Operation TIMBER SYCAMORE, the formally-covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has, since approximately 2012, ostensibly provided support to vetted Syrian rebel units fighting against Bashar al-Asad’s regime. This program, begun by President Barack Obama, was never raised to a level that could alter the course of Syria’s conflict in favour of the opposition, and indeed one of its most concrete effects was denying certain categories of heavy weapons to the rebellion. While providing subsistence to some rebels, the program was mostly a political instrument, shielding Obama from criticism as he tilted U.S. policy in Asad’s favour by empowering his patron, Iran. President Donald Trump abandoned even this fig-leaf of opposition to Asad in July 2017, announcing the end of the program, a termination that went into effect last month.
President Barack Obama articulated his administration’s policy for Syria in August 2011: the ruler, Bashar al-Asad, must “step aside”. This was at the height of the “Arab spring” and it was believed, as the administration would tell Congress in December 2011, that Asad would soon fall of his own weight, a vindication for their policy of masterly inactivity. It soon became clear that Asad would survive unless the U.S. acted because he could rely on outside powers, and equally clear that the Obama administration was not prepared to take such steps. Obama spent the next five-and-a-half years trying to take back his initial policy.
In the summer of 2012, with the regime falling apart, Iran orchestrated an international (Shi’a) jihad that rescued Asad. Tens of thousands of Shi’a Islamists, including designated-terrorist organizations like Lebanese Hizballah and Kataib Hizballah that have killed many Americans, were flooded into Syria by Iran. The U.S. made no effort to interdict the flow. On the contrary, the Obama administration’s view was captured in late 2016, when the U.S.-led counter-terrorism operation in Syria overflew the position of Iranian terrorist groups imposing the siege of Aleppo to strike at al-Qaeda-linked jihadists trying to break that siege.
Russia had provided weaponry and specialist intelligence capacities to the regime from the earliest days, as well as political support. The Obama administration played along, outsourcing its Syria policy to Russia, first by going through the United Nations where the Kremlin has a veto and then with the chemical weapons “deal” in 2013 that rewarded Asad with international legitimacy after his chemical atrocity in Ghuta, an arrangement Obama remains “very proud” of. In late September 2015, Moscow was forced to intervene directly, under a joint plan with Iran, to save Asad for a second time The Russians were allowed to move into Syria unhindered; there are certain things U.S. intelligence can certainly detect, and a conventional movement of this kind by Russia is one of them, yet nothing was done (even rhetorically) to push back on it. Once the Russians were in, they systematically targeted U.S.-allied rebels and the rebels were told they were on their own. The Russian presence then became one more alibi for Obama’s inaction; to work against Russia was to risk world war three, so Moscow—and thereby Iran and Asad—must be not only accommodated, but partnered with.
The Obama administration, in short, revoked its ostensible regime-change policy—and spent five-and-a-half years on a messaging strategy intended to disguise that fact. The reasons somewhat shifted. The dominant initial reason related to Iraq—indeed this became the “one-word answer to any and all criticism”. But Obama always had an eye on détente with Iran, facilitated by a paper agreement over the nuclear-weapons program, as his legacy. A nuclear accord with Iran was the foreign policy version of “healthcare for us”, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s notorious head of communications. Letters had been written to Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i in Obama’s first year and later letters would propose a regional partnership between the U.S. and Iran using the Islamic State (IS) as a common foe, which is in fact what happened. No later than July 2012, when Obama established the secret contacts that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Syria became a subset of Iran policy, a sphere of influence to be traded to Iran in exchange for its signature. It was the reason Obama stood down from his threat to attack Asad for using chemical weapons of mass destruction (CMWD) and was ultimately content for Asad to remain in power.
Why, then, did the U.S. spend considerable resources on a program designed to fight Asad? Remember, this is not the Pentagon-run train-and-equip program against IS that failed so publicly and spectacularly. The answer is that the program was a means of appeasing American allies and domestic pressure as the hecatomb in Syria unfolded. Resources were never given—neither time nor material—by the U.S. to the Syrian opposition on a scale nor in a manner that would actually change battlefield dynamics, and this was by design.
