There is a terrifying phenomenon well known to the intelligence community.
The CIA term is blowback. It describes the unintended consequences of a covert paramilitary operation, and the most glaring example — the definitive example cited in intelligence textbooks — is frighteningly similar in depth and timeline to the current, expanding operation to arm Syrian rebels.
Chances are, you’ll recognize this story.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to provide funding, training, and arms to the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. The CIA called it Operation Cyclone.
Two years later, President Ronald Reagan, under substantial political pressure spearheaded by Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson, expanded Operation Cyclone, increasing the funding and weaponry. After a 10-year conflict, the mujahedeen ousted the brutal Soviet invaders. Operation Cyclone was a success. At least, it was a success in the short term.
The infamous blowback of Operation Cyclone is, of course, al-Qaida. Through the Pakistani intel community, U.S. weapons and money merged with Osama bin Laden’s efforts to train and deploy Arab fighters, many of them Syrian transplants from the Muslim Brotherhood. Bin Laden and his fighters looked like the right people to support at the time.
Of course, today we know better.
There is no doubt that history is repeating itself in Syria. Today we are arming and funding another mixed bag of mujahedeen against a brutal, Russian-backed regime. The one significant difference is that today we know exactly who these people are, if we bother to look past the rhetoric. To some extent, they are the same extremists we armed last time. They just moved back home. This time there is no excuse for continuing the madness.
The "moderates” touted by proponents of this weapons program are few. According to a House Intelligence Committee report in July of 2013, an estimated quarter of the rebels had already claimed al-Qaida affiliation. That number was up from 9 percent in late 2012 and it can only have grown in 2014.
This upward trend of terrorist affiliation is due to shared ideology. Most of the rebels are Salafis and Wahabis — extremists that adhere to the same oppressive, misogynistic brand of Islam that dominates al-Qaida.
It is only natural that they gravitate toward the loudest voice that shouts their particular theology. These radicals will be the final recipients of U.S. weaponry, guaranteed. Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood or the Free Syrian Army or any other “moderate” group acts as custodian is immaterial.
There is a range of potential blowback, here. At best, funneling arms to the Syrian rebels will prolong the civil war, adding thousands to the more than 100,000 lives it has already taken.
Small arms and money will not be enough to tip the scale, they will only maintain a grossly unbalanced stalemate fueled by weaponry coming in from Assad’s allies, most notably Russia, making a long, bloody war longer and bloodier.
In between the best and worst, is the extremely likely scenario in which a U.S. missile funneled to Syria finds its way to a terrorist cell in Europe or Israel or the United States and uses it to blow up a bus or train full of innocents. At worst, the rebels will win the war.
Then the coalition of Islamic fundamentalists we are supporting will gain control of Bashar al-Assad’s weaponry too, including the remaining chemical weapons that Russia is undoubtedly helping him conceal.
Assad is brutal and evil, but he is a secular pragmatist and he knows better than to use chemical weapons outside Syria.
The rebels are not pragmatists. They are fanatics, and those who aren’t terrorists are sympathetic to them. If they gain control of Syria, chemical weapons or high grade conventional weapons will be used against Israel, Europe, or even America. Textbook blowback.
Thanks to Charlie Wilson and Operation Cyclone, we know exactly how this story ends. Thirty years ago we did not know the mujahedeen. This time we do, making the mistake all the more egregious.
Please, Mr. President, Congress, stop your current course. Can’t you see the blowback coming?
James R. Hannibal earned a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the U.S. Air Force Academy and has spent more than 1,000 combat hours hunting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of "Shadow Catcher" and the forthcoming "Shadow Maker," due out in June from Berkley.
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