CIA expands training programme for US-backed militias in Syria

Programme is producing only a trickle of fighters, and is being eclipsed by growing ranks of radical Islamists, some linked to al-Qaeda

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

The CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria amid concern that moderate, US-backed militias are rapidly losing ground in the country's civil war, US officials said.

But the CIA programme is so small that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said would do little to bolster US-friendly rebel forces, who were being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

This came as experts overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal began securing their work sites.

"Joint work with the Syrian authorities has begun on securing the sites where the team will operate," the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN said.

The UN Security Council also demanded immediate and "unhindered" access to the millions of civilians trapped for months by the conflict.

The CIA's mission, officials said, had been defined by the White House's desire for a political settlement, a scenario that relied on an eventual stalemate among warring factions rather than a clear victor.

As a result, officials said, limits on the agency's authority enabled it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, US-supported militias did not lose but not enough for them to win.

The officials said the agency had sent more paramilitary teams to secret bases in Jordan in recent weeks in a push to double the number of rebel fighters getting CIA instruction and weapons before being sent back to Syria.

The agency had trained fewer than 1,000 rebel fighters this year, US officials said. By contrast, US intelligence analysts estimated that more than 20,000 had been trained to fight for government-backed militias by Assad's ally Iran and the Hezbollah militant network it sponsors.

The CIA effort was described as an urgent bid to bolster moderate Syrian militias, which have been unable to mount a serious challenge to Assad or match the growing strength of rival rebel factions with hardline Islamist agendas and, in some cases, ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The CIA was "ramping up and expanding its effort", said a US official familiar with operations in Syria, because "it was clear that the opposition was losing, and not only losing tactically but on a more strategic level". The CIA declined to comment.

The latest setback came last month, when 11 of the largest armed factions in Syria, including some backed by the US, announced the formation of an alliance with a goal of creating an Islamic state. The alliance is led by Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has sworn allegiance to the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

The descriptions of the CIA training programme provide the most detailed account to date of the limited dimensions and daunting objectives of a CIA operation that US President Barack Obama secretly authorised in a covert action finding he signed earlier this year.

US officials said the classified programme had been constrained by limits on CIA resources, the reluctance of rebel fighters to leave Syria for US instruction and Jordan's restrictions on the CIA's presence there.

But the limited scope also reflects a deeper tension in the Obama administration's strategy on Syria, one that has sought to advance US interests but avoid being drawn more deeply into a conflict.

"The situation in Syria is changing faster than the administration can keep up," said Republican congressman Mike Rogers.