If Ending DOD’s Train and Assist Program Is about Returning to Covert Status, Will Congress Get Details?

When Mike Lee, Joe Manchin, Chris Murphy, and Tom Udall wrote the Administration calling for an end to the Syria Train and Equip Program last week, they addressed it to CIA Director John Brennan, along with Defense Secretary Ash Carter (its primary addressee, given the clear reference to details about DOD’s T&E mission) and Secretary of State John Kerry.

It appears the Senators got the result they desired. As a number of outlets are reporting, Carter has decided to end DOD’s T&E program, which has done little except arm al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. But it’s not that we’re going to end our involvement in Syria. The stories provide different descriptions of what we intend to continue doing. The NYT, which pretended not to know about the CIA covert program, described a shift of training to Turkey, while discussing armed Sunnis in eastern Syria.

A senior Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that there would no longer be any more recruiting of so-called moderate Syrian rebels to go through training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a much smaller training center would be set up in Turkey, where a small group of “enablers” — mostly leaders of opposition groups — would be taught operational maneuvers like how to call in airstrikes.

[snip]

The official said the training was “to be suspended, with the option to restart if conditions dictate, opportunities arise.” The official also said that support to Sunni Arab fighters in eastern Syria was an example of focusing on groups already fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “rather than using training to try to manufacture new brigades.”

The LAT to its credit did acknowledge the parallel CIA program in a piece vaguely describing our “new” approach of working with a wide range of groups on the Turkish border.

Under the new approach, the administration will continue to work with a range of groups to capitalize on the successes that Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen groups have had over the last several months driving the Islamic State forces out of much of the Turkey-Syria border region.‎

[snip]

The decision to end the Pentagon training program does not appear to immediately affect a separate program run by the CIA.

While Ash Carter’s public remarks associated with this discussion make it clear Russia’s actions in the same region remain a concern, the reporting I’ve seen thus far hasn’t tied the decision to end the DOD program to the need to respond to Russia in any way.

Which raises the question: is this just an attempt to shift our existing T&E efforts entirely under a covert structure again? There are many reasons why you’d want to do that, not least because it would make it a lot easier to hide that not only aren’t your “rebels” “moderate,” but they’re al Qaeda affiliates (as David Petraeus and others were floating we should do). Given Qatari and Saudi efforts to flood more weapons into Syria in response to Russia’s involvement, you’d think the US would want to play along too.

But especially since Tom Udall is the guy who — a year ago — raised the crazy notion that Congress should know some details about the (at that point) two year long effort by CIA to support “moderate” forces …

Everybody’s well aware there’s been a covert operation, operating in the region to train forces, moderate forces, to go into Syria and to be out there, that we’ve been doing this the last two years. And probably the most true measure of the effectiveness of moderate forces would be, what has been the effectiveness over that last two years of this covert operation, of training 2,000 to 3,000 of these moderates? Are they a growing force? Have they gained ground? How effective are they? What can you tell us about this effort that’s gone on, and has it been a part of the success that you see that you’re presenting this new plan on?

… I wonder whether Congress has ever gotten fully briefed on that program — and whether they would going forward.

After all, none of the men who signed this letter would be privy to how a covert effort to train rebels was going under normal guidelines unless Udall or Murphy were getting details on the Appropriations Committee.

So while it may be — and I think it likely this is — just an effort to make it easier to partner with al Qaeda to defeat Bashar al-Assad and Putin (teaming with al Qaeda to fight Russia! just like old times!) — I also wonder whether this is an effort to avoid telling most of Congress just how problematic (even if effective from an anti-Assad perspective) both the DOD and CIA effort are.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. wayoutwest says:

    Nice report on a program that actually ended before it started, it was mostly a PR campaign to answer the detractors who correctly claimed that the bombing campaign against the IS would only be effective if there were ground troops to take the fight to the IS controlled areas or as a defense as we saw in Kobani. There never were many rebels who would give up their commitment to remove Assad to become US lackeys and exclusively battle the powerful Islamic State but the training and weapons were welcomed by the Turkmen forces. The minimal training and major arming of vetted rebel factions will probably continue but these groups are and were always dedicated to the revolution and removal of Assad, first and foremost and it has never really been covert just not advertised.

    Al- Nusra is an AQ affiliate because they swear allegiance to their leaders, no matter how hard some people try to break that allegiance so they could receive Western assistance. The other rebel groups who have battlefield alliances with al-Nusra show no such allegiance to AQ especially the FSA.

    I have to admire the Sisyphean task many people have dedicated themselves to, to prove that the US is, was or will eventually be the backer of al-Nusra/al-Qaeda/ the Islamic State when there is and never has been any verifiable evidence of that myth. Herr Goebbels would be proud that his propaganda maxim, tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it and eventually people will begin to believe it, is in widespread use today and not just by governments.

