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Syria Regime Change - Timber Sycamore

On 19 July 2017 The Washington Post, citing US officials, said that Trump had reportedly made the decision to halt the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) support program for Syrian moderate opposition. President Trump's decision to end the CIA's covert arming of militants in Syria was seen as an admission of defeat - the US had lost its six-year war for regime change in the Arab country. The Washington Post quoted one US official as saying more openly: "It is a momentous decision. Putin won in Syria."

Trump reportedly decided to halt the training in mid-June 2017 after a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, which preceded his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at G20. Private US intelligence firm Soufan Group released a report claiming that the decision by Trump to end the CIA’s arm-and-train program for the moderate Syrian opposition signalled that ousting Syria’s President Bashar Assad was no longer a priority for Washington. "The decision reflects the Trump administration’s stance that the removal of Assad is not a US priority," the Post report read.

Trump's decision did not mean the US and its allies would withdraw ground and air forces from Syria. The US had been funneling weapons into Syria since at least 2013, and probably before that date right back to the beginning of the war in March 2011. Not only the US but its NATO partners, Britain, France and Turkey, as well as regional allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.

US media immediately depicted the move as a "concession to Russia". With the US president already being assailed with endless accusations of "colluding" with Russia in winning the election to the White House, his decision to leash the dogs of war in Syria only lent more grist to the Russophobia rumor mill. The Washington Post headlined the news with: "Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow". Several other US media outlets followed suit, making snide comments that the move "will please the Kremlin" and that Trump was "appeasing Putin" by closing down the CIA covert operations in Syria.

There were mutterings in the US media suggesting that this is what Trump talked about with Putin during their meetings in Hamburg at the G20 summit earlier in July 2017. Especially, during the so-called "secret meeting" in front of 18 other heads of state while at dinner. "The shuttering of the [CIA] program is also an acknowledgment of Washington's limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power," noted the Washington Post.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suggested that the decision may be a concession to Russia. "This [decision] may be a concession to Russia. But it’s unclear whether this decision relates to such groups as Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra [also known as the Army of Revolutionaries, or the Revolutionary Commando Army] in southern Syria that receives US support from Jordan. But this move is unlikely to affect the support for the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] in northern Syria".

Sayigh also suggested that probably the CIA training program includes support for militants in northwest Syria, in Idlib and the western part of Aleppo. "In this region, the program was de facto ended in February. Apparently, the US was concerned over the fact that those opposition fighters had ties to more radical Islamist groups," Sayigh said.

Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung reported June 12, 2015 the CIA operation to train and arm rebels in Syria was one the agency’s largest covert operations, with a budget approaching $1 billion a year. Ben Norton reported in 2016 that "At its peak in 2015, the operation to arm and train Syrian rebels was the CIA's largest covert program, with a budget of nearly $1 billion per year. Documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that $1 of every $15 in the CIA's overall budget went to operations in Syria. This was in addition to the billions of dollars in funding that came from the Western-backed authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey."

In February 2006 opposition groups were quick to condemn the USG's public statement 17 February 2006 announcing the designation of five million USD for support of the Syrian opposition, calling it "nave" and "harmful." The US had already been funding the opposition secretly, without impact. It is against the law for Syrians to accept foreign funding, a legal situation that makes it very easy for the government to construe the acceptance of such funds as "treason, punishable by death." They insisted that the statement had already hurt the opposition, and that the SARG will use it in the coming months to further discredit its opponents as agents of the Americans.

Bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding. The announcement could benefit the Syrian government [SARG], since NGO's with ties (often covert) to the SARG or its security services could be encouraged to apply for the funds. The announcement had already severely damaged the opposition, making all of them look, in the eyes of most Syrians, like agents for the USA.

At an 18 February 2006 meeting of about twenty Damascus Declaration participants, those assembled had decided to publicly denounce the MEPI project because they felt they had to, in order to avoid even more SARG scrutiny. Several figures insisted that the initiative indicated the U.S. did not really care about the opposition, but merely wanted to use it as "a chip in the game." One contact praised the funding but said the amount was paltry compared with what had been set aside for the Iranian opposition.

As early as 2009, the Bureau of Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) funded projects on which Post has varying degrees of visibility. Some programs may be perceived, were they made public, as an attempt to undermine the Asad regime, as opposed to encouraging behavior reform. Through the intermediary operations of the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD) (ref B), a London-based moderate Islamist group, MEPI routed money. The SARG would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change. This would inevitably include the various expatriate reform organizations operating in Europe and the U.S., most of which have little to no effect on civil society or human rights in Syria.

