Before President Barack Obama authorized clandestine operations to defeat Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2013, he asked the CIA to write the history of its secret wars. The classified document, say those who have read it, is a record of failure from Albania to Cuba to Angola to Nicaragua. Yet Obama went ahead with the covert program for Syria, which the CIA ran from Turkey and Jordan. Like its predecessors, Operation Timber Sycamore failed. It neither toppled Assad nor prevented Salafi jihadi fanatics from dominating the Syrian opposition. President Trump cancelled the program in July last year, but he is not immune to the siren call of another secret war – in his case, against Iran with as much chance of a positive outcome as Syria.
Why the fascination with arming foreign insurgents and proxy armies to fight wars that the US won’t fight itself? “We’re busily training, you know, local troops to fight local militants, why do we think we have this aptitude for creating armies?” Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, once told me. “I don’t know. It sure as hell didn’t work in Vietnam.” Two reasons stand out. One is that, as Bacevich explained, insurgencies are wars “on the cheap,” not only in dollars but in assuring the public that American soldiers’ lives are not in danger. It is also a midway point between invasion and doing nothing. And most American presidents, faced with an opportunity to undermine rival states, want to do something.
It all started in Syria, where Britain conducted a successful insurgency against Ottoman Turkey from 1916 to 1918. The famed leader of the Arab rebels was Lawrence of Arabia, whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom remains required reading for any operative embarking on clandestine warfare. Lawrence became the inspiration for Britain’s first secret warfare organization, Special Operations Executive (SOE).
SOE came into being in the summer of 1940, because Britain lacked resources to fight on alone after the German conquest of Belgium, Holland and France. Winston Churchill created the office of “ungentlemanly warfare” on 19 July “to coordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas.” The British would train, arm and finance local insurgents to harass the Germans, as well as their Italian and Japanese allies, in all countries under Axis occupation. SOE’s first director of operations, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Gubbins, who became overall chief in 1943, wrote the Art of Guerrilla Warfare and the Partisan Leader’s Handbook, based on what he called “Lawrence’s epic campaign.” What he instigated was, by SOE’s admission, “terrorism” on the Axis.
SOE mobilized mountain tribes in Burma, communist and royalist rebels in Yugoslavia, and disparate anti-Nazis in France. It also encouraged the US to establish its own covert operations unit, which became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Gubbins assigned Major Bill Brooker to train the Americans at top-secret Camp X in the Canadian woods, telling him, “We think the Americans are going to come into the war and they have to learn all about this stuff.” One American official wondered, “What type of training was required to make an American un-American enough to stick the enemy in the back?” Camp X, which opened three days after Pearl Harbor, instructed more than 500 inexperienced Americans in the dark arts of partisan recruitment, sabotage, assassination, secrecy and communications.
The entrance of the Soviet Union and the US into the war against Germany altered the balance in Britain’s favor and changed SOE’s covert mission in Europe from harassment to support for an Allied invasion of the Continent. When Britain and the US invaded Italy and then France, SOE-backed guerrilla units diverted German resources away from advancing Allied armies. Resistance was not decisive, but it saved Allied troops’ lives and shortened the war.
SOE and OSS claimed numerous achievements, due to effective leadership by men and women who knew the countries they worked in, spoke the language, lived among their fighters and observed strict security. One of the best was George Starr, who set up operations in southwest France and slowly grew his WHEELWRIGHT resistance network from one small district to the entire region. His forces helped to impede Germany’s Second SS Panzer Division from reaching the Normandy landing beaches by seventeen crucial days. The beachhead was secure when the battered division arrived. SOE critics, including George’s brother and fellow SOE operative John Starr, recorded fatal errors. The most famous was succumbing to false German radio signals, supposedly from SOE operators, that lured scores of British agents to their deaths.