    • bevin says:

      You refer to the rebels as if they had never heard of the US until the campaign against ISIS began. Putting aside Sysyphus and Goebbels for a moment are you seriously suggesting that the anti Assad armed militias were sponsored neither by the US or its Gulf allies?

      The Gulf regimes have been very frank from the first: they have armed recruited and paid for the anti Assad militias. They sought regime change in Syria. And so did the United States.

      What is the US interest in this?
      Why don’t you explain but please don’t tell us that Washington and its Gulf allies-every one of which is a tyranny of the sort that ISIS dreams of becoming- are against Assad because he isn’t sufficiently democratic.
      We wouldn’t want poor old Sysyphus, and international public opinion, to bust a gut laughing.

      • wayoutwest says:

        There are over 50 armed rebel groups besides al-Nusra and the Islamic State active in Syria and the US/Gulf allies have been sponsoring many of these groups from early in the conflict and will probably continue to do so, as I stated above. Unlike in Amerika where money seems to buy many peoples heart and soul the rebels appear to welcome aid from anyone but will pursue their own agendas when their goals differ from their sponsors, as we have seen with the FSA and other vetted groups allying with al-Nusra.

        The Islamic State views all of the Gulf Monarchies and so called secular states such as Assad’s Syria as apostates and reviles them for their adoption of Western values, economies and political structures, they are nothing like them and that is why they are so feared by many people in the West and many westernized people in the ME.

      • Les says:

        It sounds like they go back to 2012-2013 when the press openly reported Saudi and Qatari support for the Syrian rebels and pretended the US was waiting for the red line to be crossed. Thanks to NBC’s Brian Williams who blurted out the US had been arming the rebels for 2 years before Congress defeated the first $500 million arms for terrorists bill, we know the covert support began in 2011 or earlier.

  2. bloopie2 says:

    Slate has a little article titled “The Middle East in 2015 Is a Lot Like Europe in 1914”. It notes that although many of the parallels are far from precise, the multitude of players and agendas and weapons has created a possibility for someone to do something that will of necessity drag in bigger players and/or more forces, and pit everyone against … who knows? Interesting, typically scary, read.
    .
    On another note, if the goal of fighting ISIS is to save American lives, we would do well to note the Federal Railroad Administration’s report today that lays blame for a February, 2015 oil train derailment (fortunately with no loss of life, unlike many others) on … a broken rail. A rail that had been tested and found faulty — twice — in the previous months, and no one did anything about it. Of course, there are only about 150,000 miles of railroad track in the US, so the odds of this happening again and causing a loss of life are … . Priorities, anyone?

  3. bloopie2 says:

    Honestly, read this and then tell me why on Earth anyone sane would allow their children to go to college in Texas (from the Washington Post).
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    Texas Southern University in Houston is on lockdown after a fatal shooting at an apartment complex near the campus.
    .
    Eva Pickens, a spokesperson for the university, sent a written statement:
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    “Texas Southern University has announced the campus is on lockdown following a shooting incident just moments ago. Early reports indicate two shot – conditions not known right now. The assailant is still at large. All staff are asked to remain in offices – students to remain in classrooms until further notice.”
    .
    John Cannon, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department, said officers responded to calls about a shooting at 11:30 a.m. Friday. One person was fatally shot and another wounded, he said.
    .
    The university shooting, following a deadly shooting at Northern Arizona University early Friday morning, came on the same day that President Obama was visiting Umpqua Community College where nine people were fatally shot in a classroom last week.
    .
    It was not the first violence at Texas Southern this week.
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    The historically black university, which has nearly 10,000 students, on its Web site had reported an incident Thursday at the same facility:
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    Texas Southern University Police Department is investigating reports of a shooting that occurred at around midnight Thursday in the vicinity of the University Courtyard apartments.
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    The recent shooting incidents on our campus have been extremely difficult and troubling for our entire university community. In the wake of these incidents, our campus security and police department is increasing its presence and will continue to work closely with the Houston Police Department, Harris County Sherriff’s Office and the Precinct 7 Constables Office. We’ve always had these relationships – but we realize that it will require a total effort from everyone to keep our students safe.
    .
    One person was shot on campus Tuesday night after an argument following a museum event, according to the Houston Chronicle. And on September 26, the paper reported, a TSU sophomore fired into a crowd at a student apartment complex, sending two people to the hospital.
    .

  4. jo6pac says:

    This a sad turn of events did they even consider all the Amerika cia contractors that will thrown out of a job?

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