Former CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht writes today in the Wall Street Journal that Obama should “unleash the CIA” on Syria and topple the Assad regime. He argues for “a muscular CIA operation launched from Turkey, Jordan and even Iraqi Kurdistan” and to deploy “enough case officers and delivering paralyzing weaponry to the rebels as rapidly as possible.” If we don’t take this action, he claims, total deaths in Syria could hit somewhere between 200,000 to 4.5 million.
So much hysteria and so little prudence is hard to take all in one column. Gerecht gets to this policy prescription, first of all, because he estimates there is not enough political will to launch an all out war (how frustrating!). The Obama administration “lives in fear of an illusion,” he writes, “of an interventionist slippery slope” and that “even on the more hawkish right, there isn’t a lot of appetite for committing US military power to the conflict.” A no-fly zone or so-called “safe zones” aren’t in the cards, so we must unleash our secret squad of paramilitary agents to solve the problem. You can see here for why those options are terrible options that would worsen the humanitarian crisis and would be strategically counterproductive even from Washington’s point of view.
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.
…This Syrian action would not be a massive undertaking. Even when the CIA ramped up its aid to Afghan anti-Soviet forces in 1986–87, the numbers involved (overseas and in Washington) were small, at roughly two dozen. An aggressive operation in Syria would probably require more CIA manpower than that, but likely still fewer than 50 U.S. officers working with allied services.
What Gerecht has in confidence he lacks in judgment. So a proxy war in Syria would only need to be four times as large as the one we fought in Afghanistan. Will the chaos, suffering, and blowback be four times as large too? I’m glad he mentions Afghanistan, where our proxy war led the Pakistani ISI to increase tenfold in size and helped empower an entire generation of jihadists who eventually turned their sites on America. Does Gerecht have a prophylactic for that kind of mayhem after a Syria proxy war, or does he just not care enough to consider the consequences that far into the future?
The American taxpayer is already putting money towards a disparate, unaccountable group of rebel militias which have strong ties to al-Qaeda and have been accused by the United Nations and the international media of committing terrible atrocities against civilians, not to mention extra-judicial killings and torture. Should Gerecht be accused of treason for demanding Washington get behind the allies of al-Qaeda?
Daniel Trombly (via Micah Zenko) reaches further back and wonders what makes Gerecht think proxy wars are good for humanitarianism or regional stability (I don’t necessarily agree with his characterizations of these other CIA wars, but the examples are nonetheless retrospective):
- There’s the Guatemalan Civil War, which the CIA-backed coup government installed in 1954 had to cope with beginning in 1960. Thanks to American military support, we were able to limit the war to a mere 36 years, and casualties were 200,000 dead. Plus 50,000 or so disappeared. So the “low figure ,” as Gerecht puts it.
- In Afghanistan, during the Soviet invasion, numbers vary from around half a million to two million. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted 9 years. The actual Afghan civil war failed to terminate in 1989, and still continued after the second time Langley was “let loose” in 2001.
- In Nicaragua, the civil war lasted from 1979 until 1990. At least “mere” 50,000-60,000 died, but that was against a government that had barely consolidated itself in a country whose population in 1980 was not even 3 million in 1980. It should be sobering that Nicaragua is our best case scenario here.
- There’s also all the civil wars in Indochina the CIA got itself mixed up in, but Vietnam itself isn’t a good comparison and you can blame a lot of what was happening in Laos on the intervention of the PAVN and the American military, but we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of casualties outside of Vietnam and millions in Vietnam.
- The Angolan Civil War lasted from 1975-2002. At least half a million died. The third “Reagan Doctrine” proxy war that Charles Krauthammer praised in his own column way back in 1985.
As Prof. Eva Bellin and Prof. Peter Krause in the Middle East Brief from Brandeis University found in their study of the Syria situation: “The distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear that limited intervention of this sort will not serve the moral impulse that animates it. To the contrary, it is more likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate.”
Gerecht’s prescriptions for proxy war in Syria seem to exist in a vacuum. He harbors his own kind of Fatal Conceit in which he is assured that Washington and the CIA can play marionette with the world, pulling the strings in Syria and the entire Middle East without consequence. As Gerecht himself admits, even the hawks – like apparently Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, who thinks “deposing Assad” is a righteous US goal – can go down the list of every kind of intervention and reject them all as wrong or unworkable. The fact that there is that kind of consensus to stay out is indicative of just how psychotic someone like Gerecht really is.