Paramilitary Activity: The Unintended Consequences of America’s Undeclared War Against Assad
Early in the morning on Aug. 21, 2013, Syrian regime forces fired a series of crude rockets toward opposition-held Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs, setting off a chain of events that is now well-known. The rockets were outfitted with a cylinder-shaped warhead filled with the nerve agent Sarin, a weapon of mass destruction. The attack killed an estimated 1,400 people and violated then-President Barack Obama’s stated red line on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Obama and his British and French counterparts pledged to jointly punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but ultimately failed to carry out punitive action after the people’s representatives in the United Kingdom and the United States refused to sanction it.
America’s failure to use military force in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is often portrayed as a critical turning point in the Syrian civil war. A neat and clean counter-factual has taken hold: If only the United States had intervened, the trajectory of the war would have been different.
By 2014, the American failure to strike targets in Syria was being linked to the Russian decision to invade Ukraine. In The Washington Post, Marc Thiessen argued that the United States was “projecting weakness.” He wrote, “When your adversaries believe you are weak, they are emboldened to act — and prone to miscalculate. Putin believes there will be no real costs for his intervention in Ukraine because there were no costs in Syria.” Earlier this year, in a column titled, “Epic failure of our age,” The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall wrote, “Obama’s disregard for his own ‘red line’ was interpreted in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and other Arab capitals as confirming a fundamental shift — evidence that a chastened, post-Iraq America was retreating from its global policeman role.”
But the myth of America’s “failure to act” overlooks the critical fact that the United States did intervene in Syria, as did Russia, Iran, and Turkey. This viewpoint also misrepresents the unintended consequences of American action. Contrary to the dominant narrative of American apathy, the United States did seek to remove Assad from power through the clandestine support of the Syrian insurgency. And it was this intervention that prompted Russia to step in to support the beleaguered Assad regime, undermining the U.S. goal of regime change. American policy in Syria ultimately backfired not because Obama was weak, but because U.S. intervention spurred second-order effects, specifically the Russian decision to intervene on behalf of an ally that seemed on the verge of being overthrown.
The U.S. experience in Syria is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of unconventional warfare and intervention in civil conflicts — specifically, how American actions can inadvertently prompt escalation. The Syrian case should be a reminder about the need to thoroughly understand the interests of American adversaries and ascribe to these countries the agency to make policy in line with those interests.
Flimsy arguments about America’s failure to act are preventing a more serious discussion about the U.S. experience in Syria. In the future, analytical errors about how we got to this point in the conflict will prevent America from crafting a more serious policy towards a revanchist Russia in the Middle East.
American Intervention in Syria: Two Campaigns with Two Different Goals
The American decision to clandestinely arm elements of the Syria opposition is part of a long history of using unconventional warfare to shape conflicts abroad. In 2012, the Central Intelligence Agency, with Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish logistical assistance, began to airlift weapons to Turkey for provision to Arab opposition groups in Syria. The fight against Assad, therefore, had always been the CIA’s job. The agency sought to empower paramilitary forces, which the Defense Department defines as “groups distinct from the conventional armed forces of any country, but resembling them in organization, equipment, training, or mission.” Beginning in 2012, the CIA oversaw the clandestine arming campaign of different insurgent groups, hoping to put enough pressure on Assad to force the regime to negotiate, with the ultimate aim of using military coercion to force Assad to step down. Support for the arming program, dubbed Timber Sycamore, was expanded in 2013 and, by 2014, vetted groups were receiving the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile. The intent was to use this lethal assistance to help increase American leverage over the anti-Assad opposition and to use coercive pressure to force the regime to capitulate.
With the rise of the Islamic State, however, the United States expanded its overt, military-led campaign in Iraq and Syria, beginning with airstrikes and the training of local partner forces to lead the ground campaign. Special operations forces soon followed in advisory roles for both Iraqi forces and potential resistance forces within Syria.
This policy posed challenges for “unconventional warfare,” a core mission of special operations forces. The current definition of unconventional warfare is “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” U.S. combat operations partially fit this definition, but, crucially, the local resistance forces were not fighting to overthrow the government. Instead, the U.S. role was limited to enabling one non-state actor (the opposition forces) to defeat another (Islamic State), stopping short of toppling the regime in Damascus.
This decision also meant that the U.S. military needed to identify and partner with groups committed to fighting Islamic State, and not go hunting for groups to empower to fight the regime. In other words, the military mission was, from the outset, divorced from concurrent paramilitary efforts to topple the regime.
By 2015, the CIA-led arming program, combined with robust Turkish support for the bulk of the northern insurgency, resulted in the defeat of regime forces in Idlib. However, this narrowly defined military success had two unexpected outcomes. The loose alliance of rebels that spearheaded the fight in Idlib had core cadres loyal to al-Qaeda, along with hundreds of insurgent fighters that were sympathetic to the group. The U.S. arming program failed to marginalize these groups; Instead, vetted groups receiving U.S. assistance enabled the advance of actors with ties to a terrorist organization, undermining the U.S. emphasis on denying such groups safe haven.
