The Logic for (Shoddy) U.S. Covert Action in Syria


By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support), The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market.

This is not the first time an American-led covert operation has gone awry, and it certainly won’t be the last. Consider Operation Cyclone, the covert U.S. arms pipeline to the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Long held up as a success story in Cold War proxy warfare, the mujahideen – supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – fell on each other after the Soviets retreated, creating an environment where al Qaeda could later thrive.  This White House is certainly no stranger to these lessons of history. During early debates on Syria policy, Obama commissioned a study on the CIA’s track record in covert aid that concluded such efforts seldom work.

What, then, is the rationale for U.S. policy in Syria? Why has the White House continued to draw on the tool of covert military aid despite its shoddy track record? Rather than praise or condemn the Obama administration’s approach, our goal is to shed light on some of the considerations that have driven what’s going on and why by drawing on our own research on past covert aid programs. Our findings suggest that escalation dynamics and unique reputational concerns help to explain why the Obama White House finds itself stuck with a covert military aid program of questionable efficacy and impact.

The Origins and Evolution of “Timber Sycamore”

American involvement in Syria comes in two main flavors. The first is a limited covert operation to support moderate rebels in their quest to unseat Assad. The second is an overt military campaign to combat ISIL. While both are important in their own right, our primary goal here is to better understand the former.

Deliberations over what the United States ought to do militarily in Syria began as early as 2012. The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small “50-man cell” of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light. Since then, America’s CIA covert operation against the Syrian regime, known as Timber Sycamore, has grown substantially. In 2014, reports suggested that the United States was “ramping up” its support to the rebels through the provision of TOW anti-tank guided missiles. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that America wasn’t acting alone. Timber Sycamore had become a joint effort with Saudi Arabia: The Saudis provided cash and arms, while the Americans provided training.

To date, efforts to replace Assad or bring him to the negotiating table haven’t succeeded. In addition to the aforementioned concerns about the black market for arms, the House Intelligence Committee in 2015 unanimously voted to cut funding for the $1 billion program, which accounted “for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget” according to The Washington Post. To make matters worse, some claim that the provision of TOW missiles to the rebels helped to draw Russia deeper into the conflict. Although we do not directly address it here, America’s efforts to replace Assad are further complicated by a parallel but distinct effort to degrade and destroy ISIL.

What drives governments like the United States to reach for this kind of covert action program? Domestic politics is an obvious candidate. Sending arms to groups like the Syrian rebels covertly opens up options for presidents facing reluctant constituents. Think here about President Ford and Henry Kissinger sending arms covertly to Angolan rebels in 1975 in the face of hostile post-Vietnam sentiment in Congress and amid the public.

Bureaucratic turf wars can also affect how weapons are sent abroad. Reaching for the covert tool means putting the CIA in the driver’s seat, reducing the influence of rival foreign policy bureaucracies (namely the Departments of State and Defense). Some reports suggest that debates under Obama on the CIA’s role in Syria were influenced by these kinds of considerations.

The story is likely not so simple. Our own research suggests that factors located beyond the water’s edge — namely, the geostrategic and normative risks from intervention in civil war — are often critical considerations in decisions about covert action. If true, using covert methods to influence Syria would still be very appealing to an Obama White House in a parallel universe with a supportive public and bureaucratic harmony. In what follows, we unpack these two recurring themes in covert aid programs. The first, drawing primarily on Carson’s research, explores the dangers of conflict escalation in internationalized civil wars (that is, civil wars with significant external actors). The second, based primarily on Poznansky’s work, examines the risks to U.S. reputation from a questionably legal intervention.

The Role of Escalation as a Driver of Secrecy

One advantage in supplying arms covertly is greater control over the risk of conflict escalation. Outside involvement in local wars tends to beget more involvement. This is especially true when “small” conflicts are intertwined with broader ideological and geopolitical stakes. For this reason, escalation has been a continuous worry in Syria. The civil war features a trio of escalation drivers: geopolitical significance, ideological rivalry within Islam, and appalling civilian suffering. Leaving aside the United States, these forces have helped attract the apparent involvement of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and even France. Obama’s national security team was therefore wise to take careful measure of escalation issues while weighing American policy options in Syria, as several reports on White House deliberations noted back in 2013 and 2014.

Carson’s research suggests major powers have a long history of covertly meddling as a way to compete for influence while containing a war’s escalatory dangers. While the proxy conflicts of the Cold War come first to mind, the closest parallel to Syria may be the Spanish Civil War. This brutally violent, ideologically framed struggle for power in 1930s Western Europe attracted interventions by Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Rather than openly enter the war, all three concealed and denied their involvement. This was no exercise in frivolous Fascist and Communist propaganda. Instead, localizing the war in Spain was a critical goal for all three dictators. Using an under-the-radar form of involvement allowed influence on the battlefield while avoiding tit-for-tat escalation among themselves or through entry by France or Britain, a particularly dangerous escalation.

In a recent article on the covert Soviet combat role in the Korean War, Carson shows that covert interventions in a conflict like Syria can help localize war in several ways. On the front end, using a covert role reduces the challenge that intervention poses to others. This is rarely because other interested governments are outright fooled; intelligence reporting and media leaks tend to tip them off. Rather, keeping involvement under the radar helps insulate those leaders from wider reputational and domestic political pressures to respond aggressively, thereby dampening prospects for a tit-for-tat escalation process. On the back end, a deniable intervention is far easier to wind down. Especially in democracies, a public role demands a public justification repeated loudly and often (think domino theory). By contrast, covert involvement is often ritualistically denied, loosening the sense of national commitment and keeping a leader’s options open for scaling back later.

