“Nobody believes in it. You’re like, ‘Fuck this,’” a former Green Beret says of America’s covert and clandestine programs to train and arm Syrian militias. “Everyone on the ground knows they are jihadis. No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”
“I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans,” the Green Beret added. A second Special Forces soldier commented that one Syrian militia they had trained recently crossed the border from Jordan on what had been pitched as a large-scale shaping operation that would change the course of the war. Watching the battle on a monitor while a drone flew overhead, “We literally watched them, with 30 guys in their force, run away from three or four ISIS guys.”
Another militia commander came back to Jordan to be debriefed by CIA case officers stationed at Damascus X, the exiled CIA station now located in Amman, Jordan, since departing Syria’s capital after the civil war began. The Syrian proxy broke down saying that he might as well join ISIS—something the case officer had to talk him out of.
But perhaps this was a step in the right direction from a the recent past, when the commander of the now-defunct Syrian Revolutionary Front came in for a debriefing, telling his CIA handler that a helicopter was shot down and destroyed some of his equipment but he also claimed that he had an expensive suit onboard the aircraft that the CIA also needed to replace.
While the press has reported extensively on the over 100 armed groups within Syria vying for control, and the occasional report comes out about U.S. special operations troops in Syria and wasteful spending on covert action programs, the wider story about the U.S. Special Forces arming Syrian anti-ISIS forces while the CIA conducts a parallel program to arm anti-Assad regime forces has yet to be told—until now. It is a story of fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as bureaucratic infighting and a disgusting excess, which has only contributed to perpetuating the Syrian conflict.
The CIA underestimates the threat
After the 2009 withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraq, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center’s presence also became a pale shadow of what it had once been during the heyday of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the height of the war, the CIA could deploy targeting officers to Iraq and assign them regionally, so a targeting officer would work Mosul and focus on the leadership elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which later became ISIS), but several years after the withdrawal, the CIA was unable to tap into U.S. special operations units as a force multiplier.
In 2011 and 2012, Delta Force would deploy a single operator to Iraq as a counterterrorism liaison, but the CIA’s chief of station (CoS) in Baghdad made it clear that Delta was not welcome in Iraq. However, U.S. Army Special Forces were able to deploy by working for the State Department and training Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). In the years leading up to the rise of ISIS, the commander’s in-extremis force, a specialized counterterrorist element in each Special Forces group, would deploy in small numbers in an advisory capacity. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Iraq (CTC/I) was mostly focused on combating Shia militias.
CTC/I become CTC/SI, recognizing the transnational threat of ISIS, which now sprawled across two countries. Although some believed that CTC/SI had to switch its focus to targeting mid-level Baath party leaders within ISIS who guided the group on strategy, tactics, and propaganda, the leadership of CTC/SI and the newly formed Syrian Task Force consisted of only 10 targeting officers who were constantly forced to shift gears as the agency’s senior leadership would have them focus on ISIS, al-Nusra, the Khorosan Group, Shia militias, and Ahrar al-Sham.
Targeting the Khorosan Group was one of the CIA’s early successes in the Syrian Civil War. Tracking signals intelligence (SIGINT), the CIA was able to positively ID senior al-Qaeda leaders from those who formed the nucleus of Khorosan. Intercepting their cell phone conversations, the CIA targeted the group, eventually wiping them off the face of the earth with airstrikes. However, CTC “didn’t even track ISIS worth a damn,” a CIA officer said.
Amazingly, ISIS remained in the background, regarded by CIA leadership as little more than another insurgent group. The director of CTC, who had once been chief of station in Baghdad, did not care about Iraq one way or the other according to multiple sources in CTC who spoke to SOFREP confidentially. Since this was the party line held by the CTC director, it filtered down through the lower ranks in the CIA. The Syria Task Force was focused on Khorosan and Nusra, while Baghdad Station continued to focus on Shia militias and local car bombings. In Erbil, the CIA’s chief of base told a member of the Syria Task Force, “I don’t know why they keep sending you guys [targeting officers]. Nobody gives a shit about counterterrorism in Iraq.”
