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Say Goodbye to Regime Change in Syria

President Donald Trump has ordered [1] that the CIA begin to phase out its covert train-and-equip program in support of so-called “moderate” rebels fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The program represented the tip of the spear of a larger goal of regime change that had been the official policy of the United States since September 2013, when President Obama declared “Assad must go” [2] in the aftermath of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians. Through this action, President Trump is walking away from an established policy of America taking an active role in forcing the Syrian President’s ouster, willing instead to leave Assad’s fate in the hands of the Syrian people and its allies. The decision by Trump to terminate support for the “moderate” Syrian rebels, while not giving voice to a policy that rejects regime change in Syria, is the clearest signal yet that the United States has changed course on trying to force regime change in Damascus as a precondition for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis.  

The train and equip mission of the CIA in Syria can be traced back to the spring of 2011, when a revolution broke out in Libya against the dictatorial rule of Muammar Gadhafi. Backed by NATO airpower, anti-regime fighters were able to establish control over large areas inside Libya. The CIA began a program to train and equip these fighters [3], supplying weapons to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who in turn shipped these weapons to Libya, where they were turned over to Libyan rebels. (This circuitous route was chosen to avoid the U.S. being in violation of a UN embargo against weapons deliveries to Libya.)  

In August 2011, in the aftermath of the capture of the Libyan capital of Tripoli by rebel forces, Qatar began diverting arms [4] originally intended for Libya to Turkey, where they were turned over to rebel forces that had, since June of 2011, been fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These rebels were grouped together under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an ostensibly secular resistance group that  was in reality controlled by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood [5], an Islamist organization that had been crushed by Bashar al-Assad’s father back in the early 1980’, and was operating in exile in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. While the CIA was not directly involved in this activity, CIA personnel in Libya and Turkey monitored these shipments to make sure no sensitive weaponry, such as hand-help surface-to-air missiles, made their way into Syria. This effort, which involved billions of dollars of arms, including those provided by the United States for the express purpose of aiding Libyan rebels, continued through 2012 and into 2013. (The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who was killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, was involved in coordinating these weapons transfers [6].)


As the fighting in Syria expanded in scope and scale, the number of anti-regime combatant organizations increased. The FSA took on an increasingly Islamist character, and many of its fighters defected to more extreme organizations, such as al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate). Many of the CIA-provided weapons being shipped by Qatar through Turkey made their way into these Islamist units, with the unintended result being that the U.S. was actively arming Al Qaeda and other extremist entities openly hostile to American interests. In an effort to control the flow of weaponry into Syria, President Obama authorized the CIA [7] to formally take over the process of training and equipping Syrian rebels. This operation, known by its codename, Timber Sycamore, was run out of Turkey and Jordan with the full support of both governments.  

From 2013 through 2015, Timber Sycamore oversaw the purchase of billions of dollars of modern weaponry from Balkan suppliers, primarily in Croatia, and their shipment to ports in Turkey and Jordan, where the CIA, working with Turkish and Jordanian intelligence agencies, trained and equipped thousands of rebel fighters from more than 50 groups inside Syria that had been vetted by the CIA. The impact of this program on the fighting in Syria was significant—by the fall of 2015, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was teetering on the brink of collapse, largely due to the military pressure brought to bear on the regime by these U.S.-backed groups. The success of these rebels played a large role in triggering Russian military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015, with Russian air power being unleashed against these very same rebels in an effort to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Russian gambit worked, and by 2016 the Syrian military had reclaimed the initiative, recapturing the city of Aleppo [8] and driving the U.S.-backed rebels back on all fronts.

