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How CIA and Allies Trapped Obama in the Syrian Arms Debacle

Last week a Trump administration official decided to inform the news media that the CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad Syrian forces had been terminated. It was welcome news amid a deepening U.S. military commitment reflecting the intention to remain in the country for years to come. As my recent article [1] in TAC documented, the net result of the program since late 2011 has been to provide arms to al Qaeda terrorists and their jihadist and other extremist allies, which had rapidly come to dominate the military effort against the Assad regime.

The Trump administration’s decision to acknowledge explicitly its decision to end the program invites a more systematic analysis of why and how such a program, which was so clearly undermining a fundamental U.S. national-security interest, could have gotten started and continue for so long. The preliminary version of the program that began in late 2011 is easier to explain than its more direct form two years later, which had continued (at least formally) until now.

[2]One of the keys to understanding its origins is that the program was launched not because of a threat to U.S. security, but because of a perceived opportunity. That is always a danger sign, prompting powerful national-security bureaucrats to begin thinking about a “win” for the United States. (Think Vietnam and Iraq.)  

The opportunity in this case was the rise of opposition protests against the Assad regime in spring 2011 and the belief among national security officials that Assad could not survive. The national-security team saw a shortcut to the goal. Former Obama administration official Derek Chollet recalled in his book The Long Game that Obama’s advisers were all talking about a “managed transition” and urging Obama to publicly demand that Assad step down, according to Chollet. What that meant to Obama’s advisers was bringing pressure from outside, including providing arms to the opposition.

That was wishful thinking not only in regard to the willingness of an Alawite-dominated regime to hand over power to its sectarian foes, but in regard to the assumed Iranian willingness to go along with toppling the regime. Not one of Obama’s advisers had sufficient understanding of regional dynamics to warn the President that Iran would not allow their Syrian ally to be overthrown by an opposition supported by Sunni states and the United States.

But the decisive factor in pushing the administration toward action was the pressure from U.S. Sunni allies in the region—Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—which began in autumn 2011 to press Obama to help build and equip an opposition army. Turkey was the leader in this regard, calling for Washington to agree to provide heavy weaponry—including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles—to the rebel troops that didn’t even exist yet, and even offering to invade Syria to overthrow the regime if the U.S. would guarantee air cover.  

In the ideology of the national security elite—especially its Democratic wing—regional alliances are essential building blocks of what is styled as the U.S.-sponsored global “rules-based order.” In practice, however, they have served as instruments for the advancement of the power and prestige of the national security bureaucracies themselves. The payoffs of U.S. alliances in the Middle East have centered on the military bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that allow the Pentagon and the military brass to plan and execute military operations that guarantee extraordinary levels of military spending. But enormous Saudi arms purchases and the financing of any covert operations the CIA doesn’t wish to acknowledge to Congress have long been prime benefits for those powerful organizations and their senior officials.

Then CIA Director David Petraeus was particularly interested in ginning up a covert operation to arm and train the Syrian opposition. With the security bureaucracies supporting the allies’ desire to unseat Assad, Hillary Clinton, whose sympathies and political strategy always lay with the war, eagerly took the lead to take the lead in the administration on arming the rebels and calling for a “no fly zone,” which the Turks badly wanted.  


Despite this set of interrelated factors pulling the administration toward a policy of regime change, Obama said no to heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and an official U.S. role in arms supply. What he did agree to, however, was a covert CIA operation designed by Petraeus to load weapons from Libyan government stocks in Benghazi on ships and arrange for them to be shipped to the war zone. It was Obama’s way of placating all of the actors pushing for an aggressive policy of regime change in Syria without being publicly committed to regime change.  

That program, which began in October 2011, was halted abruptly by the attack on the embassy annex in September 2012. But by that time the Obama administration already knew that the weapons were falling into the hands of al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise al Nusra Front, as administration official revealed to the New York Times. Meanwhile the Saudis, Turks and Qataris were pushing arms to groups with military arrangements with al Qaeda’s al Nusra Front at a feverish pace, and the Saudis had begun making deals in Eastern Europe for the heavy weapons, clearly intending to equip a large conventional army.

The danger signals of a policy gone horribly wrong could hardly have been clearer. But at that moment in the summer and fall of 2012, Clinton and Petraeus began a new push for the CIA taking on the role of arming its own hand-picked “moderate” groups. Clinton argued in a White House meeting that the United States needed to have “skin in the game” in order to persuade its Sunni allies to steer weapons away from the terrorists.  

