The ad hoc plan to arm the Syrian rebels is looking eerily similar to the United States' most infamous foreign-policy misadventure.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
On April 17, 1961, approximately 1,300 exiled Cuban militants — known as Brigade 2506 — attempted an amphibious and airborne assault on the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. The CIA-sponsored paramilitary invasion hinged on a string of implausible actions that would have to be synchronized and integrated to succeed. In this case, success was for Brigade 2506 to establish a beachhead that would, somehow, initiate a counterrevolutionary uprising in the countryside and cause mass defections among the Cuban military. How this was supposed to happen remains one of the great Cold War mysteries: The CIA’s declassified history shows that there was literally no planning for the second phase of this impractical covert operation intended to eventually topple Fidel Castro. Worse, neither President John F. Kennedy nor his senior advisors had ever asked for phase two.
While the CIA was training exiled militants in guerrilla warfare, infiltration, and sabotage, senior agency officers repeatedly promised the brigade’s commanders that they would receive an American “umbrella” of “protection by sea, by air, and even under the sea.” An Alabama Air National Guard member who was training Cuban exile pilots proclaimed, without sarcasm : “We’re gonna have Cuban pilots who don’t speak Spanish and who have blond hair and blue eyes taking care of us, and an aircraft carrier which is loaded with the latest model fighters. We can’t lose!”
On April 15, there was one air raid by B-26 bombers — painted to resemble Cuban Air Force B-26s — against three airfields. A bomb damage assessment based on U-2 imagery revealed: “No damage to any of the runways and only minimal apparent damage to the combat aircraft observed.” American air commanders immediately planned additional strikes against the airfields, a harbor, and a radio station to coincide with the amphibious landing. However, on D-day itself, Kennedy called off this second strategic airstrike at the recommendation of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was trying to maintain the plausible deniability of U.S. involvement. The Castro regime, alerted to the invasion by its own spies and the prior bombings, rallied the military to brutally put down the invasion. Within four days, 89 members of Brigade 2506 were killed, and the remaining 1,197 taken prisoner.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a unique foreign-policy catastrophe, destined to fail due to the CIA’s overconfidence and assumptions that went unquestioned during the transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Nevertheless, the Bay of Pigs provides a useful frame of reference for thinking through a contemporary and similarly implausible foreign-policy scheme: the U.S.-led training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces scheduled to begin next month.
The next step of this campaign will more deeply commit U.S. prestige and power into the outcome of the Syrian civil war. To date, the U.S. military effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (or defeat) the Islamic State has centered on gradually deploying more and more U.S. troops into noncombat training and advising roles — currently there are 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq (plus 5,000 contractors) and another 9,700 in Kuwait — and standoff air power in the form of more than 2,400 airstrikes, or 81 percent of all coalition strikes. Assuredly, there are other U.S. special operators and covert assets on the ground, including within Syria. The training and equipping of Syrian rebel forces is a vastly more significant and consequential decision than what the United States is doing in Iraq, which is unfolding in the absence of any public discussion or debate.
How the United States got here
To understand this state of affairs, look back to September, when, in reaction to the release of horrific Islamic State videos, Congress rushed through legislation “to provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” After three years and six months of refusing to support large-scale, Pentagon-run training and arming of rebel forces — there has been a limited and reportedly ineffective CIA-led training effort for more than two years — Congress reversed course with limited clarity about what exactly those forces would do once they were trained, equipped, and deployed back into Syria.
Worse, senior officials’ comments have only confused what the United States has promised to the Syrian rebels. The policy was first articulated in September during a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “If [the rebels are] attacked by Bashar [al-]Assad, we’re not gonna help them?” and adding, “Will we repel Bashar [al-]Assad’s air assets that will be attacking them?” The secretary replied: “Any attack on those that we have trained and who are supporting us, we will help ‘em.” Days later, Defense Department spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby confirmed: “The secretary was clear in his testimony that, once we have trained opposition forces, should they come under attack, we would defend them.”