Lingering in the background was ISIS, a force of 500 to 1,000 fighters that no one took seriously. All of that changed in 2014, when ISIS spilled across the border from Syria, massacred the Yazidi ethnic minority in Sinjar—turning hundreds of girls and women into sex slaves—before moving on and capturing the major city of Mosul in northern Iraq. For a moment, it looked like ISIS was going to overrun Erbil before taking on Baghdad. Then, Jihadi John started executing hostages.
British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed Jihadi John, appeared in a series of publicly released execution videos. Delta Force launched an attempted hostage rescue mission with Jordanian counterparts to rescue two journalists being held by ISIS, John Sotloff and James Foley. Despite the sizable firefight they engaged in while on target in Syria, the two American journalists had been moved elsewhere.
- Jihadi John began executing hostages, demanding that America cease its airstrikes.
That August, Jihadi John, wearing his black balaclava, forced Foley to read an anti-American statement, then beheaded him with a knife and threatened to do the same to Sotloff if the United States did not cease its intervention in Iraq. In September, another video emerged in which Jihadi John beheaded Sotloff. The brutal murders of two captured American journalists shocked the world, particularly the horrified American public. ISIS was now on the front pages of major newspapers, drawing the attention of policymakers and a public demanding that something be done.
ISIS was now on the CIA’s radar. CTC targeted the organization, but not often enough to have any tangible effect on the battlespace. Toward the end of 2014, the CIA had less than 20 targeting officers and analysts dedicated to fighting ISIS. As of early 2016, the situation had improved little. According to several sources, the CIA simply does not care about ISIS. Using an excuse that ISIS is an army rather than a terrorist organization, they have punted the job to Army special operations—the men of Special Forces and Delta Force.
In Syria, the overwhelming priority for the CIA is what some CTC officers call Director John Brennan’s baby: the removal of the Assad regime.
Ousting the Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad had been a long-term strategic goal of the United States. The summary of a 2006 diplomatic cable authored by William Roebuck, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, reads:
We believe Bashar’s [Assad] weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.
The cable goes on, outlining how the United States government should exploit fissures between Syria and Iran. The Iranians have long used Syria as a logistics and command hub for Hezbollah operations. Exploiting fears of Shia meddling in Sunni affairs was one way that America could create a fracture in the alliance.
In June of 2007, the Bush White House debated military action against a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor. Vice President Dick Cheney pushed hard for military intervention. “I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor,” Cheney wrote. “But I was a lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room.” Stung badly by faulty intelligence suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, President Bush opted for a diplomatic option.
During this timeframe, American special operations soldiers assigned to Task Force Orange were deployed to Syria under commercial cover. However, they targeted foreign fighters flowing into Iraq to fight coalition soldiers rather than fixate on the Assad regime. “The missions enabled JSOC to build a detailed picture of the network of jihadis from Aleppo and Damascus airports through the Syrian section of the Euphrates River Valley until they crossed into Iraq near Al Qaim,” Sean Naylor wrote.
Meanwhile, State Department cables reveal that the U.S. government was actively searching for ways to undermine the Syrian government, and potentially remove Assad from power. Another 2006 cable reads, “Finding ways to publicly call into question Bashar’s reform efforts—pointing, for example to the use of reform to disguise cronyism—would embarrass Bashar and undercut these efforts to shore up his legitimacy.”
Roebuck points out another interesting vulnerability to the regime, one that would come into play in full effect a decade later. He wrote that the Kurds are “the most organized and daring political opposition and civil society groups are among the ethnic minority Kurds, concentrated in Syria’s northeast, as well as in communities in Damascus and Aleppo. This group has been willing to protest violently in its home territory when others would dare not.” Also revealed in the cables was that the United States was covertly financing Assad’s political opponents.
- Robert Ford and a military attache in Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014 was Robert Ford, who traveled around Syria meeting with opposition leaders prior to the outbreak of civil war. This was back when Syria was simply next on the list of Arab Spring countries and protesters in Syria were demanding liberalization from the Assad regime. Ford was an outspoken critic of the regime, and criticized the Obama administration in 2014, saying that the United States had not put enough pressure on Assad. Advocating the arming of so-called moderate rebels, Ford went on to say, “We have to think about a way to escalate pressure.”
