When the Washington Post puts five reporters on a story, it must be important, right? Over the course of the last two days, the Post reported on President Trump’s decision to officially kill “an ineffective and largely defunct” covert CIA program to recruit, train and arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria.
We learned about this program three years ago, when it emerged that while the CIA had appropriated around $500 million for this effort, the agency had been able to find only about 60 Syrian fighters deemed “moderate” enough to train and arm. Of these 60, the CIA was able to account for only five at the end of the effort, the rest having melded into various murderous militias—including ISIS—slaughtering each other in Syria. That discovery marked the effective end of the failed program.
Yet the rebels are not happy with Trump’s decision, according to the Post. “We definitely feel betrayed… It feels like we are being abandoned,” said General Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya of the Free Syrian Army, channeling his inner James Comey.
The Post is sympathetic. It struggled to find an explanation for the decision. Many might have thought that you needn’t look far to account for why we’ve stopped pouring money down a rat hole. But there’s something else going on, says the Post. Something that, for the Post, explains everything that happens in Trump’s America: Russia.
The Post’s investigative team found an anonymous “official” to pronounce that “Putin won in Syria.”
True, there’d long been talk of ending the program, but not “for free,” said a former official. “To give [the program] away without getting anything in return would be foolish.” President Trump should have negotiated. “C’mon Vlad, what will you give to end this defunct and ineffective program?”
If you don’t do something for me, I’ll continue to hit myself on the head with this hammer.
“A huge strategic mistake,” said a former Obama official who’d only just a few moments ago more accurately described it as “a nod to reality.” Some of his aides wanted Obama to supply the rebels with serious anti-aircraft weapons, but he demurred, not wanting “to be pulled into a conflict with Russia.” Indeed, a conflict with Russia would not sit well with Obama’s Iranian allies.
It’s complicated, you see. Obama didn’t want the rebels to win. “The Obama policy was, in fact, designed to provoke a battlefield stalemate—which the administration hoped would lead to a negotiated end to the conflict.” This might explain why the CIA trainees were forbidden to fight Assad loyalists, and to limit their fight to ISIS, a prohibition that caused many of them to defect to other militias. And a “negotiated end” contemplates that Assad might be permitted to stay.
So the rebels weren’t permitted to rebel.
Obama was in a bind. On the one hand, Americans were urging him to defeat Assad and put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. On the other, the Iranians were not predisposed to having their man in Damascus taken out. Indeed, that would jeopardize the nuclear deal, and with it Obama’s legacy. Best, then, to pretend to be doing something while doing nothing at all. Except spending our money foolishly.
Someone whose business it is to investigate such matters on the ground told me a couple of years ago that what he saw in Syria was American personnel being moved from one location to another and then back again. “It’s like they’re trying to look like they’re doing something,” he said.
This is how a Potemkin president wages a Potemkin war. You have to be trained in the higher stupidity of liberalism to think that any of this makes sense.
What’s this all about, then? Why does it require input from five reporters, including Heba Habib all the way from Stockholm, and Zakaria Zakaria from Istanbul? And no one from Syria?
In reality, there’s no story. In 2013, the CIA established a covert program to find, train, and arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The program flopped, “fizzled out amid battlefield losses and concerns about extremism within rebel ranks,” but was allowed to linger on the books. It didn’t do anything for us except draw us into an unwinnable Middle East quagmire, with the goal of trying to make a feckless president look like he was doing something.
But if Trump formally ended a stupid and ill-conceived program, it must be a “huge strategic mistake.” And, as always, the Washington Post sees the dark hand of Russia shaping our policies.