The U.S. and its allies had no effective response to the Russian intervention. One of the reasons for this is the fact that there was little to differentiate the U.S.-backed rebels on the ground inside Syria from the more extremist fighters from al-Nusra and other Islamist groups. While the United States protested the Russian air strikes, it had to deal with the reality that Timber Sycamore was arming far more than just the so-called FSA. In both Turkey and Jordan, corrupt intelligence officers [9] were siphoning off tens of millions of dollars in weapons and munitions, selling them on the black market, where they were bought by al-Nusra and, after 2014, ISIS. The U.S.-backed rebels would often sell or trade their US-provided weapons to both al-Nusra and ISIS, and in many cases, U.S.-trained fighters would defect with these weapons. Thousands of fighters serving under the banner of Al Qaeda and ISIS were, in fact, armed and trained by the CIA.

Another problem confronted by the United States was the growing divergence between its objectives in supporting so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, which were shared by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the willingness on the part of Turkey and Qatar to train and equip more radical anti-Assad fighters, including al-Nusra (Al Qaeda) and ISIS. The position taken by Turkey and Qatar are rooted in their mutual support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which had morphed into various radical Islamist units operating inside Syria under the guise of the FSA, but in reality fighting in support of both al-Nusra and ISIS. Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood [10] became unsustainable for Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Arab nations, which subsequently outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The demise of Timber Sycamore is directly linked to the ongoing crisis between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors over support for the Muslim Brotherhood; Turkey’s position in support of Qatar has, given Ankara’s status as a NATO member, likewise created diplomatic problems for the U.S. that are simplified through the termination of the CIA’s train-and-equip efforts in Syria.  

President Trump’s decision to terminate Timber Sycamore is part and parcel of an overall policy objective designed to gain control over U.S/ objectives in the region. In many ways, Washington’s policy of regime change in Syria, of which the CIA’s train-and-equip program was a major part, was responsible for the crisis currently underway in Syria, and the region as a whole. Central to this failure was the notion that there existed inside Syria a moderate, secular force able and willing to take down the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which led to the decision to flood the region with U.S.-provided arms and munitions that only served to spread of Islamic extremism under the banner of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  

The fact is that there was no secular, moderate force worthy of the name operating inside Syria; virtually the entire anti-Assad effort is dominated by Islamist extremists who, if Assad was overthrown, would probably replace a secular dictator with something far worse. The Obama policy of regime change in Syria, like the Bush policy in Iraq, has done little more than unleash forces which the U.S. was unable to control, costing American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and the blood of American military personnel who lost their lives in its implementation.

President Trump’s decision to terminate Timber Sycamore, and with it the Obama-era policy of “Assad must go,” when seen in this context, is the clearest expression to date of his desire to rein in the unsuccessful policies of the past. The president’s decision liberates the United States, which can now proceed in its fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism unencumbered by policies that do little to further American interests while empowering enemies. By working with Russia to focus on the defeat of ISIS, President Trump is positioning the United States to play an important role in helping shape a political solution to the Syrian problem that will bring peace to the people of Syria and the region. Achieving such a solution will not be easy, nor is the outcome guaranteed.  Timber Sycamore, however, was nothing more than an impediment in this regard, and President Trump was wise in shutting it down.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.  He is the author of “Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War” (Clarity Press, 2017).

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "Say Goodbye to Regime Change in Syria"

#1 Comment By ianous On July 25, 2017 @ 8:51 am

I never said “Hello.”

#2 Comment By Centralist On July 25, 2017 @ 9:45 am

Just an observation the Muslim Brotherhood is as unified as say the Republican or they Democratic Parties. They share a name and some basic values beyond that they are at each others throws internally. Have the hardliners, the moderates, and the in name only.

#3 Comment By Chris Cosmos On July 25, 2017 @ 11:19 am

Like all recent U.S. wars they are simply fought to be fought. There is no overall policy just a number of competing bureaucracies each wanting more budget. The U.S. Deep State, at the moment, is a huge body with its head cut off thrashing around and knocking things down. If Trump can get a hold of it more power to him but I don’t think he can do it until a new ruling elite within the Deep State put Humpty back together again. Meanwhile the arms companies, mercs and consulting companies will continue to flourish.

#4 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On July 25, 2017 @ 11:52 am

Ken T,

Thereby undercutting Big Pharma profits. Can’t have that now, can we?

