Ex-Ambassador: CIA Wrong On Not Wanting To Arm Syrian Rebels

10/22/2014 02:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2014
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- After months of criticism from former advisers and members of the media for not acting sooner to prevent the Islamic State's rise in Syria by arming non-extremist Syrian rebels, the White House seemed at least partially vindicated by a New York Times report last week describing how President Barack Obama and his advisers were reluctant to arm the rebels through a covert CIA program because the agency had told them such a strategy rarely worked.

But to one of the architects of the administration's Syria strategy, this new revelation shows only that the administration was hearing flawed logic -- not that it was justified in taking so long to train and equip non-extremist rebels fighting both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Assad, a plan Obama eventually approved last year and has now expanded.

Robert S. Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to February 2014, blasted the thinking behind the reported CIA analysis and said the Islamic State only became stronger while the president deliberated whether to arm the non-extremist rebel groups.

"Does anyone argue that the United States is safer now because the Islamic State has a deeply entrenched infrastructure in eastern Syria?" Ford said in a Friday interview with The Huffington Post. "Is inaction making us safer? And if it is not, then propose an alternative strategy."

Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said he was not familiar with the CIA report on arming rebels beyond what he had read of it in the press. But he said that because the CIA's analysis likely did not account for the complexity of the Syrian situation, it may have underestimated what the U.S. could have accomplished in Syria, had it taken a stronger role sooner.

"Different conflicts have different dynamics," Ford said. Though he said he was unaware of which other conflicts the CIA had compared to the Syrian civil war in its analysis, he emphasized the "unique elements" of the Syrian situation.

One of those, Ford said, is its sectarian nature: U.S. backing for the Sunni opposition to Assad could have made a particular difference in Syria, as opposed to past conflicts, because it would have helped to counter the Russian, Iranian and Lebanese efforts to support the minority in control.

"There is a relatively large majority fighting a group that's a small minority [of Shiite Alawites aligned with Assad] that is being propped up by outside powers, while the majority group is getting relatively minimal assistance," Ford said, though he acknowledged that some of the armed groups in Syria have gotten assistance from donors in Arab states. "That is not the same as anywhere else that, I think, the CIA looked at."

Ford resigned as ambassador in February because, he said, the White House's approach to Syria -- including its reluctance to arm non-extremist rebels to fight Assad and the Islamic State -- left him unable to defend U.S. policy. A key player in engaging with the Syrian opposition to Assad, Ford shared the opinion held by other top officials like former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta and former CIA Director David Petraeus -- namely, that the U.S. should have been aiding the non-extremist rebels by summer 2012.

While those other top officials had left the administration by the time of the CIA report described in the Times, Ford was still in his role until well after the White House had reportedly become wary of working with the non-extremist Syrian rebels because of the agency's report.

Ford's long-held view that the U.S. does not have a better option in Syria than arming the non-extremist rebels is now the stance of the initially nervous administration. Obama overcame his reservations and approved CIA arming of the rebels last April. He has now directed the Department of Defense to begin a larger parallel program.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told The Huffington Post Wednesday that Obama has long been aware "that providing money or arms alone to an opposition movement is far from a guarantee of success."

"We have been very clear about that from the outset as we have articulated our strategy in Syria. That is why our support to the moderate Syrian opposition has been deliberate, targeted, and, most importantly, one element of a multi-faceted strategy to create the conditions for a political solution to the conflict," Meehan told The Huffington Post in an email. "As the President alluded to [in an interview in The New Yorker earlier this year in which he appeared to reference the CIA study], we are applying relevant lessons-learned to how we approach the conflict in Syria.”

Building a closer relationship with the non-extremist rebels is especially important for the administration because it has repeatedly ruled out working with Assad against the Islamic State -- an approach that Ford also opposes and that some foreign policy thinkers continue to recommend.

"I think most informed observers are going to conclude that Bashar Assad is the root of the problems and can't be part of the solution," Ford told The Huffington Post, echoing rhetoric used by the administration and supporters of the non-extremist rebels.

Ford said that when he was in office, he didn't know of any reluctance among the intelligence community to arm non-extremist Syrian rebels. But as recently as last month, days before Congress voted to give the president $500 million for the Pentagon's train-and-equip program, sources told The Huffington Post that top CIA officials still doubted the wisdom of arming the rebel groups, even though the administration described the groups as "vetted" and familiar to the U.S.

"The CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure," a Democratic congressman told The Huffington Post in an email last month. "The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool's errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands."

Conflict Armament Research, an arms tracking group funded by the European Union, reported earlier this month that Islamic State militants are using weapons made in 21 different countries -- and that almost 20 percent of their arms are U.S.-made munitions likely captured when the militant group swept through Iraq over the summer. In an interview with NPR, a researcher at Conflict Armament Research suggested that the Islamic State is obtaining even more American weapons in the course of fighting the non-extremist rebels the CIA has been arming.

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