September 4, 2013
In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.
The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.
U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery "pipelines" to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime.
Allied rebel commanders in Syria and congressional proponents of a more aggressive military response instead blame a White House that wants to be seen as responsive to allies' needs but fundamentally doesn't want to get pulled any deeper into the country's grinding conflict.
The administration's view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: "The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it," a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.
The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn't want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn't want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.
Squaring those positions will be one focus of congressional hearings on the proposed strikes starting Tuesday, administration and congressional officials said. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are among those slated to testify.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it was "shameful" that promised U.S. arms haven't materialized, given recent shipments of advanced weapons from Russia and Iran in support of Mr. Assad.
After meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham, another leading Republican critic of the administration's approach to the conflict, said they believed the administration was formulating a plan to "upgrade" the capabilities of moderate rebels, but they offered no details.
Sen. McCain also held out the prospect that Mr. Obama would consider widening the targets for strikes to degrade Mr. Assad's ability to carry out chemical weapon and conventional attacks.
Growing frustration with the slow pace of the CIA arming and training program has prompted calls from lawmakers and some Arab leaders to shift the effort to the Pentagon, said congressional officials who favor the move. White House and Pentagon officials had no immediate comment.
Putting the Pentagon in charge would allow the U.S. to do "industrial strength" arming and training, Sen. Bob Corker, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Monday.
Some lawmakers accused the White House of failing to deliver on its promises because of concerns it would get blamed if the effort went wrong and for fear of getting trapped in a proxy fight that pits Mr. Assad and his backers—Iran, Russia and Hezbollah—against an array of opposition groups, some linked to al Qaeda and others supported by the U.S. and some Arab allies.
"There's been a major disconnect between what the administration has said it's doing relative to the rebels and what is actually happening," said Sen. Corker, who recently visited rebel leaders in Turkey. "The (CIA) pipeline has been incredibly slow. It's really hurt morale among the Syrian rebels."
Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support.
"The game is clear to all," said Qassem Saededdine, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council. "When it comes to the interests of superpowers…the average Syrian comes last."
Some congressional officials said they were concerned the administration was edging closer to an approach privately advocated by Israel. Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria's future.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
When the CIA arms program was revealed in June, it was described by U.S. officials as a change in Mr. Obama's approach to the conflict and the beginning of a process to build up the armed opposition against Mr. Assad.
It took nearly a year for the idea to gain traction in a skeptical White House, which last summer authorized the CIA to join Saudi Arabia and other allies to train handpicked rebels at a secret base in Jordan. At the time, Mr. Obama balked at providing arms. Nonlethal U.S. military support, such as medical kits and night-vision goggles, started arriving in small quantities this spring.
Congressional committees that oversee the CIA and its budget initially raised questions about the covert arms program, officials said, delaying startup funding.
The CIA also appeared conflicted about the effort's utility. Congressional officials said CIA leaders in briefings indicated they believed that U.S. arms would only have a limited impact on the fight in a country awash in weapons. They also told Congress the U.S. was investing little compared with Iran and Hezbollah, which the U.S. believes will do whatever it takes in Syria to prevail.
But CIA officials told lawmakers providing arms would help the agency build relationships with rebel forces and give it greater leverage with such allies as Saudi Arabia, which provide the bulk of arms and money.
"When we have more skin in the game, it just puts us in a position to have deeper relationships with the opposition but also work more effectively with other countries who are doing a lot in terms of support," a senior administration official said.
A former senior administration official involved in the effort was more dismissive, describing the CIA program as "designed to buy time without getting the U.S. deeply involved in the civil war."
—Carol E. Lee, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.