The former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency said in an interview that aired on Sunday that the United States should not support Syria’s rebels with the goal that they topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Instead, because Syria’s security institutions would be needed in any post-Assad Syria to battle al Qaeda, he said the U.S. should provide just enough support to tip the balance against Assad so that the two sides come to a political agreement to end the fighting.
“I spoke to intelligence analysts who have said an uncomfortable thing that has a ring of truth,” CBS News senior correspondent John Miller told former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell in an interview for 60 Minutes, “which is, the longer this war in Syria goes on, in some sense, the better off we are.”
“I disagree with that,” said Morell, who retired in June. “The best outcome is a negotiated settlement between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state in tact.” Morell explained why:
MORELL: The reason that is important, John, is because it’s going to take the institutions of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al Qaeda when this is done. And every day that goes by, every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded. [...]
Right now Assad feels he’s winning so he has absolutely no incentive, so enough support has to be provided to the opposition to put enough pressure on Assad to bring him to the negotiating table. But not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don’t need to go to the negotiating table. It’s a very difficult balance to strike.
Other top U.S. officials have hinted that this reasoning, that Syria’s rebels aren’t capable of taking power post-Assad, colors U.S. policy on Syria.
Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has backtracked on his previous support for a robust plan to arm Syria’s rebels, recently explained in a letter to a top House Democrat that the situation in Syria is now so complex given the prominence of al-Qaeda-linked and other extremist groups, that the moderate rebels are not currently prepared to take power should Assad fall.
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey said in an Aug. 19 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Still, Morell doesn’t think the moderate rebels have enough U.S. support to get to the table.
indeed, after the August 21 chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held area just outside Damascus and amid the diplomatic wrangling of how the U.S. will respond, the CIA reportedly has begun delivering weapons and supplies to moderate opposition forces. “The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks,” the Washington Post reported last week, “along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.”
“The arms shipments,” the Post adds, “which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.”