Cut to this past Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 24. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether it was moral to equip and train people and then not protect them from the barrel bombs that Syrian President Assad is dropping on them. After Kerry endorsed the principle of “defending those who are engaged in the fight of ISIL,” using another name for the Islamic State, Corker asked again about defending against Assad’s air power. Kerry acknowledged that the form of U.S. military support was still under debate and that “the president hasn’t made a final decision on that.” Three days later, on Feb. 27, Kirby emphasized: “There’s been no decision made about any combat air support for opposition fighters that would go back into the fight in Syria,” reversing what he had confirmed five months earlier. One issue of this program that’s under debate, given that the United States is not at war with Syria, is, according to the Wall Street Journal, “whether U.S. warplanes would have legal authorization to strike Mr. Assad’s forces, even to support a U.S.-trained rebel force.”
President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to publicly articulate what will be the U.S. military commitment has made it difficult to attract potential Syrian rebels. In mid-January, Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of Special Operations Command-Central, who is overseeing the train-and-equip program, met with Syrian opposition and civil society leaders in Istanbul. One Pentagon official and one Centcom official have told me that Nagata has been careful not to overpromise what specific support the United States and other coalition militaries would provide in the future. However, the Wall Street Journal reported that Nagata “told lawmakers that he wants to establish more consistent supply lines and provide air support to approved fighters.”
So, to bring this back to the Bay of Pigs operation, U.S. officials are recruiting, vetting, and training a paramilitary force in the field, while White House officials remain undecided about what air cover the rebels will receive once deployed into a war zone.
What will the rebels do?
Equally confusing is the Obama administration’s theory of what the Syrian rebels will do once they are trained. Officials have emphasized that those rebels will do three things. These include, as Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Jan. 16, “One … to defend their own communities and their own citizens and go back to their own towns and cities and help defend their neighbors. Two, to eventually go on the offensive against ISIL inside Syria. And three, to help work with political opposition leaders towards a political solution in Syria.”
Although the Pentagon claims that the U.S.-led training effort will “make sure we’re dealing with individuals and units that are trustworthy,” it is dubious why returning Syrian rebels would continue to follow U.S. orders given their previous refusal to do so. In July 2014, when journalist Theo Padnos asked a Free Syrian Army fighter who had received training from U.S. forces to fight al-Nusra Front whether he intended to fight the group, the fighter replied, “Oh, that.… We lied to the Americans about that.” Instead, he turned against the Assad regime.
Three likely assumptions will apply on the ground for the initial group of 1,200 Syrian rebels trained by the U.S.-led coalition and the 5,000 over the first year. First, they will be enormously outmanned and outgunned by any number of government and militia armies. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ just-published The Military Balance, 2015, the Syrian military retains 178,000 active-duty troops, and the Islamic State has perhaps 30,000 committed fighters, not to mention tens of thousands of other fighters with various loyalties and objectives.
Second, they will immediately be an attractive target for attacks by the Islamic State, Assad’s ground and air forces, and perhaps Nusra and other forces. Killing or taking prisoner fighters (or the families of those fighters) who were trained by the U.S. military will offer propaganda value, as well as leverage, to bargain for those prisoners’ release.
Third, the trained rebels will tell American reporters that they were promised a greater volume of advanced weapons, ammunition, funding, and air power. This is to be expected; once a rebel force has publicly secured third-party support for its efforts, those rebels have every reason to squeeze out additional amounts of assistance by manipulating sympathetic government officials and public opinion within that third party.
This raises a group of eight questions that should be debated and addressed by Congress and the White House before this program progresses any further. White House clarifications of such questions are owed to the American people, the other countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition, and, of course, the trained Syrian rebels themselves.
1. Where will all these new air sorties fly from?
Continuous armed overwatch and close air support will require around-the-clock commitment of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), air refueling, combat search and rescue, and strike capabilities. Generating these sorties from bases in Jordan and other Persian Gulf countries, and/or U.S. naval platforms, will be a costly, risky, and difficult logistical effort. The perfect originating location for these sorties would be Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The United States has been denied host-nation access from Turkey for strikes against the Islamic State. Will it now receive access for strikes against Assad’s forces?
