In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.
The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.
U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery “pipelines” to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime.
Allied rebel commanders in Syria and congressional proponents of a more aggressive military response instead blame a White House that wants to be seen as responsive to allies’ needs but fundamentally doesn’t want to get pulled any deeper into the country’s grinding conflict.
The administration’s view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: “The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it,” a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.
The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.