As rebel-held sections of Aleppo crumbled under Russian bombing this month, the Obama administration was secretly weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units in Syria.
The proposal, which involved weapons that might help those forces defend themselves against Russian aircraft and artillery, made its way onto the agenda of a recent meeting President Obama held with his national security team.
And that’s as far as it got. Neither approved nor rejected, the plan was left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years.
The operation has served as the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But U.S. officials said there are growing doubts that even an expanded version could achieve that outcome because of Moscow’s intervention. Obama, officials said, now seems inclined to leave the fate of the CIA program up to the next occupant of the White House.
If so, Obama’s successor will inherit an array of unattractive options. Critics of the proposal to increase arms shipments warn that it would only worsen the violence in Syria without fundamentally changing the outcome. But inaction has its own risks — increasing the likelihood that Aleppo will fall, that tens of thousands of CIA-backed fighters will search for more-reliable allies, and that the United States will lose leverage over regional partners that until now have refrained from delivering more-dangerous arms to Assad’s opponents.
The proposed expansion of the agency program — dubbed “Plan B” because it was seen as a fallback for failed diplomatic efforts — still has supporters, including CIA Director John Brennan and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter. But even former ardent proponents, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have voiced skepticism about any escalation at this point. He and others fear that the new weaponry could end up killing Russian military personnel, triggering a confrontation with Moscow.
One senior U.S. official said that it is time for a “ruthless” look at whether agency-supported fighters can still be considered moderate, and whether the program can accomplish anything beyond adding to the carnage in Syria.
The CIA units are “not doing any better on the battlefield, they’re up against a more formidable adversary, and they’re increasingly dominated by extremists,” said the U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation. “What has this program become, and how will history record this effort?”
Backers of the program said that the CIA effort had succeeded in important aspects of its mission — building a politically moderate force that by last year posed a serious threat to Assad. A U.S. official said that the CIA-backed opposition — widely known as the Free Syrian Army — remains largely intact after a year of Russian pounding, and is the only force in Syria capable of prolonging the war and possibly pushing Moscow to abandon Assad as part of a political solution.
“The FSA remains the only vehicle to pursue those goals,” said a second U.S. official.
The White House and CIA declined to comment. Administration officials familiar with Obama’s thinking said all options remain on the table, though the president has made clear his reluctance to use overt military force.
“We continue to press for options that will decrease violence in Aleppo and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people,” a senior administration official said. “We and our partners will continue to provide support to the opposition and Syrian civil society in a manner that advances those objectives.”
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The Washington Post