2. Who is fair game to bomb when U.S.-trained rebels are threatened?
Will the United States provide close air support for the trained rebels when they are attacked by the Islamic State, but withhold it when the aggressors are the Syrian army, government-sponsored militias, or other rebel forces? If the United States suddenly finds itself at war with Syria, there will need to be a massive wave of cruise missiles and airstrikes to destroy the regime’s air defenses. What if the U.S. intelligence community determines that the trained Syrian rebels are being attacked by Hezbollah or Iranian-deployed militias? Does the United States want to escalate its commitment to the rebels into an open war with Iran?
3. How will the United States decide when it provides cover?
Will the United States provide close air support for the trained rebels when they go on the offensive against Islamic State units, but withhold it for attacks against the Assad regime or against other rebel forces? Integrating air support with the fire and movement of paramilitary forces will be much more difficult than simply providing air cover for well-defended static targets, as was largely the case for Kurdish forces in Kobani.
4. Can the rebels be trusted to help pick targets?
What role will the trained Syrian rebels have in selecting potential bombing aim points — which Pentagon officials have admitted “is a possibility” — with the communications gear that they are being provided? Given that they will be operating in close proximity with civilian populations and other assorted militia forces, what sort of vetting will be plausible for bombing demands against time-sensitive targets?
5. Will the weapons flood in when needed?
If they are facing defeat or claim the need for a massive influx of advanced weapons, will they be provided by the United States? What would be the end-user monitoring program to ensure these do not fall in the hands of non-vetted militias as previously has occurred?
6. Do the trained rebels’ allies get air cover?
What if the trained rebels align themselves with other militias and coordinate their battlefield movements — a likely and wise occurrence given their need to survive? Will the United States provide close air support for this combined force or just for those that have gone through the U.S.-led training-and-equipping program?
7. Would U.S. troops save the rebels if push comes to shove?
If the trained rebels were about to be overrun and eliminated, would the United States commit to sending in a high-risk, helicopter-borne special operations force to extract them from Syria, as was done for Hamid Karzai’s militia force from Taliban-held southern Afghanistan in November 2001?
8. And what happens if they win?
Finally, let’s assume some measure of success in all this. At some point, the trained Syrian rebels will purportedly help to “find a political solution.” How does the White House envision that happening; what is the mechanism (Assad’s forced removal from power, Geneva III?); and why would these rebels’ political interests align with those of the United States — now or ever? And when the Syrian civil war finally ends, will the trained rebels give the weapons back and demobilize as a fighting force?
Bay of Pigs in the desert
On Dec. 29, 1962, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Kennedy — as well as Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking in Spanish — addressed a “welcome back” event for the captured members of Brigade 2506. In a forgotten example of the White House paying for the release of hostages, $53 million ($415 million today) worth of food and medicine and $3 million in cash — provided by U.S. companies and citizens — was handed over to the Castro regime. In exchange, 1,113 Cuban prisoners were flown to Miami. (This trade occurred after President Kennedy had declared: “Mr. Castro knows that the United States government cannot engage in a negotiation like that, and he knows very well that the families cannot raise these millions of dollars.”) Standing behind a lectern at the Orange Bowl’s 50-yard line, Kennedy lauded the fighters for their courage and cause, but never acknowledged why Brigade 2506 had been imprisoned in the first place nor apologized for his refusal to authorize military support after their U.S.-backed invasion was underway.
As Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, later admitted, “It is true that neither side [the CIA and the White House] focused on it. Phase two didn’t get much study.” Last September, the White House and Congress agreed to authorize and fund a train-and-equip project similar to the Bay of Pigs, but this time in the Middle East, without any discussion about phase two. The Syrian project resembles 1961 in two ways: What happens when the fighting starts is undecided, and the intended strategic objective is wholly implausible. Before this project proceeds, Obama owes U.S. citizens answers and some evidence that phase two has been studied and makes sense.
Photo credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images