Why the CIA Won’t Relish Its Syria Mission

The agency is being forced to play catch-up in a complex situation of which it has limited knowledge. Turkey's cooperation may be vital

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Khalil Hamra / AP

Members of the Free Syrian Army hold their weapons, one with a painting of the revolutionary flag, as they stand guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria.

According to the New York Times, the CIA now has people deployed in Turkey trying to sort out which Syrian rebels should be armed, and which shouldn’t. That comes as no real surprise, in light of Syria spinning into worse chaos and violence, and the Obama Administration running out of good options. Isn’t the CIA always called in when nothing else works?

I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that, right now, the last situation the CIA wants to get into is Syria. Like the rest of the world, it knows next to nothing about the Syrian opposition, which is a mare’s nest of secular and religious groups. There is no one predominant figure, which leaves the CIA to sort out competing claims to political leadership and support. And, as these things usually go, it will take a lot of time to sort out the swindlers and the frauds from the real thing. A large number of Syrian exiles are in it for the money, rather than supporting, much less representing the fighters dying on Syria’s battlefields.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Year of Chaos: Images of a Slow-Motion Civil War)

It should also be remembered that the CIA has had a long, unhappy history playing Syrian politics. In the 1960s, one of its operatives was accused of trying to foment a coup, and was hanged in Damascus’s central square. After Syria put down the Hama rebellion in February 1982, it found U.S.-made radio equipment in the rubble, and wrongly accused the CIA of having supported the uprising. Both State Department and the CIA came to an informal understanding that the CIA would keep away from the Syrian opposition — and it, in fact, did just that for the following three decades. So right now, the CIA is playing catch-up.

Turning the CIA on Syria is a sign that the Administration has been put in a corner not of its own making. That’s because there are no easy or obvious solutions to the Syrian conflict. When the Arab Spring first reached Syria in March 2011, the Washington’s hope was that Syrian President Bashar Assad would open up Syria to some sort of democracy and defuse dissent. Then, when the power struggle turned violent, the Administration latched on to the hope that a Syrian general would overthrow Bashar.

But what Washington missed was that the minority-led Alawite regime from the beginning was blinded by a siege mentality that didn’t allow for any dissent. Either you’re with us or you’re against us was the mentality. Sacrificing Bashar — no matter how badly he’d botched it — would be tantamount to surrender.

As the military confrontation escalated, the regime decided to hand out weapons to the so-called shabihah — irregular militas made up of Alawites and Christians, set loose on Sunni communities supporting the uprising. The regime never had any illusions it could control such groups, or restrain them from waging pogroms against civilians. But the arithmetic was compelling: There simply weren’t enough loyal units in the army to hold all the territory being contested by the rebels.

(READ: How the U.S. Is Using Technology to Aid Syria’s Rebels)

To add to the mess the CIA’s been handed, all of the Syrian opposition groups and rebels are already spoken for in one way or another. Turkey has its favorites, as does Jordan. The most militant Islamic factions are supported by Qatar, where Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood long ago set up shop. The Qatari authorities may know the Syrian Brotherhood better than anyone, but it doesn’t mean Qatar will open its files to the Americans.

And let’s not forget the regional conflict. Saudi Arabia believes that if the Syrian regime falls, it will be an enormous setback for Riyadh’s two enemies — Iran, and Lebanon’s Hizballah. The Saudis would celebrate it as an even exchange for the influence it has lost to Iran in Iraq.

The permutations of the Syrian conflict would short-circuit Talleyrand’s most complicated realpolitik calculations. And even the legendary French diplomat would be loathe to predict what would happen to Syria if more arms were sent in. Another Somalia or Yemen?

In the dark of the night, there’s little doubt Obama Administration officials whisper to each other that they wish Syria would go back to the status quo ante, that somehow the conflict will die down and go away. As anyone who knows Syria could have told us, democracy is never the way to transition out of a totalitarian minority regime.

But in the meantime, the Obama administration is right to side with Turkey. Turkey understands Syria — and militant Islam — better than the United States does. Turkey has no doubt greenlighted the CIA’s working with the Syrian rebels, and that’s a good sign. Let’s hope it continues.

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