And giving those profits to cartels? No, I don’t think that the Big Pharma is much better than drug lords, but it is at least under a limited control.

#5 Comment By bobloblaw On July 25, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

of course assuming the CIA actually does it.

#6 Comment By Winston On July 25, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

The Jordanian government had a strong incentive to gloss over the murders of the three Green Berets. Likewise, the CIA was scared of potential blowback and the exposing of their covert program,” says investigative journalist Jack Murphy, himself an Army special forces veteran.

A premeditated green-on-blue attack in Jordan outside of King Faisal Air Base (at al-Jafr in Southern Jordan) late last year resulted in the deaths of three elite US Green Berets in what the media initially dubbed a mere unfortunate gate incident and what the Jordanian government dismissed as a “a tragic accident devoid of any terrorist motives”. But the whole event and subsequent attempts at cover-up just as Obama was leaving office enraged both the families of the slain and the US special forces community; and it further threatened to blow wide open the CIA’s illegal Syrian regime change operation, called Timber Sycamore, which involved American special ops soldiers being tasked with training so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels in Jordan and Turkey as part of an inter-agency program.
As details of the court case involving the shooter continue to emerge this week, the media continues to misreport the true nature of the what the US special forces personnel were doing in Jordan in the first place, and how a CIA secret program put them at risk.

Murder Of Green Berets In Jordan Exposed Secretive CIA Syria Program Details

#7 Comment By Lee On July 26, 2017 @ 12:00 am

Ah, so the US has decided to reverse it’s Obama-era policy of arming ISIS? Who knew?

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On July 26, 2017 @ 10:54 am

“the clearest signal yet that the United States has changed course on trying to force regime change in Damascus as a precondition for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis”

It is more than that. It ended the war. It is leaving Syria to Assad and the Russians.

That is a good thing. The alternative has become ISIS and al Qaeda. Reality intruded, finally.

#9 Comment By Ralph DeVane On July 26, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

Just because muslims aren’t involved with murders doesn’t mean they are “moderate”. For those who believe the entire Qu’ran, there are no moderate muslims.

#10 Comment By Charlie On July 28, 2017 @ 6:07 am

Northern Observer
It was the conquest of Jedda, Medina and Mecca by the Sauds who removed from power the Hashemites, which led to the growth of the Wahabi doctrines. Wahabi doctrine can trace it’s roots back to Taymaya. The Hashemites are not followers of Wahab and suffered from the attacks by the Ikhwan in the 1920s and 1930s, as did the Kuwaitis. John Glubb and the Arab Legion repulsed the Ikhwan. The Hashemites were the only arab country to try and negotitae peaceful co-existance with Israel in the 1940s.The Sauds tried to take Kuwait but a broadside of shells from a British cruiser stopped the attack. The Wahabis also have connection with the Deobandi Mosque in India.

Did many Malays fight in the Malaya emergency? I thought it was a largely Chinese /British Commonwealth affair.

The defeat of the Arabs by Israel in 1973: the increase in the price of oil in1973, the rise of Muslim Bretheren post 1973, The Khomeini Revolution of 1979, the USSR invasion, Afghanistan together with arrival of arabs and resources in Afghanistan and the failure to protect muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s, have all provided spurs and resources to increased Sunni Muslim political activity.

What the West fails to appreciate is that Islam is returning to it’s original belief in conquest which has been in quiescence since the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19 century. Groups such Since the 1920s there has been a number of muslim groups proselytising a more austere anti western Islam apart from the MB: Hizb Ut Tahir , Tablighi Jammaat, Jamaat – e Islami which may not preach violence but encourage people on the path towards violent jihad.
Their funds probably come from Gulf Arabs.

#11 Comment By Dan On July 30, 2017 @ 11:10 am

Finally something Trump did that I can applaud.

Neocons and deep staters are going to be pissed. This doesn’t fit their invade the world, invite the world philosophy.