As the Syria policy review moved apace, and with the apparent collapse of the primary Syrian external opposition organization, one thing appeared increasingly clear: U.S. policy may aim less at fostering "regime change" and more toward encouraging "behavior reform." If this assumption holds, then a reassessment of current U.S.-sponsored programming that supports anti-SARG factions, both inside and outside Syria, may prove productive.

American blogger Jeremy R. Hammond argued that the CIA kicked off its clandestine operation back in spring 2012, citing Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reports: "The CIA and State Department had begun stepping up their coordination with the Free Syrian Army in March 2012 in furtherance of the US goal of regime change," Hammond wrote. Meanwhile, in 2014 Washington ramped up its support to the so-called moderate Syrian rebels by providing TOW anti-tank guided missiles to them.

Soon the CIA-led Timber Sycamore operation was complicated by the need to destroy Daesh, prompting the US government to launch an all-out air campaign first in Iraq and then in Syria against the Islamic extremists. Despite having stepped in overtly in Syria, the Obama administration has not halted its clandestine program. There is clear logic behind it, according to the scholars. "With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia's ally in Damascus low-profile makes US-Russian crisis prevention measures easier," they note. "A second risk driving the Obama administration to act covertly in Syria turns on concerns about preserving America's reputation as a superpower that respects and adheres to international norms and principles… The very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient," the academics emphasize.

The crux of the matter is that intervening to topple a sovereign government contradicts the non-intervention principle of the founding charter of the United Nations. "As with all things in life, legitimate exceptions to the non-intervention principle do exist. Military action against a sovereign regime in the name of self-defense, also codified in the UN Charter, is an obvious example. Authorization from the UN Security Council is another. The presence of one or more of these fig leaves might make it possible for the United States to act more openly against Assad while still maintaining a reputation for rule-following," they explain.

Regardless of the fact that the covert program to train and arm the rebels does not work properly when the US weapons end up on the black market, "systematic evidence about the CIA's success in affecting Assad's thinking, influencing the battlefield, and expressing American interests," show that the operation was worth the trouble, the scholars stress.

"By most accounts, America's efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren't going so well… What, then, is the rationale for US policy in Syria? Why has the White House continued to draw on the tool of covert military aid despite its shoddy track record?" Austin Carson of the University of Chicago and Michael Poznansky of the University of Pittsburgh ask in their article for War on the Rocks. According to the scholars, "escalation dynamics" and "unique reputational concerns" lie at the root of the White House's covert operations abroad. The academics explain that the Obama administration's involvement in Syria "comes in two main flavors": the first one is a limited covert operation aimed at toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the second is an overt military campaign to defeat Daesh (ISIS/ISIL). "The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small '50-man cell' of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light," the scholars narrate, adding that the CIA program was codenamed 'Timber Sycamore'.

The US had no ‘Plan B’ for Syria, RIA Novosti quoted a US State Department spokesman as saying 14 April 2015. “We make every effort to ensure the success of the negotiations” between the warring parties in Syria, Jared S. Caplan said, adding that ‘Plan A’ is the only one at the moment, the negotiations under the UN auspices. “We have before us lots of options, but the ‘Plan B’ does not exist, as [President] Obama said,” Caplan said. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing US and Mideast officials that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its regional partners are preparing ‘Plan B’ in Syria. It allegedly includes delivery of anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, but also including a mix of small Sunni-Arab armed groups and some Syriac and Turkmen community defense forces, made significant progress in its June 2016 offensive on Manbij, an important waypoint between the Turkish border and the militants’ de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa.

By June 2016 mainstream rebels in the Free Syrian Army who oppose the government of leader Bashar al-Assad, but shun the SDF, expressed anger at backing the mainly Kurdish forces have received from the United States, complaining they are not receiving the same kind of close-air support or arms resupplies they need to fend off an unfolding Russian-backed Assad regime offensive.

There were reports in late March 2016 that Syrian militants armed by the CIA and the Pentagon had begun to fight each other in the Aleppo region. The Los Angeles Times reported that a CIA-backed militia called the Knights of Righteousness was expelled from the town of Marea by the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Nancy A. Youssef of the Daily Beast wrote in June 2016 that the Pentagon and the CIA have been involved in an embarrassing catfight over Syria. While the Pentagon is focused on defeating Daesh, the CIA is pushing ahead with its effort to topple Bashar al-Assad. The two are funding different groups which regularly clash on the ground. As an apparent result of this infighting, 51 State Department diplomats inked a dissent memo, denouncing the Obama administration for focusing too much on defeating Daesh, and urged the President to attack Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible.

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Page last modified: 07-11-2019 19:07:16 ZULU