But Obama fended off that proposal, citing the blowback from the U.S. Afghanistan adventure.  While the debate continued in late 2012 and early 2013, the CIA did a series of studies—evidently ordered by the White House—of past efforts to build up insurgent armies from scratch. The conclusions were not encouraging, as someone defending Obama’s position in the debate leaked to the Times. [3]  

But then in early December 2012, Obama made a fatal political error: He introduced a “red line”—the use of a chemical weapon in Syria. Sure enough, within weeks the first rebel allegation of a regime sarin attack was made in Homs. And although the Obama administration quickly investigated and found that it involved tear gas, it was soon followed by a series of new claims of regime chemical attacks in March and April 2013, in which the evidence was very murky at best [4].

Of course Obama’s national security team, in concert with the Sunni allies, pounced on the opportunity to push even harder for a new U.S. program of direct military aid to the “moderates.” Obama sought to avoid being sucked deeper into the Syria conflict; the administration even got the intelligence community to issue an unusually inconclusive intelligence finding [4] on the alleged chemical weapons attacks in late April.

But for a second time, Obama also agreed to a CIA program of helping to arm the anti-Assad forces; it was a way of placating his own national security apparatus and U.S. allies while avoiding an open commitment to the war. And when nothing happened in the secret program for weeks, Obama’s national security team used an alleged crisis in the war to tighten the pressure on him to move more decisively. Secretary of State John Kerry and unhappy CIA officials arranged for a rebel commander to call into a White House meeting with the claim that Syrian and Hezbollah forces were threatening to bring about the collapse of the entire anti-Assad war.  

Kerry warned that Obama would be blamed by U.S. allies for the outcome and proposed missile strikes [5] on Assad’s forces. Within days, the White House ordered a new intelligence assessment that expressed “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had used sarin repeatedly and immediately made its conclusion public [4]. And simultaneously the White House announced publicly for the first time that the U.S. would provide direct assistance to the opposition and leaked it to the Times that it would involve military assistance.

So at the very moment when Washington should have been exerting pressure on its allies to stop pouring arms into an anti-Assad war that was systematically building up al Qaeda’s power and influence in the country, the Obama administration was caving in to those allies. The reason was simple: Powerful national security bureaucracies were threatening to blame Obama for the failure of their heroic effort to save the anti-Assad war.

The lesson of the entire affair is clear: A malignant alliance between powerful national security bureaucracies and the Middle Eastern allies with whom they enjoy mutually profitable relations are pressuring the White House to approve actions that threaten the real interests of the American people—including strengthening terrorists. The only way to reverse that situation is to direct public attention to that malignant alliance of interests, which has thus far gotten a free ride.




26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "How CIA and Allies Trapped Obama in the Syrian Arms Debacle"

#1 Comment By Stephen J. On July 26, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

There is abundant evidence that “our leaders” supplied, trained, financed and supported terrorists. Therefore I ask: “When Are The Past and Present Leaders of a Number of Countries Going To Be Arrested For Financing, Training, Arming and Assisting Terrorists?”
[More info on this at link below]

#2 Comment By Brad Smith On July 27, 2017 @ 12:45 am

Thanks for the article and as always great work. It’s fascinating to read how much power the “deep state” has over foreign policy. How many millions of lives have been destroyed one way or another by these monsters?

#3 Comment By Jamie On July 27, 2017 @ 2:42 am

What apologetics,Obama was president and owns the policy.

“Assad Must Go!”

– Obama

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 27, 2017 @ 8:24 am

I am certainly willing to grant that the foreign plicy agenda that the previous executive had was certainly not the agenda he intended. I would even be willing to grant tat they used his skin color and the motif of being the first one, against his own interests. No doubt. Shocked by the current executives win, they have used the Russian fog to manipulate this executive as well.

But apparently like so many of of our executives, winning the election is far easier than standing on what they campaigned to achieve.

Two weeks ago, I sprained my finger breaking a fall. I could note some valid reasons why I didn’t go to make sure it wasn’t broken – but in the end it remains my choice not to go. It may never heal properly But that remains my choice.

I can certainly entertained reasons why a president did what he did. And while I did not support the previous president’s agenda, I am certainly willing to grant some space for why he abandoned it. But on the wave of change that both of the executive executives came into office with —

that “why: space is very small. Both had they establishment against the ropes and they chose not the winning punch. That is on them.