Damascus X, Syrian Task Force, and CTC/SI
In 2012, with the Syrian Civil War already well underway, CIA Case Officer Doug Laux was dispatched to the Middle East in order to meet with allied nations and the leadership of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). The mission was to “achieve the desired result of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power,” as Laux wrote in a memo. “Leadership on the seventh floor [of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia] and the White House had made it clear from the beginning that the goal of our task force was to find ways to remove President Assad from office,” the former CIA officer wrote in his memoir. Large sections of Laux’s book are blacked out by CIA censors, but what we do know is that American-made TOW anti-tank weapons began showing up in offensives waged by the FSA in Syria.
“The Syria covert action program is [CIA Director John] Brennan’s baby,” a former CIA officer told SOFREP. Weapons were provided to the FSA by the CIA under US Code Title 50, which authorizes the CIA to conduct covert operations, including the supply of arms to foreign proxy forces, after receiving permission from the White House via a presidential finding. In 2014, it became perfectly clear that U.S.-supplied TOW missile launchers had fallen into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.
The FSA made for a viable partner force for the CIA on the surface, as they were anti-regime, ostensibly having the same goal as the seventh floor at Langley. In December of 2014, al-Nusra used the American-made TOW missiles to route another anti-regime CIA proxy force called the Syrian Revolutionary Front from several bases in Idlib province. The province is now the de facto caliphate of al-Nusra. That Nusra captured TOW missiles from the now-defunct Syrian Revolutionary Front is unsurprising, but that the same anti-tank weapons supplied to the FSA ended up in Nusra hands is even less surprising when one understands the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict.
Distinguishing between the FSA and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organization. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra.
The Syrian Civil War has spun into a complex conflict with over 100 armed groups fighting for territory, each group with constantly shifting alliances, while foreign powers like Russia, the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and others meddle in Syria’s internal affairs. The armed groups go by different names, but in reality, the names of these groups are of little relevance. The situation in Syria resembles a form of full-auto capitalism present in the United States during the dot com economic boom. Commanders on the ground will assemble ad hoc groups almost like LLCs or place their group under the banner of another, each militia having a different task organization and operational control from one battle to the next.
The fact that the FSA simply passed American-made weaponry off to al-Nusra is also unsurprising considering that the CIA’s vetting process of militias in Syria is lackluster, consisting of little more than running traces in old databases. These traces rely on knowing the individuals’ real names in the first place, and assume that they were even fighting-age males when the data was collected by CTC years prior. CTC/SI, as with CTC/Iraq before it, was a “stepchild to Big Mark [name changed], the former director of CTC, and that neglect had consequences, especially when a terrorist group took over multiple countries,” a former CIA officer elaborated.
Brennan was the one who breathed life into the Syrian Task Force, which was able to draw upon resources from CTC/SI. “John Brennan loved that regime-change bullshit,” a former CIA officer commented. CTC/SI focuses on counterterrorism, while the Syrian Task Force conducts espionage, influence operations, and paramilitary activities in conjunction with the Special Activities Division (SAD) as needed in pursuit of regime change, including the covert arming of militia groups inside Syria.
The CIA’s Ground Branch paramilitary component was being treated like a bunch of toddlers in Syria, with case officers acting as if they were just hired help. Composed of former special operations personnel, Ground Branch has been very active in combat while working alongside Afghan commandos assigned to that country’s NDS intelligence service, but in Jordan, they were not trusted to do anything more than observe and report. They could ask rebel leaders who came across the border how things were going, but not much else.
The reality is that Ground Branch has always been regarded as a backwater in the CIA, a place where careers go to die, at least until the War on Terror kicked off and they were running and gunning in Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11, there were not even a dozen personnel assigned to the unit.
John Brennan’s Syrian Task Force running covert action programs that deliver arms to al-Nusra fronts like the FSA is especially ironic considering a recent interview with the CIA director in which he was asked about the recent public split between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. He stated, “I think they recognized that that moniker is a liability. And I do not believe that that name change is going to really change the focus of this organization, which has been primarily to carry out offenses against pro-regime forces.” Brennan then acknowledged the serious threat that al-Nusra poses, including possibly conducting terrorist operations in the West. “I am concerned that there still remains a very worrisome element of Jabhat al-Nusra that will be wrapped maybe in this new name but will still have external plotting as its purpose,” Brennan said. “So I do think it’s purely a change of name but not really a change in orientation, purpose, agenda, and objectives.”
