The End of the CIA Program in Syria

Washington Cedes the Field

Free Syrian Army fighters in the town of Dael, July 2017. Alaa Faqir / Reuters

On July 19, The Washington Post reported that the CIA was ending its covert support for rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The program, which started four years ago, had backed forces affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the U.S. government considered politically moderate—that is, non-Islamist. It had benefited roughly 20,000 fighters, including such groups as Division 13 and the Hamza Battalion in Syria’s northwest and south and the Eastern Lions in its southwest. But despite the program’s cost, which ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, its effects on the rebels’ ability to fight and bring down the government were limited. The end of the program thus represents both a pragmatic concession to military reality and a decision by the United States to abandon Syria to Russia. The most important consequence, however, is the loss of Washington’s credibility to its proxies in Middle East. 


The CIA program began officially in June 2013, although the United States had been secretly providing support to Syrian rebels since 2012. The goal of the program was to empower the FSA against Islamist factions, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda that is now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Both U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders were convinced to fund the CIA program after the publication of several reports demonstrating the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Under its terms, the United States provided approved rebel groups with light weapons, military training, salaries, and sometimes TOW anti-tank missiles. Washington, however, always refused to provide them with heavier weapons such as surface-to-air missiles, lest they fall into the hands of groups such as HTS. (The moderates of the FSA often fought together with HTS and other radical groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamists did not hesitate to buy or seize weapons from the FSA.)

Originally, the CIA program supported rebels fighting the Assad regime on the civil

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