponry operated by soldiers loyal to a Russian client government in Damascus.
The addition of Russian air and ground power has only increased the war's Cold War feel, and U.S. officials are now concerned that their own Syrian trainees are being deliberately targeted by Russian airstrikes.
"[M]y conclusion is that the timing of [Russia's] intervention was driven by Assad really going critical," U.S. Rep. Jim Himes told the Associated Press.
The Pentagon, after scaling back its own rebel training efforts, has also launched an "equip and enable" program geared toward arming and supplying select Arab units and commanders on the ground. Dubbed the "Syrian Arab Coalition," these rebels will reportedly fight alongside Kurdish forces in an effort to apply pressure to the de facto capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa.
The United States will have to tread carefully in any effort to arm or empower Syria's Kurdish minority, so as to ease wary NATO ally Turkey, in addition to skeptical Arab allies in Syria who might view Kurdish advances as an effort to reengineer parts of Syria's ethnic makeup. Indeed, just this week human rights watchdog Amnesty International accused Kurdish YPG forces of demolishing the homes of non-Kurds in northern Syria.
While outside powers are now taking a greater interest in the Syrian conflict, none appear any closer to finding a resolution to the now four-year-long civil war. Gulf states have pledged to increase support for their preferred rebel forces in retaliation for Russian advances in the country, but divisions have begun to emerge among Arab governments over Russia's role in the conflict. Even in Moscow, a debate is brewing over which rebel forces the Kremlin should be working with in order to achieve a political resolution in the country.
But with the stakes higher than ever, each faction is upping the ante, making an arrangement that satisfies all parties as elusive as ever.
"The increased levels of support have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely," reports the New York Times.
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Around the Region
Arm the Kurds? Shifting our attention to Iraq, Kurdish experts Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou argue that the United States must do more to support Iraq's Kurds. Under assault by the Islamic State group and rife with political infighting, the Kurds, insist the authors, need a professionalized army of their own:
"If American policy wants to be truly effective, it should do more than just give a few weapons and limited training. Instead, the United States must help Kurdistan to organize, train and equip a nonpolitical Kurdish army. The United States can do this by greatly increasing its support to the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs' program dedicated to building nonpartisan units. The program requires that new recruits join the nonpolitical units as individuals, not party members. The ministry has managed to raise one nonparty brigade, and needs additional support to increase the number of units.
"An American-assisted Kurdish army could make Kurdistan more stable by depriving politicians of control over military units. And a politically independent army reduces the risk of the K.D.P. and P.U.K. turning their guns against each other again."
But with civilian leadership weak and divided, the creation of a more professionalized and semi-autonomous military may only introduce yet another actor in an already unstable political situation.
Moreover, a stronger Kurdish army in Iraq could accelerate the likelihood of direct confrontation with Baghdad over disputed (and oil-rich) territories occupied by Kurdish peshmerga forces. It could also increase tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and several ethnic and religious minorities that have come under its stewardship in the fallout of the war against ISIS.
Odd man out. Following this weekend's deadly terror attack in Ankara, which left nearly 100 people dead and many more injured, foreign correspondent for The National, Antoun Issa, explains how Russian and American involvement in Syria's civil war has marginalized Turkish policymakers, and left it somewhat powerless along its own borders:
"Turkey first emerged as a major player in the Syrian conflict when anti-regime protests began in 2011, pursuing a vigorous policy of backing mostly religiously conservative rebels to overthrow the Assad regime and empower the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ankara's objectives are slowly blunting as the war draws in direct interventions from the US and Russia.
"The priorities of the major powers have taken precedence, with Washington's main focus on eradicating [ISIS] and Moscow determined to protect its key ally Mr Al Assad and prevent the Syrian state from crumbling further."
The introduction of Russian air power to the Syria campaign has made Turkish hopes of a no-fly zone along its border all the more unlikely, and Turkish leaders can only grin and bear it as Washington moves to strengthen Kurdish forces operating in Syria, explains Issa:
"Mr Erdogan's Syria policy was designed to expand Turkish influence in its southern neighbour.
"Instead, he may be relegated to spectator status as he watches three worst case scenarios unfold: Mr Al Assad retaining interim power; the Kurds obtaining unprecedented power along the Turkey-Syria border; and radical ISIL with no qualms spreading its terror into the heart of Turkey."