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The Illogic of “Letting Langley Loose”

July 11, 2012

Reuel Marc Gerecht has a piece out arguing it’s time for the CIA to overthrow the Syrian government:

Yet there is an alternative that could crack the Assad regime: a muscular CIA operation launched from Turkey, Jordan and even Iraqi Kurdistan. The trick for Washington is to go in big, deploying enough case officers and delivering paralyzing weaponry to the rebels as rapidly as possible.

Press reports already suggest that a rudimentary, small-scale CIA covert action is under way against Assad. But these reports, probably produced by officially sanctioned White House leaks, reveal an administration trying not to commit itself. According to Syrian rebels I’ve heard from, the much-mentioned Saudi and Qatari military aid—reportedly chaperoned by the CIA—hasn’t arrived in any meaningful quantity.

Odds are that it won’t, as the Saudis and Qataris are incapable of running arms on the scale required. Institutionally, intellectually and culturally, it’s not their cup of tea. And intelligence officers tell me that the White House hasn’t ordered Langley to move the weaponry. To the extent Syria’s rebels have recently improved their performance, the reason is better coordination among the Free Syrian Army’s units, more defections from regime forces, and raids on regular army depots.

Before we proceed, we have to note that the starting premises of this article include the notion that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Syria’s neighbors aren’t up to the task. Only the application of American intelligence operations to Syria can, to paraphrase Inspectah Deck, come through with enough people, and enough guns to put Assad out of business.

Gerecht also notes:

The Assad regime encouraged suicide bombers and other lethal cross-border trade against the U.S. in Iraq. It would be just deserts for CIA case officers to use the same topography against those who took so many American lives.

So Gerecht is also acknowledging that in Iraq, a country where there were 140,000 American troops, not to mention the CIA’s footprint, the private security forces, and the reliable elements of Iraqi security forces, who were supposed to be securing the environment for those guys to do their jobs, that the Syrian government could use irregular and proxy forces to kill Americans effectively.

These premises do not appear to square with the policy he is actually proposing, which is this:

A coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security wouldn’t be hard. The regime’s lack of manpower and Syria’s geography—low-rising mountains, arid steppes and forbidding deserts—would likely make it vulnerable to the opposition, if the opposition had enough firepower.

I’ve been through arguments about what proxies do and don’t do effectively before, and while the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups will likely have the cohesion to hold onto territory, CIA-armed irregular forces with man-portable weapons still have a hell of a lot of trouble going on the offensive and taking major urban centers. It would be very easy for Syria to devolve – as Afghanistan did until the Najibullah government’s patrons in Moscow collapsed – into a series of regime-held major centers and key geographic chokepoints for a prolonged period of time.

Leaving aside the question of how efficacious proxy war in general is, let’s at least look at the amount of effort that would probably be necessary for the U.S. to undertake such an operation, and what Gerecht is actually proposing. First off, I don’t buy this:

But the CIA follows orders, however fitfully. And it helps to have as CIA director retired Gen. David Petraeus, a first-rate military mind with well-honed political and diplomatic instincts. Force-fed on the Middle East since 2003, Mr. Petraeus knows all the players in the region.

How well does Petraeus know the Syrian military and regime? Well, I suppose he can’t be more ignorant of them than he likely is of the people leading the Syrian rebellion. Petraeus certainly knows a lot of players, but the most key ones are not ones which he’s likely most familiar with, and he certainly doesn’t know much about the Syrian resistance. The faction he’d probably he’d most likely be familiar with would be AQI, who Gerecht would have the CIA fighting alongside while it floods the country with weapons.

This Syrian action would not be a massive undertaking. Even when the CIA ramped up its aid to Afghan anti-Soviet forces in 1986–87, the numbers involved (overseas and in Washington) were small, at roughly two dozen. An aggressive operation in Syria would probably require more CIA manpower than that, but likely still fewer than 50 U.S. officers working with allied services.

There only needed to be a few dozen CIA officers in Afghanistan because we had a massive allied intelligence agency, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. The Pakistani ISI, according to most accounts of the war I’ve seen, increased tenfold in size to 20,000, and had increased to 40,000 by the mid-1990s. Now, no, not all of those guys were running across the border into Afghanistan, but they were doing the bulk of the grunt work in ground operations. The ISI had to increase tenfold during the course of the Afghan war to get the Soviets to withdraw, and even then its preferred client, Hekmatyar, ended up faltering at the hands of rival factions.

Now, Gerecht argues that the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and Turkey can play this kind of role. Color me skeptical. The GID does have a good record of countering domestic threats and counterterrorism against al Qaeda. How does this make them better qualified than their Qatari or Saudi counterparts?  There’s no reason to think the GID would do much better at this, nor do stories so far make it appear to be a ready and eager participant in this endeavor. As for the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (NIO), it’s not particularly large, has recently undergone some painful institutional changes (like all security services under the AKP), and the Turkish government itself may not even consider it all that reliable.

