Yet there is an alternative that could crack the Assad regime: a muscular CIA operation launched from Turkey, Jordan and even Iraqi Kurdistan. The trick for Washington is to go in big, deploying enough case officers and delivering paralyzing weaponry to the rebels as rapidly as possible.
Press reports already suggest that a rudimentary, small-scale CIA covert action is under way against Assad. But these reports, probably produced by officially sanctioned White House leaks, reveal an administration trying not to commit itself. According to Syrian rebels I’ve heard from, the much-mentioned Saudi and Qatari military aid—reportedly chaperoned by the CIA—hasn’t arrived in any meaningful quantity.
Odds are that it won’t, as the Saudis and Qataris are incapable of running arms on the scale required. Institutionally, intellectually and culturally, it’s not their cup of tea. And intelligence officers tell me that the White House hasn’t ordered Langley to move the weaponry. To the extent Syria’s rebels have recently improved their performance, the reason is better coordination among the Free Syrian Army’s units, more defections from regime forces, and raids on regular army depots.
But Langley can move weapons and rapidly develop complementary intelligence networks inside Syria. It may not do these feats brilliantly, but it can certainly do them better than anyone in the region.
The White House is well aware of how strained Assad’s security services are. It has been extremely difficult, often impossible, for the regime to clear rebels from more than one area at time. Instead, it has relied on selective savagery.
Syria is predominantly Sunni Arab, with substantial rebellious Sunni communities throughout the country. Assad, who depends upon his Shiite Alawite minority (roughly 10%-15% of the population) for his military muscle, does not have the manpower for a multiple-front counterinsurgency.
A coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security wouldn’t be hard. The regime’s lack of manpower and Syria’s geography—low-rising mountains, arid steppes and forbidding deserts—would likely make it vulnerable to the opposition, if the opposition had enough firepower.
If the administration doesn’t let Langley loose, we will likely be looking at a protracted bloodbath in Syria rivaling the destruction that occurred in Lebanon during its all-consuming civil war from 1975 to 2000. A low figure could be 200,000 dead. The extirpation of the Alawites and their Christian allies, who together number roughly 4.5 million, is imaginable.
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