House wants to slash funds for secret CIA program in Syria

WASHINGTON — Key lawmakers have moved to slash funding for a secret CIA operation to train and arm rebels in Syria, a move that federal officials said reflects rising skepticism of the effectiveness of the agency program and the Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East.

The House Intelligence Committee recently voted unanimously to cut as much as 20 percent of the classified funds flowing into a CIA program that officials said has become one of the agency’s largest covert operations overseas, with a budget approaching $1 billion a year.

“Regime losses across the front lines are edging the conflict closer to [Assad’s] doorstep,” an intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The Syrian president “is not necessarily on the verge of defeat,” the official said, noting that Russia and Iran continue to support him and could help him stave off collapse. But because of regime losses in Idlib and elsewhere, the official said, “many people are starting to openly talk about an end-game for Assad and Syria.”
U.S. officials said the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years — meaning that the agency is spending roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program.

Opposition leaders in southern Syria, where the CIA-trained fighters are concentrated, said the groups have recently become better organized and more effective in their use of heavier weapons, including U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles.

“They have coherent command and control and have unified Sunni groups,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a former top adviser to the opposition leadership who maintains regular contact with rebels on the ground. Moderate militias have kept control of border crossings into Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and are fighting on the outskirts of Damascus.

Despite those gains south of Damascus, experts and officials said that the most significant pressure on Assad’s regime is in northern Syria, where the Islamic State is on the offensive. At the same time, a separate coalition of rebel groups known as the Army of Conquest has taken advantage of infusions of new weapons and cash from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

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