If the Saudis and Qataris aren’t enough, the NIO and GID don’t look like a magic bullet either. It’s not clear who’s going to provide the bulk of what the CIA couldn’t do in Afghanistan – the grunt work of actually bringing the arms across the border, distributing them, providing most of the training, and directly working with the mujahideen – er, rebel – groups in Syria. And for all of the massive effort – and Operation Cyclone was enormous if one considers the extent of Pakistani involvement alongside the CIA – the rebel groups we backed failed to unify the country or maintain power against a noxious foe, with our former friends in the ISI turned around and backed once they saw the writing on the wall for their man Hekmatyar.

Then things start getting strange:

And Iraqi Kurdistan, always eager for more U.S. officials on its soil, would likely give the CIA considerable leeway provided Washington promised to stand by the Kurds in any dispute with Baghdad and Tehran. Given the Kurds’ concern about American staying power, this is a significant hurdle. Iraqi Kurds don’t want their Syrian brothers, who have so far been hammered less than Syria’s rebelling Sunni Arabs, to invite the wrath of Damascus if they lack the weaponry to defend themselves.

Considering that most of Kurdish history has involved internecine fighting among Kurdish groups, something the Iraqi Kurds have only recently recovered from, I’m hesitant to be so sunny about pan-Kurdish brotherhood and all that. Of greater importance, the Iraqi government in Baghdad is not going to accept the Kurdish Regional Government conducting its own foreign policy and allowing the CIA to run a war on the same side as AQI against a country Iraq has tried to maintain a balanced foreign policy towards. Such a move as Gerecht is proposing here could easily destabilize the US-Iraqi relationship and foment tensions between Baghdad and the KRG.

Not only that, but creating an armed Kurdish quasi-state in northern Syria is likely to ire whatever Sunni Arab majority government – or, perhaps, majority coalition of warlords, jihadists and/or FSA generals – and increase the possibility of continued violence after Damascus falls. However, since Gerecht says this isn’t vital to his plan, we’ll move on.

Gerecht explains the logic of proxy war:

If the administration doesn’t let Langley loose, we will likely be looking at a protracted bloodbath in Syria rivaling the destruction that occurred in Lebanon during its all-consuming civil war from 1975 to 2000. A low figure could be 200,000 dead. The extirpation of the Alawites and their Christian allies, who together number roughly 4.5 million, is imaginable.

Let’s look at the records of other countries civil wars where Langley has been let loose. Again, proxy wars that support a faction in a civil war are good for many things, humanitarianism and regional stability are not among them:

  • There’s the Guatemalan Civil War, which the CIA-backed coup government installed in 1954 had to cope with beginning in 1960. Thanks to American military support, we were able to limit the war to a mere 36 years, and casualties were 200,000 dead. Plus 50,000 or so disappeared. So the “low figure ,” as Gerecht puts it.
  • In Afghanistan, during the Soviet invasion, numbers vary from around half a million to two million. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted 9 years. The actual Afghan civil war failed to terminate in 1989, and still continued after the second time Langley was “let loose” in 2001.
  • In Nicaragua, the civil war lasted from 1979 until 1990. At least “mere” 50,000-60,000 died, but that was against a government that had barely consolidated itself in a country whose population in 1980 was not even 3 million in 1980. It should be sobering that Nicaragua is our best case scenario here.
  • There’s also all the civil wars in Indochina the CIA got itself mixed up in, but Vietnam itself isn’t a good comparison and you can blame a lot of what was happening in Laos on the intervention of the PAVN and the American military, but we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of casualties outside of Vietnam and millions in Vietnam.
  • The Angolan Civil War lasted from 1975-2002. At least half a million died. The third “Reagan Doctrine” proxy war that Charles Krauthammer praised in his own column way back in 1985. 

So it’s not eminently clear to me – from the examples that Gerecht musters or from the ones I can think of – that letting Langley loose reliably leads to a shorter, cleaner Syrian civil war with a happier ending. Now, it may well have been that all of these countries would have endured equally horrific or worse bloodbaths regardless of what the CIA and other organs of American government did. Maybe so – but these interventions were premised entirely on making enemies of the United States bleed, not on saving lives. Afghanistan certainly hurt Moscow. It’s harder to justify the rest, where the Soviets were only being bled via proxy. It’s entirely possible that waging a proxy war in Syria gets you a long civil war and a collapsed state afterwards either way.

Gerecht argues:

The Obama administration lives in fear of an illusion. Numerous times the CIA practiced the dark arts during the Cold War, and not once did America slide into war. The CIA certainly didn’t have an unblemished record of triumph, but it often made our enemies bleed.