Meanwhile, Damascus X, the CIA station in exile now based in Amman, Jordan, deploys case officers who collect human intelligence (HUMINT) and also pursues the anti-regime policy. With CTC/SI, the Syrian Task Force, and Damascus X all working to similar ends, but with different chains of command, the result is bureaucratic infighting, which is only exacerbated by meddling from Langley and the White House.
“There was a stifling of ops, because of personalities, and then it was general madness there with too many people who never handled assets. Also, just ignorance, like thinking ISIS wouldn’t use its access to Europe,” a former CIA officer said.
5th Special Forces Group enters the fray
With the CIA wanting little to do with anti-ISIS operations as they are focused on bringing down the Assad regime, the agency kicked the can over to 5th Special Forces Group. Basing themselves out of Jordan and Turkey, 5th Group conducts nearly all of their anti-ISIS missions under U.S. Code Title 10, which covers military activities instead of the CIA’s coveted Title 50 covert action authorities.
By 2015, U.S. Special Forces were established in both Jordan and Turkey with the task of working by, with, and through surrogate forces to attack ISIS. In this instance, they rarely, if ever, fought alongside indigenous forces, but rather by them, training them in a host nation and then deploying them or working through third-country nationals such as Turkish and Jordanian Special Forces to train the Syrian militias who were then sent across the border.
While the CIA needed a presidential finding to target the Assad regime, 5th Special Forces Group did not require any additional paperwork, as they were already allowed to target ISIS under Title 10—the group is already on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations under its alternate name, ISIL. A sergeant major from 5th Special Forces Group was dispatched to Jordan to begin assessing the situation.
Battlespace was delineated among the Special Forces members, with the troops stationed in Amman in charge of southern Syria, and others deployed to Turkey in charge of the north. However, Damascus X maintained a tremendous amount of clout over both commands. Gradually, funding and weapons flowed into Jordan for the Green Berets to use to further their mission.
One Green Beret commented on the great living conditions they had. A marble chow hall was built for them that employed a full-time cook. “They always have sweets out, ice cream, a giant freezer with chocolate milk, giant TVs, and an Xbox,” he said. He also mentioned they had a great gym. Between training rebel groups, they would take trips to see the local attractions. All and all, not a bad deployment.
But the actual mission was met with little besides frustration. For starters, everything had to be done through the host nation—Jordan, in this case. When it comes to sending proxy forces across the border, it can’t be done unilaterally. The Jordanian intelligence service, border patrol, and police checkpoints all have to be negotiated with and informal expectations arranged. The Jordanian intelligence service, GID, is also known to steal weapons provided by the Americans to arm rebel groups, then sell them on the black market. In some cases, they will even steal the weapons back from the rebels in order to sell them a second time.
There are also quotas for training the Syrian militias. “For one Title 10 project, there was a quota for the number of soldiers processed and trained. You can’t have any guys get sick; they have actual numbers they have to meet.” The vetting process was also deeply flawed, consisting of a database check and an interview. The rebels know how to sell themselves to the Americans during such interviews, but they still let things slip occasionally. “I don’t understand why people don’t like al-Nusra,” one rebel told the American soldiers. Many had sympathies with the terrorist groups such as Nusra and ISIS. Others simply were not fit to be soldiers. “They don’t want to be warriors. They are all cowards. That is the moderate rebel,” a Green Beret told SOFREP. Many of the so-called moderate rebels were described as a bunch of farmers and retards who could not hack it in ISIS, and the Syrian Army would not want them either.
- The New Syrian Army shows off some of their American-supplied toys in a propaganda film.