President Obama made clear: American support for the opposition was not intended to depose the Asad tyranny—“we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force”—but was instead a means of pressuring Asad “to shape a political settlement”. This is as much as to say it was meant to be ineffective. Regimes like Asad’s do not bend; the dictator was not going to agree to his own departure, not even, as became evident early on, for a settlement that left Syria ruled by Asadism without Asad (the “Alawite general” scenario). Regimes like Asad’s can only be broken, and everything that stopped short of that was irrelevant.
In the course of events, the most lasting effect of U.S. policy might well have been to prevent certain categories of weapons that could have tipped the balance against the regime getting to the rebellion.
THE ORIGINS OF THE TIMBER SYCAMORE OPERATION
The TIMBER SYCAMORE operation began in mid- or late-2012. The U.S. began supplying non-lethal resources to the Syrian opposition, including vetted elements of the armed opposition that had branded themselves Jaysh al-Hur (The Free [Syrian] Army or FSA), in 2012, only providing weaponry the next year (see below). It is not clear at what point the provision of non-lethal supplies came under the TIMBER SYCAMORE heading.
After a meeting between President Obama and Turkey’s now-president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 25 March 2012, Rhodes let it be known that the U.S. was considering joining the Turkish government in providing non-lethal resources to the rebels. Rhodes specifically mentioned medical supplies and communications equipment; in time non-lethal supplies would also include food and military vehicles. A State Department official was quoted in The Washington Post on 15 May 2012 saying, “We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition” [italics added]. “The State Department has authorized $15 million in nonlethal aid, like medical supplies and communications equipment, to civilian opposition groups in Syria”, The New York Times reported on 21 June 2012. CNN reported on 2 August 2012 that “President Barack Obama has signed a … secret order, referred to as an intelligence ‘finding’, which allows for clandestine support by the CIA and other agencies” to Syrian opposition. This included “$25 million for ‘nonlethal’ assistance to the Syrian opposition, with another $64 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people”. “It was unclear when the president signed the authorization for Syria, but the sources said it was within the past several months”, CNN added. The U.S. Treasury granted a licence to the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an opposition lobby organisation, to provide “financial, communications, logistical and other services”—though not weapons—to the FSA on 23 July 2012.
Though the U.S. did not supply weapons initially to the rebels, it did have a role in the weapons flow. The primary action under the TIMBER SYCAMORE rubric in its early days seems to have been to control—read: restrict—the flow of weaponry to the Syrian rebellion. The above-mentioned Times story from June 2012 reported that CIA officials had been in southern Turkey steering the weapons supplied to the insurgency by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey away from bad actors for “several weeks”. And it remained down to the end U.S. policy to prevent the opposition acquiring surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS). In early 2013—in tandem with Saudi-bought infantry weapons from Croatia, channeled through Jordan—some Chinese-made SAMs made their way to rebel groups, supplied from Sudanese stocks and paid for by Qatar, but this was soon cut off. One can only speculate on the effect these weapons would have had if supplied in greater numbers. The obvious comparison is the Stinger missiles in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which had a major impact in assisting an insurgency far less capable and sophisticated than Syria’s (Syria has universal conscription, for example, providing a level of military familiarity that the Mujahideen did not have).
The creation of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) under General Salim Idris on 15 December 2012 was the last of the efforts to form a single, unified rebel command structure that the U.S. could deal with. It was to the SMC that the first direct supply of non-lethal aid was given by the U.S., via the SSG, in May 2013. As can be seen by the length of delay between the decision to provide non-lethal supplies and their actual delivery, there was no vivacity in executing the stated American policy. The U.S. would not even recognize the political opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, as most Arab and European states did. The escalation to providing arms directly to the Syrian opposition was forced upon the Obama administration by the Asad regime’s resort to CWMD.
MILITARIZING TIMBER SYCAMORE
Obama famously drew a “red line” around CWMD on 20 August 2012, saying at a press conference:
We have been very clear to the Asad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. …
We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
In early December 2012, there were leaks to the press that American and European intelligence had detected the regime moving chemical stockpiles around, though the purpose was unclear. Warnings of retribution should these munitions be used were apparently relayed through the Russians to Asad.