Drawing upon the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, Carson analogizes this process to the different physical spaces in a theater. Covert intervention allows major powers to “back stage” their role. As a result, any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the “audience” (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate. “Back-staging” outside meddling can protect the “front stage” performance of a localized war with limited geopolitical stakes and the potential for diplomatic resolution.

The CIA’s Timber Sycamore program embodies this logic in key respects. By rejecting an overt and acknowledged relationship with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama White House has retained greater flexibility to tweak the program as the war evolves. Even relatively porous secrecy may help to evade the daily media reporting, public justifications, and regular congressional involvement that so often accompany overt programs. Moreover, by embracing a “back stage” role in Syria, the United States has avoided a naked geopolitical challenge to other states. Doing so reduces the chances of a public diplomatic crisis should American-supplied weaponry advertently or inadvertently be used in a clash with, say, Iranian personnel in Syria. Russia’s “front stage” air intervention and American overt air strikes against ISIL only strengthens this limited war logic. With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia’s ally in Damascus low-profile makes U.S.-Russian crisis prevention measures easier.

The Role of Reputation as a Driver of Secrecy

A second risk driving the Obama administration to act covertly in Syria turns on concerns about preserving America’s reputation as a superpower that respects and adheres to international norms and principles. Poznansky refers to this as a “reputation for rule-following.” The very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient. The reason is that intervening to overthrow a sovereign government has, at least since 1945, directly conflicted with the non-intervention principle codified in the founding charter of the United Nations and a host of other regional international organizations. The United States was the lead author of these rules and remains a vociferous cheerleader for them.

Based on Poznansky’s research, the relationship between regime change and international rules and norms – namely, respect for state sovereignty – may go a long way toward explaining why toppling Assad overtly is fraught with unique reputational risks. The exercise of (strategic) restraint by the United States is a large part of what has held the so-called liberal international order together since World War II. If states across parts of Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere no longer believe that America is committed to abiding by these rules, their incentives to continue investing in that order — an order that has economically and geopolitically benefited the United States — will be greatly diminished. The Bush administration learned this lesson the hard way in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

It’s tempting to be cynical about how much Washington really cares about rules and norms in light of America’s storied history with regime change. Whether or not policymakers have themselves internalized these norms, history at least suggests that they want others to believe they have. Hence the attractiveness of covert action. Consider the infamous Bay of Pigs operation, a failed CIA ploy to topple Fidel Castro in 1961. A key concern of policymakers was how an overt invasion of Cuba would square with America’s professed commitment not to engage in this kind of behavior. Such concerns were expressed by military officials and civilians alike. Although the CIA plan would be less effective than any of the overt options, it still promised a small chance of successfully deposing Castro without the reputational baggage. Early deliberations about what to do in Syria suggest that a similar set of concerns were at play here as well.

As with all things in life, legitimate exceptions to the non-intervention principle do exist. Military action against a sovereign regime in the name of self-defense, also codified in the UN Charter, is an obvious example. Authorization from the UN Security Council is another. The presence of one or more of these fig leaves might make it possible for the United States to act more openly against Assad while still maintaining a reputation for rule-following. Yet the Obama administration shouldn’t hold its breath. Neither the United States nor its allies have been or are likely to be attacked by the Syrian regime. Perhaps more importantly, one of the permanent veto-players on the Security Council is overtly intervening to help Assad.

Interestingly, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in 2013 might have served as a pretext for a more open U.S. role. Rightly or wrongly, the Obama administration at that time chose to forgo an opportunity at legitimate intervention in favor of a brokered deal with Russia that required Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpiles. Evidence of Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons, however, appear to provide yet another opportunity to pursue overt regime change at reduced normative cost. One plausible explanation for why Obama hasn’t capitalized is that the administration worries (for good reason) that ramping up efforts to replace Assad at this stage would ultimately benefit ISIL. In short, while legal concerns appear to have been an important consideration in whether and how to pursue regime change earlier on, the threat of the Islamic State has complicated matters.

Where From Here?

Our discussion of the international complications of intervention in Syria raises an important question: Why hasn’t the Obama administration simply stayed out? After all, doing so would all but eliminate the danger of provoking a wider war and ensure that America’s words and deeds – at least in this case — remained consistent.

From the American perspective, two considerations likely explain why intervening covertly may have been and continues to be preferable to doing nothing. First, staying out altogether might entail serious costs in terms of U.S. goals in Syria. While covert action can be inefficient and inflexible compared to overt arms supply, there is still some chance such a program can tilt the balance on the battlefield enough to bring Assad to the negotiating table. Second, a warts-and-all covert intervention by the United States has limited but potentially useful symbolic value. Especially for local partners of the program (reportedly Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and well-informed adversaries with their own intelligence coverage in Syria (say, Iran and Russia), American covert action can send a signal, albeit a modest one, about American interests in the conflict and region.

None of this is to suggest the program is doing its job. Even with the occasional media reports that trickle out into the public sphere, we still lack sufficient data about the program to assess whether it is working. Anecdotal reports of rogue Jordanian intelligence officers hustling weapons on the black market are a far cry from systematic evidence about the CIA’s success in affecting Assad’s thinking, influencing the battlefield, and expressing American interests. Of course, this opacity is the raison d’être of covert action. As with the secret drone program, the best government outsiders like us can do is put the U.S. covert action program in context, monitor it carefully, and be mindful of the depth of suffering unfolding inside Syria itself.


Austin Carson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Carson holds a PhD in Political Science from The Ohio State University.

Michael Poznansky is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Poznansky holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Virginia.