The so-called New Syrian Army (NSA) was one of the bigger boondoggles that Special Forces engaged in. General Cleveland (who also backed the wrong players in Libya) was involved in pushing the New Syrian Army as a Title 10 program for the Green Berets from its inception up until the first class began training, believing they would make a suitable proxy force since they were already on the battlefield. While they were pro-regime, they were also willing to fight ISIS, as they viewed the jihadis as a threat to the Assad government. Despite some Special Forces soldiers believing that the NSA had already received training under a CIA Title 50 program, the militia was armed with American-made M16s, M249 Squad Automatic Weapons, 60mm and 81mm mortar systems, and M240B and M2HB .50 caliber machine guns. One of many problems with this program is that, after ISIS is defeated, the real war begins. CIA-backed FSA elements will openly become al-Nusra, while Special Forces-backed FSA elements like the New Syrian Army will fight alongside the Assad regime. Then the CIA’s militia and the Special Forces’ militia will kill each other.
- An unidentified instructor teaches the New Syrian Army how to field-strip an M249 SAW.
No, that is not part of some diabolical plan, but rather the result of gross mismanagement.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, a similar quagmire unfolded. Among the rebels that U.S. Special Forces and Turkish Special Forces were training, “A good 95 percent of them were either working in terrorist organizations or were sympathetic to them,” a Green Beret associated with the program said, adding, “A good majority of them admitted that they had no issues with ISIS and that their issue was with the Kurds and the Syrian regime.” Like the militias being trained in Jordan, the rebels being trained in Turkey were not ready for combat. “It is not in their blood to be fighters. A large majority of them are criminals,” a Green Beret said. Many were foreign fighters, some from Iraq. One even turned out to be a Lebanese drug smuggler.
“The majority of these guys have been coached on what to say at the training site and give cookie-cutter answers,” the Special Forces soldier told SOFREP. They would portray themselves as being secular, but the Americans could tell who the hardliners were because they didn’t smoke (jihadis follow Wahhabi Islam, which does not permit it) and looked at the Green Berets with disdain.
When General Austin paid a visit to the Green Berets, he discovered that the Syrians in the training camp were on the verge of a riot. Due to Special Forces being told not to train the Syrian militiamen, they were just sitting in the barracks all day. The general’s answer was to buy them flat-screen TVs and Xbox game consoles to keep them entertained. Most of the Xboxes ended up with the Turks, who played soccer games all day, and with other Special Forces teams.
The relationship with the Turks was, and is, extremely complicated. In the tactical operations center (TOC) run by U.S. Special Forces in Turkey, there are also Turkish military officers present. The Americans have to pretend that they are not working with the Kurds, while other 5th Group members and Delta Force operators are, in fact, embedded with the Kurdish YPG militia. Likewise, the Turkish military turned a blind eye and pretended not to know that the Americans were with the YPG militia in Syria. To make a strange situation even stranger, the Green Berets also had to pretend not to know that the Turkish Special Forces were training their own jihadi force in northern Turkey.
Turkey sponsors groups like Ahrar al-Sham (the CIA has tracked al-Qaeda members from the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan joining them), and the Turkish Special Forces train them and then send them across the border into Syria using the Jarabulus corridor. When the jihadis come through, the Turkish military transmits the code word “lights out” to tell the border guards to let their proxy force through. When al-Sham attacked the Kurdish YPG in Afrin, the Kurds counterattacked, killing a large number of the jihadis. In a move uncharacteristic to the YPG, they paraded the bodies of their dead enemies around on the back of a flatbed truck.
- The YPG displays slain al-Sham jihadis in Afrin.
Such actions are diametrically opposed to the YPG’s political philosophy and ideology. Aldar Xelil, a Kurdish politician in the region, denounced the act, saying, “This goes against our values as human beings. We are not people who terrorize our enemies in such a shameful way. Methods like this are how Daesh operates or the Baath regime or military dictatorships. These are not methods we should be employing.” The fact that the bodies were displayed by the YPG, and a video of the event distributed, can only signal one thing: a giant middle finger toward the Turkish military and intelligence services, who use al-Sham as puppets against the Kurds, the latter who have had a long-running conflict with the Turkish government.
YPG success stories like this, as well as the recent capture of Manbij from ISIS, make for an embarrassing situation at the TOC in Turkey, as Kurdish forces are outperforming American and Turkish proxies.
- The YPG celebrates the capture of Manbij from ISIS.
