US Congress could cut funds for Syrian rebels

Friday 26/06/2015
Classified scepticism

Washington - A Syrian rebel who goes by the name of Abu Qays recently called the US programme to train Syrian rebels “a drop in the ocean” that would not make a “mark on the ground in Syria”.

But even this drop in the ocean could shrink if the US Congress ap­proves a House intelligence com­mittee proposal to cut funding for the covert CIA programme in southern Syria. The scepticism that many Syrian rebels have about the programme is shared by some in Congress who question the admin­istration’s overall strategy.

The timing of the proposed cuts could not be worse for the Syrian rebels, as the tide seems to be turn­ing against the regime’s forces in the south.

This was demonstrated when the Southern Front’s 1st Army overran a major regime position, Brigade 52, “the most important brigade in Deraa”, according to Faysal Itani of the Rafik Hariri Center at the At­lantic Council. “The rebels are now well-placed to advance on Sweida province to the east,” said Itani, and “threaten the regime’s supply lines to its remaining southern outposts and eventually attempt to capture Deraa and advance on Damascus.”

The proposed cuts were revealed when the Washington Post re­ported that the House intelligence committee, whose hearings and actions are strictly classified, “vot­ed unanimously to cut as much as 20% of the classified funds flowing into a CIA programme that US of­ficials said had become one of the agency’s largest covert operations, with a budget approaching $1 bil­lion a year”.

Itani considered the CIA pro­gramme to be “successful strat­egy” compared to the “ill-con­ceived train-and-equip programme against the Islamic State” and advised that the United States in­crease support for a “coherent and effective southern insurgency”. But Congress, at least, is not buying that argument.

US Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told the Post “there is a great deal of concern on a very bi­partisan basis with our strategy in Syria”, adding that there is growing doubt the United States will be able to “help shape the aftermath” of Syria’s civil war.

Oubab Khalil, chief of staff for the opposition’s Syrian Foreign Mission to the United States, told The Arab Weekly “instead of cutting fund­ing we need to double down and increase the training portion. It is working very well and it keeps Daesh (ISIS) and al-Nusra out”. He said that his office will try to per­suade Congress not to reduce fund­ing.

Jeff White of the Washington In­stitute for Near East Policy, who closely follows the Syrian civil war, said that funding would have an operational effect, with less money for weapons, salaries, training and operations. But most importantly, he said, “it will have effect on the psychology of the rebels. It will send a message to the rebels about the US as a reliable partner.”

This is not the first controversial issue related to the US training pro­gramme. At the end of May, the Dai­ly Beast reported that about 1,000 Syrian rebels threatened to with­draw from the programme because of US demands that their training and weapons be used against ISIS and not against the regime or its ally, Hezbollah.

On June 17th, the University of Birmingham’s EA Worldview re­ported that “foreign officials” in Amman asked the Southern Front Coalition to halt the assault on al- Thala airport because “of the possi­ble sensitivity of the Druze commu­nity to a rebel entry into Sweida”. The rebels reportedly complied.

White said the incident “reinforc­es the previous message that the US is not a reliable partner”.

The House bill, which advanced on a 247-178 vote, has been sent to the Senate, which must approve it before it is sent to the White House for the president’s signature. Even then, the cuts would not go into ef­fect until the fiscal year that begins on October 1st.

The often-mentioned concern that the weapons might fall into the wrong hands is overblown, a congressional source told The Arab Weekly. The more legitimate concern, he said, is that the CIA programme is incompatible with the US Defense Department’s train-and-equip programme.

“We are funding two incompat­ible programmes,” he said. “We have to reconcile these two pro­grammes. We need to figure out a way to do it. Our goal is not to cut the programme itself but to make it compatible.”

But the Defense Department’s programme also has been subject to harsh criticism for being slow, hav­ing difficulty getting recruits and then graduating only a handful.

At least one member of Congress has spoken out against the cuts. El­iot Engel, D-N.Y., said, “I am afraid we might be making a big mistake.”

Engel added, “This bill is not the right place for us to be making deci­sions that have a major impact on our Syria strategy.”

During the Group of Seven sum­mit in June, US President Barack Obama said, “We don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” for confronting ISIS.

For the CIA’s programme or any other one to succeed, it needs to be part of a comprehensive strategy. That elusive goal seems far away.