Washington Post: U.S. weighs expanded CIA training, arming of Syrian allies struggling against Assad

Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post report on the ongoing conflict in Syria:

The Obama administration has been weighing plans to escalate the CIA’s role in arming and training fighters in Syria, a move aimed at accelerating covert U.S. support to moderate rebel factions while the Pentagon is preparing to establish its own training bases, U.S. officials said.

A decision to expand the CIA program would deepen U.S. involvement in Syria, where the United Nations says 200,000 people have been killed during more than three years of civil war. The agency’s mission is a central but secret component of a broader U.S. effort that also involves airstrikes and an influx of U.S. military advisers into Iraq.

The agency’s ability to scale up its operation over the past year has given officials confidence that U.S. teams can recruit and screen larger numbers of fighters without increasing their exposure to security risks including infiltration by al-Qaeda.

Even so, there is little indication that U.S.-trained and armed moderates have had any substantial impact on the direction of the conflict in Syria.

The latest setbacks came this month, when CIA-backed factions were routed by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Syria. Fighters with militias including Harakat Hazm — one of the biggest recipients of U.S. arms — fled positions in towns across northern Syria, with many leaving their weapons to be scooped up by al-Nusra. Rep.

Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the ease with which those groups were overrun exposed problems that will be difficult to offset through remote training, even if it is ramped up.

Scenes of “the moderate opposition either melting away, running away or joining league with al-Nusra is a good indication of the difficulty that we’re going to have,” Schiff said. He would not discuss classified programs but said he has been troubled by other recent developments including the outrage voiced by supposed moderate factions over U.S. airstrikes that hit al-Nusra positions, suggesting that U.S.-backed militias see the al-Qaeda affiliate as an ally against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and not as an adversary.

The CIA declined to comment on any aspect of its role in Syria.

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By:  Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung
Source: Washington Post