I want to make it absolutely clear to Asad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences, and you will be held accountable.
In the days that followed, U.S. officials let it be known, again via the press, that the U.S. had prepared military options to respond to the use of CWMD, and a public statement from Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said much the same thing.
By this time, the regime looked seriously threatened. On 18 July 2012, a mysterious bombing had killed four senior Asad regime officials. Within days, both Damascus and Aleppo were in full-fledged rebellion. Large areas of eastern Aleppo would be held by the rebels for the next four-and-a-half years, and pockets of resistance in Damascus would hold out eighteen months after that. The regime was desperate enough to issue a public threat that it would use CWMD. By the end of 2012, the rebellion was ostensibly preparing a final assault on Asad’s capital. The fall of the regime seemed to be “not too far off”, as one seasoned analyst put it. “You can feel it. You can sense it.”
The Obama administration still refused to apply the minimal pressure that could have pushed the Asad regime into its grave. In-keeping with the “but Iraq” answer the administration gave when asked what it was going to do about Syria, the Pentagon produced a study in late 2012 that said even a minor intervention would require tens of thousands of troops, an assessment that was duly leaked. Around the same time, the CIA was pressured into coming up with a misleading study that said U.S. support for insurgencies never ends well—selectively leaving out the Cold War successes in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, the semi-successes in Indochina and Africa, and the post-Cold War victories in Kosovo and Libya. In other circumstances, when this was passed to the press the story would have been “cherry picking” and “politicized intelligence”, but in this case the Obama administration’s strategic messaging was largely reprinted as packaged.
In January 2013, Taftanaz Airbase fell to an insurgency where, despite nationalists remaining powerful, the balance of power had shifted in favour of the Islamists. These were the last strategic gains by the insurgency for two years. (The next such gains marked the continuation of this trend towards jihadization of the northern insurgency.) In late May 2013, after years of covert involvement, Lebanese Hizballah openly intruded at Qusayr to evict rebel forces, inflaming sectarian tensions. In combination with the U.S.’s decided slowness in assisting the rebels it claimed to be allied to, this weakened the nationalists still further.
In the time between Obama’s second statement on CWMD and the spring of 2013, it was already apparent that Asad had defied U.S. warnings. On 23 December 2012, Asad used CWMD in Homs city. Further attacks followed in March and April 2013 in Khan al-Asal and Utayba, Adra, Jobar, Shaykh Maqsud, Daraya, and Saraqib. A United Nations report identified twelve CWMD attacks between October 2012 and May 2013.
The Obama administration did not view these “small scale” CWMD attacks as a breach of the “red line”; indeed it had come to regard them as “ordinary”. Obama’s advisors were surprised and distinctly displeased that the President had given such a straightforward soundbite in the first place. “The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” one senior official told The New York Times. Obama intended his warning against mass-casualty chemical attacks, the official explained, but that “nuance got completely dropped”.
Overruling the military leaders who advised Obama to react with force to these smaller CWMD attacks since they were designed to probe his “red line”, and meeting these provocations early would prevent anything disastrous, Obama opted to parse and wriggle every-which-way to avoid living up to what everyone understood as stated policy.
It late March 2013, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said, “I think that it is abundantly clear that that red line has been crossed”. A month later, the British government said there was evidence, albeit “limited”, that Asad had used CWMD, and the U.S. gave a similarly ambivalent assessment. Days later, on 25 April 2013, the U.S. slightly shifted position by abandoning the untenable ground of denial, admitting Asad had probably used CWMD, but invoked the failures of intelligence over Iraq to defend inaction on the new terrain of demanding an impossible standard of proof before acting.
As Obama had put it, when reiterating for the third time his warning about CWMD on 20 March 2013, the day after the Khan al-Asal and al-Utayba attacks, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer” [italics added]. Obama happened to be in Israel when he made this statement and within thirty-six hours Israel announced that it had evidence the line had been crossed; the Obama administration moved in hard to have Jerusalem revoke this statement.