Several Green Berets complained that they were being employed as a conventional force rather than conducting the Special Forces mission of unconventional warfare. As seen in training films made by the New Syrian Army, they are being trained as an infantry unit straight out of U.S. Army doctrine rather than as guerrilla fighters. “The group commander is holding onto this dream that we’re going to be allowed to do something, but we’re spinning our wheels,” a Special Forces soldier said. One factor is that they are just training forces, and are not allowed to conduct operational preparation of the environment (OPE), which would pave the way for a more substantial military intervention. “If we can’t go over the border and prepare stuff, then we’re kicking ourselves in the pants because it is not unconventional warfare, it is just waiting for the go ahead.”
Pallets of weapons and rows of trucks delivered to Turkey for American-sponsored rebel groups simply sit and collect dust because of disputes over title authorities and funding sources while authorization to conduct training for the militias is turned on and off at a whim. One day they will be told to train, the next day not to, and the day after only to train senior leaders. Some Green Berets believe that this hesitation comes from the White House getting wind that most of the militia members are affiliated with Nusra and other extremist groups. Those given arms by Special Forces are given American-made weaponry in order to keep the militias dependent on the United States for ammunition resupply.
While the games continue on, morale sinks for the Special Forces men in Turkey. Often disguised in Turkish military uniform, one of the Green Berets described his job as, “Sitting in the back room, drinking chai while watching the Turks train future terrorists.” Fifth Group has one of the worst retention rates in the U.S. Army, with senior sergeants filing their separation paperwork all the time. At the American military base in Incernik, the 5th Group commander was known to stand outside the chow hall and give his men uniform corrections, as well as chase down his soldiers on post who were driving too fast. For the group commander, a former military police officer, old habits died hard.
Delta Force and 5th Special Forces Group hit the ground in Syria
A memo came across President Obama’s desk from the Department of Defense for the authorization to deploy 300 special operations soldiers into Rojava, Kurdish-held northern Syria, where they would work with the Kurdish YPG militia. The memo explained that the DOD assessed a low risk of human rights violations by the American soldiers deployed to Rojava, and little else. Under intense scrutiny in the American news media to do something about ISIS, Obama authorized the deployment.
When the Syria deployment was authorized, the CIA requested the men of Delta Force. Falling under the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Delta is the Army’s premiere counterterrorism unit that answers to the secretary of defense and the president. Delta responded that they are task organized for counterterrorism strike missions, not long-duration counterinsurgency, so they requested help from Special Forces.
Fifth Special Forces Group is regionally focused on the Middle East, making them a natural choice. It didn’t hurt that the then-group commander (not the new commander making uniform corrections in Turkey) was a former Delta Force officer. It also didn’t hurt that the former 5th Group commander, General Muholland, is working a liaison job to the CIA. On top of that, the then-5th Group commander also served as an aide to General Muholland in the past. Fifth Group received the nod to be co-located near an airfield inside YPG territory in Syria, while a second element from 5th Group ran a train, advise, assist mission in another location within Rojava.
The 5th Group members are not allowed to engage in direct combat with ISIS, but on rare occasions have been able to participate in long-range engagements with mortar fire and sniper fire from the .50 caliber Barrett anti-material rifle. Otherwise, they are mostly confined to running the YPG through flat range drills. On SOFREP’s visit to the YPG in Syria and the PKK in Kurdistan, it was made clear that the Kurds do not desire military training from Americans, as they have their own training program, although they do appreciate being given weapons and air support.
- 5th Special Forces Group soldiers in Syria
Delta Force had also been stymied by red tape and bureaucracy as they tried to get into the fight and knock ISIS down a peg. Both hostage operations they conducted—the failed James Foley rescue and the successful prison raid in Hawija, Iraq—required presidential approval. Early into the conflict, Delta wrote up a massive concept of the operation (CONOP) for a joint operation with Iraqi Special Operations Forces. The CONOP went all the way to the White House before the lawyers spotted that several Delta members were included in the mission roster. Central Command (CENTCOM) forwarded the CONOP to the White House without even realizing it. The executive branch quickly shut the entire mission down.