#5 Comment By Balderdash On July 27, 2017 @ 9:08 am

POTUS, unlike any other world leader, cannot be held reposnsible for what his country does because it is ‘out of his control’ until afterward.

That’s what makes America different, and better, than any other country on earth.

#6 Comment By Chris Chuba On July 27, 2017 @ 9:24 am

Great summary, there have been many on the Syrian conflict. The value of this one is that it debunks the ‘we did nothing’ narrative that the Neocon / liberal interventionist make.

In short, we DID arm rebels in 2011 through most of 2012. Had a short suspension after the Benghazi attack and then resumed more aggressive arming starting in mid-2013 with the good stuff.

#7 Comment By Allen On July 27, 2017 @ 10:03 am

Had Obama not complied, he would have faced the same ruthless coalition of Media and Deep State that President Trump faces now.

#8 Comment By Charlie On July 27, 2017 @ 10:09 am

This shows the danger of the military -industrial complex warned about by Eisenhower. If any state creates a body of civil servants, their first duty is to justify their existence.

A few people of the calibre of T E Lawrence, Doughty, Burton, Bell, J Glubb, J Haselden who had lived in these countries with the people for years would be much cheaper and more effective than employing thousands of people whose knowledge is dangerously small but greater than the politicians. There is a massive tradition in the developing world of using UK, USA and France to settle scores against rivals. Many parts of the world , there are groups who prepared to kill, rape and injure their own people to gain favourable support and use The West to harm their enemies. The sarin or sarin like substance which killed Sunnis may have been deliberately used by Sunni groups in order to manipulate the West attacking Asssad

Unless the diplomats are fully aware of the incredibly complex relationships and the deviousness, ruthlessness and cruelty of the some of the people in these countries we end up aiding our enemies and killing our friends. Too often diplomats spend their time with well educated, tolerant and westernised people from the middle and upper classes and think the rest of the country is like the: it is not.

The only solution which which may not end up arming our enemies and killing our friends is to construct well fortified refugee camps within certain countries. There is then the aspect of re-supply and transport. Perhaps have a policy of women and children only or no men without women. All resources food, medicine to be given to women for distribution. Let the men kill each other.

#9 Comment By anon On July 27, 2017 @ 10:13 am

“It’s fascinating to read how much power the “deep state” has over foreign policy.”

There is no “deep state;” there are self-interested individuals and groups. What’s more libertarian than people acting in their own self interest?

#10 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On July 27, 2017 @ 10:42 am

Trump did the right thing in Syria but he is now gearing up to attack Iran, a country that we have no quarrel with. Increasingly, the US is acting like a client state of Saudi Arabia and Israel, doing their bidding and attacking country after country. Ordinary Americans seem powerless to stop this.

In the animal world, there are certain parasitic creatures that literally take over the minds of their unfortunate hosts and get them to do their bidding even when it leads to the death of the hosts. Here is a description of one such creature:


We are infected by brain parasites carrying boatloads of cash for the swamp creatures in DC.

#11 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On July 27, 2017 @ 11:51 am

well don, sir. well done. foreign policy, especially policy influenced and executed via the intelligence community is a tricky business. very much a Kenny Rogers scenario; ‘…know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. know when to walk away, and know when to run…’ it is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to the Executive Branch. namely, reconciling the nuance, diplomacy, and cost/benefit analysis of overt policy with the nasty, amoral, apolitical, unpleasant realities necessary to implement covert foreign policy. hindsight is always 20/20, and as noted by other commenters; the buck stops in the Oval Office (own it). hopefully, subsequent Chief Executives (and black ops types) will apply practical lessons learned to future political decisions.

#12 Comment By stevelaudig On July 27, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

war criminals assisting war criminals to commit war crimes…

#13 Comment By sid_finster On July 27, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

Institutions may be comprised of individuals, but they have interests as well. Witness the modern political party.

I suspect that the Deep State intended Syria to be a slippery slope (“American Credibility is at stake here!”) leading to US invasion, in much the same way as the Bay of Pigs invasion was intended to play out.

#14 Comment By Brad Smith On July 27, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

“There is no “deep state;” there are self-interested individuals and groups. What’s more libertarian than people acting in their own self interest?”

There is nothing libertarian about using the power of the state for aggression. Stealing taxpayers dollars and using them to murder is not in anyway “libertarian”. It’s a direct violation of the non-aggression principle and therefor is in complete opposition to libertarian theory.