A second, and related, outcome was that the regime’s losses prompted Russia to intervene directly in the conflict. In short, the anti-Assad opposition in Idlib province became so strong (in Russia’s eyes) that it prompted direct Russian intervention in support of the Syrian government. According to Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky:
The cornerstone of Russian policy in Syria became preventing the United States from carrying out a Libya-like intervention to overthrow Assad …Equally important was the firm belief among Russian elites that Assad’s downfall would result in IS and al-Qaida affiliates taking over the country, spelling disaster for the region and creating a potential superhighway for Sunni extremists into Turkey and the Caucasus.
Rather than becoming emboldened in the face of American inaction, Moscow’s thinking was in fact driven by American action — action that was so successful that it threatened to topple an important Kremlin ally.
Second-Order Effects: Russia’s Intervention
While the Americans were trying to empower two different resistance forces without committing to a significant ground presence, Russia had the advantage of being able to work with and through an established government. This greatly reduced complication and allowed Moscow to pursue a straightforward policy: defend Assad and defeat the insurgency. Moscow has followed a typical intervention strategy, linking up with the Syrian military to organize plodding offensives, backed by overwhelming firepower, to retake lost territory. The ultimate intention is to force the insurgency into a stark choice: reconciliation with the regime or death by devastating area bombing and military siege. Using this approach, Russia has methodically destroyed much of the U.S.-backed insurgency, depriving America of its armed allies. While Damascus and Moscow may not be completely on the same page, they maintain a symbiotic relationship. Russia cannot win in Syria without support from Damascus — and vice versa.
Despite its comparative advantages, however, the Russian approach has been neither tactically brilliant, nor an example of Putin’s “genius.” Instead, Moscow’s actions have been brutally inefficient, dependent on an ample supply of poorly trained ground forces augmented through a surprisingly robust logistics and supply chain to keep aircraft armed and in the air. Russia has access to Syrian ports and has built an airbase, and has been able to use Syrian regime forces and auxiliaries as cannon fodder to pummel (sometimes ineffectively) a divided insurgency that remains capable of carrying out attacks from areas it controls.
As for Moscow’s more ambitious efforts to settle the conflict through the holding of international conferences with Turkish and Iranian support, it’s still unclear what Russia will be able to achieve politically, even if the insurgency can be beaten back.
Looking Back, Looking Forward: Predictable Failures and Learning New Lessons
The CIA-led arming program was designed to empower opposition elements to force Assad to make concessions and ultimately step down. This mission ultimately failed because it succeeded — with American help, the opposition became strong enough to trigger a Russian response. But as far as the military mission was concerned, once forces were deployed in country, civilian policymakers refused to take the unconventional warfare campaign to its logical conclusion — regime overthrow. The reasons for American hesitation to topple Assad directly are obvious: The collapse of the Syrian regime would saddle the United States with the responsibility of post-conflict governance and, perhaps, give even more space for jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition to plot external attacks from ungoverned spaces. The result has been a mismatch between ways and means and convoluted thinking about the American role in the Syrian civil war.
However, the most important outcome of the Syrian conflict appears to be the change in Russia’s view of American intervention in countries the Kremlin considers allies. Russia’s actions in Syria — and in its own near abroad — suggest a new reality: In contrast to the immediate post-Cold War period, when Russia was too weak to oppose American military action, Moscow now appears determined to challenge Washington for primacy in contested countries. This portends a future of great power competition playing out in third-party countries, a throwback to the U.S.-Soviet competition during much of the Cold War. Amid the countless op-eds and articles written about how to make the opposition more lethal, or about American failure to provide more weapons, few accounted for how the threat to the Syrian regime could prompt counter-moves from adversaries. With the war stalemated, the time is right to re-evaluate U.S. policy and to finally recognize Russian interests, while also looking for ways to saddle Moscow with the costs of its “victory.” And yet, there seems little incentive for America to radically change its approach, because the political and military cost of its “strategic patience” policy is so low that there is little incentive to radically change the approach.
With this in mind, it is useful to return to the question of whether a stronger U.S. response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons would have changed the course of the war. A joint Western response, like the one contemplated in 2013, would have been limited in scope and similar to the cruise missile strikes President Donald Trump did ultimately authorize when chemical weapons were used at least twice in 2017, and then again in 2018. The Trump administration’s missile strikes did not alter the course of the war. In fact, what did alter the course of the war was the CIA-led paramilitary effort to topple Assad, which then led to a significant change in Russian policy, resulting in the current stalemate. Yet at the start of the conflict, the debate in the United States was about how much weaponry to supply to the opposition, rather than how the shipment of tons of small arms and light weapons could shift the situation in unforeseen ways.
The most noteworthy lesson that emerges is the importance of understanding Russian decision-making. Rather than revert to lazy tropes about American weakness, a more fruitful line of inquiry would probe the reasons for the Russian intervention and the thinking in Moscow about the threat the U.S. poses to its view of stability in the Middle East. As strategic thinking in the United States shifts to focus on competition with near-peer adversaries, it is necessary to assess Russia’s response to the paramilitary campaign in Syria.
At some point, in some other country, the United States will return to the military and paramilitary toolbox it used in Syria. So, too, will Russia. Understanding how U.S. intervention actually escalated the Syrian conflict by prompting Russian action is necessary to be better equipped for the geopolitical competition to come.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Image: Daniel Leal-Olivas