Syria is a different situation for Delta because the unit works under the CIA’s Title 50 covert action authorities. The concept of “sheep dipping” active-duty military members under the auspices of the CIA is a practice that stretches back at least as far as deployments to Central American in the 1980s. Today, this arrangement is called D triple S (DSSS), standing for Defense Sensitive Support System. In effect, this means that the Delta element temporarily assigned to the CIA no longer works for the secretary of defense and the president, but rather has to answer to a comparatively low-ranking CIA station chief.
“The CAG [an alternate name for Delta] dudes were beyond pissed seeing some of the shenanigans from our people,” a CIA officer said. With the CTC at war within itself, they were both trying to prevent their own people from collecting intelligence (lest they find something threatening) and stonewalling any and all Delta Force operations from going forward against ISIS. Currently, Delta is sitting on several hundred completed targeting packets for operations they could launch. Like the more forward-leaning members of CTC and the Syrian Task Force, they want to hollow out the Baath party members within ISIS.
- 5th Special Forces Group soldier in Syria.
Delta Force wants to conduct the mission for which they were created—surgical strikes—but under CIA leadership, they are mostly stuck doing a counterinsurgency mission that they have little interest in. The Special Forces teams also feel they are providing little more than a support role in Syria, and one member described the Syria deployments as “a shit show, for lack of a better term.”
A mess of mistakes and a legacy of ashes
The covert and clandestine action programs carried out by the CIA and Special Forces have become a hot mess of ill-conceived ideas, faulty assumptions, and bureaucratic in-fighting within and between the organizations involved. In order to fully make sense of why both the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS programs under Title 10 and Title 50 are destined for failure in their current configuration, it is useful to understand the internal politics within the units and agencies involved.
For years, Special Forces has bemoaned the fact that JSOC units like Delta and SEAL Team Six have edged into what they consider to be their mission, namely unconventional warfare. Many within Special Forces advocate handing over operational control of Special Forces to the CIA, a type of nostalgia for the old days of the Office of Strategic Services, a paramilitary organization that existed during World War Two and led to the creation of both the CIA and Special Forces.
To that end, General Cleveland is reported to have stated that Special Forces will support the CIA “until our eyes bleed,” which apparently includes following the CIA down one misguided rabbit hole after another.
Leadership elements inside Special Forces have pushed hard to take the 4th Battalion from each Special Forces Group and turn them into “Jedburgh” teams. The Jedburghs, named after the World War Two unit that parachuted behind Nazi lines and conducted sabotage operations, were to be so-called all-encompassing Green Berets who were qualified in all specialties, as well as their target language, making them more competitive against other special operations units and attracting the attention of the CIA. The competitiveness is real. After the CIA requested Special Forces teams who had participated in a large-scale unconventional warfare exercise in Texas, the Navy SEALs immediately ran their own UW exercise to try to get in on the action. Meanwhile, MARSOC is also trying to edge in on the UW mission in a big way.
The Jedburghs were to be moved down to Washington D.C. under a flimsy cover, where they would supposedly become a tier one unit. The entire endeavor was stillborn, the result of good-idea fairies, as the unit had no real funding and no real cover. Acting as gatekeeper, the CIA is also not about to let the Army make use of Title 50 authorities on their own, as it would make the agency obsolete. The Jedburghs, while well intended, can also be interpreted as an attempt by Special Forces to have themselves placed under CIA control and begin to take away missions from JSOC.
In regards to Syria, 5th Group leaders see ISIS as the only game in town. The war in Syria keeps them relevant and gives them a purpose to remain in the Middle East. Initially, they deployed to Jordan with the excuse that they would be there to secure weapons of mass destruction from the Assad regime, which was redundant since JSOC has a specialized unit for that task. In reality, 5th Group wanted to be on the leading edge for a potential invasion of Syria.
At the same time, JSOC has major issues working with the CIA. JSOC units like Delta Force are used to working for a streamlined chain of command, a necessity for a hostage rescue unit in which time is crucial, but when working under Title 50 programs for the CIA, they have to answer to a lowly station chief. There is a natural culture clash between an agency tasked with collecting strategic intelligence and an Army special operations unit charged with conducting direct-action missions, a culture clash that only becomes worse when some hard-charging Delta Force sergeant major has to answer to a well-dressed Princeton University graduate.