As for the term “deep state”; There certainly is one and the fact that they are each working in their own self interest does not mean they do not work together (collude) to control our elected officials. We could certainly play semantics with the term itself and argue over what the deep state is, but using the broadest definition is in my mind the easiest and most useful. The “deep state” are simply un-elected individuals who work together to control as much of the State apparatus as possible. These individuals themselves can be employed by the government, self employed or working for various corporation. But they all have the ability to work together to influence the government using their combined positions access to the state itself.

Having an individual agenda does not stop people from forging alliances with other like minded individuals, in fact that is the norm, not the exception.

#15 Comment By Jett Rucker On July 27, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

The conflict is/was conducted for the benefit of Israel, and to gain votes from Israel’s amen chorus (fifth column) in the US.This, of course, may never be mentioned.

#16 Comment By Jett Rucker On July 27, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

Took the lead to take the lead?

What are we reading, here?

#17 Comment By Rossbach On July 27, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

Obama did not want to be seen initiating a war because of the blowback that Bush II got from the 2 wars that he started but could not win. The only reason that Obama got away with defying the deep-state war machine is that the MSM worshipped at his feet and shielded him from all criticism. The current President does not have that advantage.

#18 Comment By Jonathan Marshall On July 27, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

This article is a little disappointing. It references pressures by Petraeus, Clinton, and her successor Kerry, and then proceeds to blame national security bureaucracies for the rising level of U.S. intervention in Syria. Porter’s own evidence suggests that the CIA as a bureaucracy was not implicated. Porter gives no assessment of the Pentagon or Congress. He doesn’t explain why Obama couldn’t have held his ground against his advisers. And, very important, he doesn’t assess the foreign policy commentariat, like the interventionist Washington Post editorial page. That’s where much of the political pressure came from.

#19 Comment By James Drouin On July 27, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

Ahhhhh, I get it, it really wasn’t B. Hussein Obama’s fault for failure after failure after failure after failure after failure after failure after failure … it was someone else’s fault.

#20 Comment By Ray Woodcock On July 28, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

To me, Obama was an intelligent president hampered by insufficient backbone. I believe there could be a president — I believe there have been presidents — who would have been more adept at handling the pressures described here.

In which spirit, I would have liked to see more information, in this article, on Turkey’s offer to do the job with American air support. No doubt that would have created a mess, and I can see how a relatively weak leader would shy away from that. But we got a mess anyway, without the benefit of a locally supported military resistance to Iranian supremacy.

I appreciated that this article was actually less critical of Obama than I would be. There is still a seemingly partisan preoccupation with the horrors of the deep state, as though insiders could be categorically assumed to lack commitment to the best outcome for our country. Maybe they do. But that’s a point to be proved, not assumed.

#21 Comment By skibum On July 28, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

Nobody trapped Obama into anything. He did this willingly, wanting to aid yet more muslim terrorists.

#22 Comment By Jacob Grandstaff On July 29, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

As terrible a president that Obama was, he doesn’t get near enough credit for trying to push back against the unbelievable militarism of his party and the defense establishment.

#23 Comment By Sothguard On July 30, 2017 @ 11:59 pm

Something is wrong with this site… looking at the headlines…
It’s high quality manipulation, but it’s manipulation. Over the last few months this site has turned into yet another propaganda mill.
Obama wasn’t duped, it was obvious what the CIA was up to, and *we* all knew it was going on DURING his Presidency.
I’m outa here. (Slams door.)

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 31, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

“I believe there have been presidents — who would have been more adept at handling the pressures described here.”

Adept or not. What one needs first and foremost is a keen commitment to their own ideas and follow them through. A backbone and ego so huge as to maintain the course winds and storms come whither they will.

#25 Comment By chris On August 1, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

Good article, but missing 2 key points, which provide corroborating evidence for the arguments made above. First, the quote from Biden regarding what “our allies” had contributed to the Syria debackle:

“They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Also missing from the article is the Sarin assessment: [9]

As Goldberg writes, “Obama was … unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a ‘slam dunk.’As Goldberg writes, “Obama was … unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a ‘slam dunk.’

The proof these quotes provide requires little further justification for arguments already made in this article. Their omission, however, is very regrettable because, by not eliciting them here in support of the arguments made, the article helps to eviscerate them from public memory.

#26 Comment By jan kruszewski On August 6, 2017 @ 10:01 am

I recall a Wikileak of Hillary Clinton’s where she said “We must destroy Syria for Israel”. I’m always amazed when so called investigative reporters fail to mention Israel