Thus began a messaging strategy to ensure that the threshold for action was never met, whatever facts had to be conceded. In tandem, the dreaded lawyers were set loose to explain that “international law” and the displeasure of Russia and China meant that the U.S. could not act. Amidst this evidential and legalistic evasion, there were some members of the administration willing to be more forthright in admitting that this was a political decision, asking rhetorically: “If [Asad] drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
In June 2013, the Obama administration decided that the use of CWMD had something to do with them, after all. “Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Asad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year”, Rhodes announced. “The Asad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.” It was quickly established that this meant Obama was going to provide lethal assistance to the rebellion.
Arming the Syrian rebellion had been proposed to Obama in the summer of 2012 by virtually the entire Cabinet—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey—and had been rejected. In late May 2013, Britain, with French support, had gotten the European Union to drop its arms embargo against Syria. The SMC had also shown itself to have worth by this point, so the U.S.’s stated shift to providing lethal resources was a “bet on Idris”, as one administration official put it.
Yet nothing happened for three months. This was an early example of what Michael Doran called “the Syria two-step”: “The president or a member of his administration issues a statement of support for the FSA that is long on pious intention but short on practical details. After gaining credit from the media for taking action, the president then quietly backs away from his own initiative, taking care never to admit that he is doing so.”
The massive CWMD attack in Ghuta on 21 August 2013, which murdered 1,400 people in a morning, finally ran over Obama’s red line in a way “nuance” could not even save him from. This was a blatant violation of all known customs and laws of war—and an open challenge to Obama personally. Obama was apparently preparing to strike at six regime installations to “punish” Asad for his criminal behaviour. Britain voted to do nothing about CWMD attacks; France was ready to go. And then Obama while stood down, after a walk in the grounds of the White House with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, saying at a press conference on 31 August that Congress must authorise the strikes, something he knew well Congress would not do—could not do, not even with AIPAC at work, destroying forever the idea that the “Israel lobby” directs Middle East policy.
While Obama was waiting for the inevitable defeat of his proposal in Congress, the new Secretary of State John Kerry redirected events. Kerry had made a Churchillian speech on 30 August, saying,
It is directly related to our credibility … [W]e need to ask, ‘What is the risk of doing nothing?’ … [I]f we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will. This matters also beyond the limits of Syria’s borders. It is about whether Iran … will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons.
Later that the day, Kerry compared Asad to Hitler. Yet Kerry was not even in the room when Obama decided to ostensibly delay the strikes. Despite this personal embarrassment, Kerry went along with the new policy. And it was Kerry, on 9 September, who committed the “major goof” that led to Obama cancelling the strikes entirely. In a very strange press conference, where Kerry said the Obama team was proposing an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” against Asad, Kerry then added that the U.S. would abandon the military option if Asad handed over his CWMD within a week.
In the Obama administration’s telling, the Russians pounced on Kerry’s statement and a deal was struck. But Russia proposed this scheme in June 2012, at the latest, a full fifteen months earlier, and just days before, on 6 September, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin had voiced it again to Obama personally. Obama had broadcast his desire to be taken off the hook and the Kremlin obliged. On 11 September 2013, Obama revoked his threats against Asad, saying he had found a “peaceful” solution. Russia was returned to the Middle East with the appearance of a Great Power and, despite Kerry’s unhinged claim in 2014 that “100 percent” of the CWMD was removed from Syria, the regime never surrendered its WMD. Asad had an excellent reason to hold on to the WMD: for as long as he was disarming not disarmed, it created an interest in his survival to retain control of the weapons.
On the ground, the Obama-Putin “deal”, soon ratified by the United Nations, became the very “license to kill” its authors promised it would not. Asad was now a partner in disarmament and his savage military operations against a rebellious population were necessary to provide a stable route to ship the CWMD out of Syria. As well as incentivising crimes against humanity, and giving them international cover, Obama’s policy was “devastating” to the Western-aligned rebels; the Islamists in the insurgency were bolstered, able to claim they had come to assist when the West would not. Obama says he is “very proud” of what he did in the summer of 2013.
The U.S. had—at long last—begun to ship light weapons to the Syrian opposition in the days after the Ghuta atrocity, seemingly as a way of splitting the difference and trying to mute the criticism, domestic and regional, from Obama’s humiliating climb-down.