The flip side of the coin, of course, is that military units like Delta, Rangers, SEALs, and Special Forces want to hit targets. They are used to doing multiple strikes in a single period of darkness back in Iraq or Afghanistan. The CIA is an intelligence-gathering organization, and takes more of a wait-and-see approach. The military often has a different approach, and sometimes they do need to be held back and exhibit some tactical patience.
It is also important to note that the CIA is not going to relinquish Title 50 authorities to JSOC units, so if units like Delta Force want to conduct covert operations, they have to go through the CIA. Some observers believe that throughout the Global War on Terror, the CIA has actually co-opted JSOC by acting as gatekeeper to covert action authorities.
Another dynamic in the special operations and CIA relationship to note is that the military often does not like detailing their men to the agency as individuals, and when they do, the operators are sometimes not welcome back. A Delta operator attached to the CIA’s Ground Branch during the early years of the war in Afghanistan was told by his command upon returning home that he had spent too much time with the Agency and had “lost his way.” He opted to retire rather than be kicked out of Delta.
For years, 5th Special Forces Group had resisted detailing their men to the CIA because antsy officers want to maintain such tight control over their men in a micromanaged environment that simply doesn’t exist in the CIA. The agency’s paramilitary components often request Special Forces medics, as they feel they are better trained than CIA medical personnel, and SF medics who are good at speaking their target language are even more sought after. Requests like these were routinely turned down until recently.
At the CIA, the Counter-Terrorism Center is reported to have undergone a massive cultural shift during the course of the War on Terror and is at war with itself more than anything. Despite the problems with the programs run by CTC and the Syrian Task Force, employees are unwilling to go to the inspector general because it is an internal oversight mechanism they feel provides top cover for the agency rather than actually doing its job. This presents a disturbing scenario. One former CIA officer described the current programs as approaching Church Committee territory, stating, “The Syrian Task Force was off the reservation.”
The politically and militarily challenging conflict in Syria appears to have few long-term and no short-term solutions. Some observers believe that it will take 20-30 years in order to bring the Syrian Civil War to some type of resolution.
Some Special Forces soldiers advocate going all in with the Kurdish YPG. This option does offer some attractive incentives, as the YPG is secular as well as effective in combat, capturing wide swathes of ISIS territory across northern Syria with and without any help from the coalition. Additionally, the YPG represents an organic democratic movement in the Middle East, one which could serve as a template for other countries in the region in decades to come.
The problem is that allying with the Kurds, even with plausible deniability in place, has already caused tension with the Turkish government, who will never accept a Kurdish state on their southern border. The Kurdish PKK, of which the YPG is an offshoot, considers a large part of Turkey to be a part of Kurdistan and continues to fight the Turks for recognition of their basic human rights. If America is to openly support the YPG, the loss in rapport with the Turks would be catastrophic. Strategically located, Turkey controls access to the Black Sea, and the U.S. Incirlik Air Base provides a staging ground for aerial refueling planes used by the Air Force. Additionally, the United States keeps somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 nuclear weapons in Turkey.
The YPG could offer a long-term solution to ISIS, but would also present a long-term strategic disaster to the United States in the context of future conflicts with Russia and Iran if Turkey begins to lean further East toward Russia and China.
For the time being, the Special Forces soldiers assigned to carry out Title 10 programs feel as if they have to make it look like they are doing their job while actually doing nothing. With their hands tied behind their backs, options are few and far between. Many are actively sabotaging the programs by stalling and doing nothing, knowing that the supposedly secular rebels they are expected to train are actually al-Nusra terrorists.
“It was like winning didn’t matter anymore,” a former CIA officer said. “It was more of the two-year rotation: Just make it though and leave, and maybe if you blow the right senior [officer] you get promoted.” A Green Beret associated with the programs added, “No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know we are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”
In the last 15 years of war against terrorism, it appears that the U.S. military and intelligence services have learned no lessons, repeatedly doing the same thing again and again, hoping for a different result. Likewise, the leadership of Special Forces, the CIA, and the White House appear to have little interest in making a course correction.
“Brennan and Obama, unlike George W. Bush, will see failure through,” a former CIA officer said bitterly.
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