One week ago, when summarizing the current state of play in Syria, we said that for Obama, "this is shaping up to be the most spectacular US foreign policy debacle since Vietnam." Yesterday, in tacit confirmation of this assessment, the Obama administration threw in the towel on one of the most contentious programs it has implemented in "fighting ISIS", when the Defense Department announced it was abandoning the goal of a U.S.-trained Syrian force.
But this, so far, partial admission of failure only takes care of one part of Obama's problem: there is the question of the "other" rebels supported by the US, those who are not part of the officially-disclosed public program with the fake goal of fighting ISIS; we are talking, of course, about the nearly 10,000 CIA-supported "other rebels", or technically mercenaries, whose only task is to take down Assad.
The same "rebels" whose fate the AP profiles today when it writes that the CIA began a covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad. Over that time, the CIA has trained an estimated 10,000 fighters, although the number still fighting with so-called moderate forces is unclear.
The effort was separate from the one run by the military, which trained militants willing to promise to take on IS exclusively. That program was widely considered a failure, and on Friday, the Defense Department announced it was abandoning the goal of a U.S.-trained Syrian force, instead opting to equip established groups to fight IS.
It is this effort, too, that in the span of just one month Vladimir Putin has managed to render utterly useless, as it is officially "off the books" and thus the US can't formally support these thousands of "rebel-fighters" whose only real task was to repeat the "success" of Ukraine and overthrow Syria's legitimate president: something which runs counter to the US image of a dignified democracy not still resorting to 1960s tactics of government overthrow. That, and coupled with Russia and Iran set to take strategic control of Syria in the coming months, the US simply has no toehold any more in the critical mid-eastern nation.
And so another sad chapter in the CIA's book of failed government overthrows comes to a close, leaving the "rebels" that the CIA had supported for years, to fend for themselves.
CIA-backed rebels in Syria, who had begun to put serious pressure on President Bashar Assad's forces, are now under Russian bombardment with little prospect of rescue by their American patrons, U.S. officials say.
Over the past week, Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-funded groups and other moderate opposition in a concerted effort to weaken them, the officials say. The Obama administration has few options to defend those it had secretly armed and trained.
The Russians "know their targets, and they have a sophisticated capacity to understand the battlefield situation," said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who serves on the House Intelligence Committee and was careful not to confirm a classified program. "They are bombing in locations that are not connected to the Islamic State" group.
With the US now in damage control mode, the finger pointing begins.
First, it is only natural that finger will point at Putin - after all he is an easy target:
U.S. intelligence officials see many factors motivating Russia's intervention: Moscow's reasserting its primacy as a great power, propping up Assad and wanting to deal a blow to the United States, which has insisted that Assad must go to end Syria's civil war.
Russia is also interested in containing IS, an organization that includes thousands of Chechen fighters who may pose a threat to Russia, officials say.
But in the short term, "my conclusion is that the timing of their intervention was driven by Assad really going critical," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., also a House Intelligence Committee member.
Alas, blaming Putin only underscores his latest victory over the US state department, leaving the US diplomatic corps no choice but to blame its own. This is imminent, and many heads will - or should - roll.
The administration is scrambling to come up with a response to Russia's moves, but few believe the U.S. can protect its secret rebel allies. The administration has all but ruled out providing CIA-backed groups with surface-to-air missiles that can down aircraft, fearing such weapons would end up in the wrong hands, officials say.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, says the U.S. should consider establishing a no-fly zone that allows rebels a safe place from which to operate, and shooting down Syrian helicopters that are bombing civilians. He said the U.S. also should provide arms to the Ukrainian government fighting Russian-backed separatists.
A no-fly zone would require the U.S. military to be ready to engage in air battles with the Syrian government, something it is not prepared to do.
Why? Because it is not the Syrian government that is flying those sorties above Syria, it is Putin, and despite all the posturing, Obama is unwilling to risk World War III just to stop a Qatar gas pipeline to Europe.
Which means Obama now has just one option: admitting that his latest gamble to overthrow Assad, one which started in 2013 with the fake YouTube clips of "chemical attacks", and the resultant naval escalation, coupled with the CIA's training of thousands of local rebels mercenaries, and which escalated with the "appearance" of ISIS in the summer of 2014, is about to end with Obama admitting yet another major political defeat.
The administration "is debating the merits of taking further action or whether they are better off letting Putin hang himself," he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Because somehow handing over control of the Middle East to the Russian-controlled axis - incidentally the topic of another article yesterday in the WSJ "America's Fading Footprint in the Middle East" - is now spun as a defeat for Putin.
"Our options are much narrower than they were two weeks ago," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees. "I don't think there is any simple answer. ... Further air involvement has become very problematic because of the Russian engagement."
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And so Putin has once again "won", or as the administration would prefer to spin it, "has hung himself."
Incidentally, this is just the beginning. Now that the U.S. has begun its pivot out of the middle-east, handing it over to Putin as Russia's latest sphere of influence on a silver platter, there will be staggering consequences for middle-east geopolitics. In out preview of things to come last week, we concluded by laying these out; we will do the same again:
The US, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, attempted to train and support Sunni extremists to overthrow the Assad regime. Some of those Sunni extremists ended up going crazy and declaring a Medeival caliphate putting the Pentagon and Langley in the hilarious position of being forced to classify al-Qaeda as "moderate." The situation spun out of control leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and when Washington finally decided to try and find real "moderates" to help contain the Frankenstein monster the CIA had created in ISIS (there were of course numerous other CIA efforts to arm and train anti-Assad fighters, see below for the fate of the most "successful" of those groups), the effort ended up being a complete embarrassment that culminated with the admission that only "four or five" remained and just days after that admission, those "four or five" were car jacked by al-Qaeda in what was perhaps the most under-reported piece of foreign policy comedy in history.
Meanwhile, Iran sensed an epic opportunity to capitalize on Washington's incompetence. Tehran then sent its most powerful general to Russia where a pitch was made to upend the Mid-East balance of power. The Kremlin loved the idea because after all, Moscow is stinging from Western economic sanctions and Vladimir Putin is keen on showing the West that, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia isn't set to back down. Thanks to the fact that the US chose extremists as its weapon of choice in Syria, Russia gets to frame its involvement as a "war on terror" and thanks to Russia's involvement, Iran gets to safely broadcast its military support for Assad just weeks after the nuclear deal was struck. Now, Russian airstrikes have debilitated the only group of CIA-backed fighters that had actually proven to be somewhat effective and Iran and Hezbollah are preparing a massive ground invasion under cover of Russian air support. Worse still, the entire on-the-ground effort is being coordinated by the Iranian general who is public enemy number one in Western intelligence circles and he's effectively operating at the behest of Putin, the man that Western media paints as the most dangerous person on the planet.
As incompetent as the US has proven to be throughout the entire debacle, it's still difficult to imagine that Washington, Riyadh, London, Doha, and Jerusalem are going to take this laying down and on that note, we close with our assessment from Thursday: "If Russia ends up bolstering Iran's position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah's influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night."
Which is not to say that the latest US failure to overthrow a mid-east government was a total failure. As Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma says "probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates."
Which is at least great news for the military-industrial complex. It means more "terrorist attacks" on U.S. "friends and allies", and perhaps even on U.S. soil - all courtesy of the US government supplying the weapons - are imminent.