Did the CIA make our enemies bleed? Yes. But not when it won quickly, and not nearly as effectively when we were bleeding our enemies by proxy. Where the CIA was able to overthrow regimes quickly (Guatemala, Iran, etc), there was often renewed or intensified violence, followed by U.S. expenditures of resources and personnel to prop our friends up, or the replacement of Langley’s new friend with an enemy as noxious or even worse than the one we replaced. And certainly, we can think of cases where American proxy wars did slide into “real” war – most of Indochina – although, in fairness to Gerecht, these were generally ones where we supported the government against a communist insurgency, rather than us supporting insurgents – but many besides bore poison rotten fruit.

There is a debate to be had about how to make our enemies bleed – but it probably wouldn’t succeed at limiting casualties or toppling Assad quickly, after all, bleeding our enemies requires holding them in place rather than letting them cut their losses. In Syria, there’s really no reason to be bleeding anybody except Iran, since Syria itself only seriously threatens the U.S. when it isn’t acting in Syria’s neighborhood (which it wouldn’t be, unless, perhaps we followed Gerecht’s lead and put down a larger presence in it). It would be Iran. Incidentally, the IRGC and Syria are already familiar with using irregular warfare techniques to find and kill Americans and their friends. If the U.S. is doing what it declined to do in Afghanistan – and operating in a war zone, directly acting as liaisons, suppliers, and advisers for Syrian groups, they will be potential targets for our enemies too. And since Syria is a secondary interest of the U.S. at best, while it’s the interest for Damascus and a primary interest for Iran, our blood, our treasure will come at a higher cost for us.

We are a global superpower with global interests – the vast majority of them are not in Syria, and the ones that involve it are not necessarily served by expending U.S. resources to win the Syrian civil war for the rebels. Heck, the vast majority of them within CENTCOM’s AOR are not Syria. Trying to cavalierly run a massive proxy war with a very limited amount of personnel is inadvisable and irresponsible. We do not, by most accounts, even have adequate situational awareness in Iraq – diverting the CIA’s region-ready operatives into Syria will only exacerbate this problem, not just because it draws away resources from Iraq, but will support a policy that’s almost certain to strengthen AQI.

The CIA was never adequately prepared for suffering combat attrition by taking the kind of front-end role Gerecht describes, which is why it had to rely on proxies that sometimes took years to mature into effective fighting forces, or use already-established power factions such as foreign militaries and intelligence services to conduct the sort of operations Gerecht is advocating here. The SAD is very effective, sure, but there’s a reason the U.S. had to develop a significant irregular warfare capability within the Army Special Forces – who are also badly needed in a variety of theaters – and they should not be deploying to Syria either.

Waging secret wars gets people killed – ask anyone familiar with Lima Site 85 – and very often the kinds of people they killed are not people we can easily replace. Gerecht insists that only we are up to the task, but our record in the Levant is not stellar, either. Reportedly, Iranian-backed and advised Hezbollah, and Assad’s partners, were able to roll up American informants in Lebanon – and that is in an intelligence cooperation, where the U.S. and its partners are significantly less exposed and able to operate with more discretion.

This sort of covert adventurism in Syria does not serve any vital American interests, and nobody should believe for a second it is a reliable method of ending or limiting internal violence in foreign lands. But most dangerously for the United States, it threatens to expend assets to the nation we cannot readily replace and that are vital for more pressing tasks elsewhere. Waging proxy war in Syria never seemed like a good idea, going about it in the way described here could be a disaster and, even if it succeeds in its immediate goals, still leave the giant morass it intended to prevent, albeit with a loss of blood and treasure to accompany it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012 8:45 am

    I have argued that rather than letting the CIA loose in Syria, it, and the US should actually seek to break the military and various Alawite tribal leaders from Assad and foment a palace coup.

    American recognition of new government in return for breaking ties to Tehran. We would cut diplomatic support to FSA under this scenario and let the Russians sell all the arms they want to without hectoring them over their support for a “tyrant.”

    Seems smarter than backing an amorphous group we don’t really know anything about and risking some of Syria’s chemical weapons cache falling into al-Qaeda affiliates. Or, heck, its better than any military hardware getting filtered out like it did in Libya. We don’t need anymore “Malis!”

  2. LFC permalink
    July 16, 2012 8:41 pm

    Glad you began w the three words “Reuel Marc Gerecht” b/c I was able to stop reading right there.

  3. September 14, 2012 4:29 pm

    I largely agree with Greg. I believe we are viewing the Syrian uprising through rose-tinted spectacles that are coloured by the collapse of Berlin wall etc, when in reality the outcome if it succeeds is likely to be very ugly and dangerous for us. If Assad is overthrown Syria will be plunged into sectarian bloodletting and with the main beneficiaries being Sunni Islamist terrorism.

    Perhaps it would be better to extend Assad a lifeline in exchange for breaking with Tehran. When Egypt’s armies were surrounded and facing destruction by Israel in 1973, American diplomacy skilfully used Egypt’s weakness to break it from the Soviet Union in exchange for saving its surrounded forces from destruction.

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