In World War II, SOE was a partial success. Although the British shut it down when the Americans dismantled OSS right after the war, the seductiveness of special operations à la SOE and OSS lingered. In the post-war world, it has been a disaster. The British absorbed former SOE agents into its traditional spy agency, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) also known as MI-6. OSS veterans formed the backbone of the CIA that President Harry Truman established in 1947. Both organizations existed to collect intelligence, but they nonetheless conducted operations that included assassination and clandestine war. Historian of espionage Phillip Knightley wrote that mixing the two “made it inevitable that intelligence also involved covert action, and covert action now meant American intervention in countries with which the United States was not at war.”
Intervention never stopped. The British and Americans infiltrated guerrilla bands into the Soviet Union and its satellites, in Truman’s words, to roll back communism. They sometimes employed former Nazis, notably in the Ukraine where they armed fascist nationalists against the Russians in a disastrous campaign that left most of its participants dead, wounded or captured. The joint Anglo-American Operation Valuable infiltrated rebels into Albania to overthrow dictator Enver Hoxha, a former SOE ally during World War II. Most of them were immediately killed or taken prisoner. Frank Wisner, the CIA point man in Albania, told Kim Philby, the SIS operative secretly working for the Soviets, “We’ll get it right next time.” They didn’t.
Attempts to use insurgents in the three Soviet-occupied Baltic nations led not only to failure but to 75,000 civilian casualties. The infiltration of thousands of guerrillas into North Korea likely affected the North’s decision to invade South Korea in June 1950. CIA support of rebellious colonels in Indonesia five years later did not prevent their total defeat by the Indonesian Army. The 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba is well known, as is the clandestine Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. CIA director and OSS veteran William Casey ran the illegal war over Congressional objections using Saudi money and funds from the illegal sale of arms to Iran. The CIA covert war in Afghanistan led to a mujahideen victory over the Soviets, but it produced the chaos and civil war that led to the creation of the Taliban, the hosting of Osama bin Laden, 9/11 and the longest war in American history.
In 2011, a revolt erupted in Syria. The US, which was witnessing the tragic consequences of its intervention in Libya, was reluctant to use its military again. The halfway house between quick victory by Assad, backed by allies Russia and Iran, and American invasion was a covert operation. This was supposed to be different from the failed missions catalogued in the CIA study Obama commissioned. It wasn’t. The CIA’s bid to emulate Lawrence on the master’s old terrain failed. Why?
Lawrence had advantages that the CIA lacked. First, the British Army under General Edmund Allenby invaded Palestine and Syria from Egypt. Lawrence’s ill-equipped tribesmen, who on their own could not have defeated the Ottomans, served as Allenby’s right flank as his forces advance north. The CIA had no invading American army to support in Syria, denying their rebels a clear objective. Second, Lawrence fought alongside his men, while most CIA operatives remained at base in Turkey and Jordan. Third, Lawrence’s strategy was not to hold territory that his irregulars could not defend. Syria’s rebels did that again and again.
Lawrence, writing the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1929, explained that a guerrilla force had to be “an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like gas … never giving the enemy a target.” He felt that “battles were a mistake,” a lesson the CIA neglected to teach the Syrian rebels. The next edition of the CIA’s covert ops history will have to include the $1 billion disaster in Syria.
Does that mean an end to secret wars? Rudy Giuliani’s recent calls for regime change in Iran, combined with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of an Iran Action Group, indicate that lessons remain unlearned. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is funding the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK), a Shiite mirror image of Al Qaeda, that seeks to overthrow the Iranian regime. The MeK was an ally of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War, massacred Kurds in 1991 and was until recently on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. If Syria was a disaster, Iran could be a catastrophe.
A century before Britain sent Lawrence into Syria, Wellington’s army supported Spanish partisans against Napoleon’s occupation of their country. The Spaniards won in 1814, returning King Ferdinand VII to his throne in Madrid. One of the monarch’s first acts was to restore the Inquisition. As the Syria war heads towards a conclusion in Idlib, the US can take solace that its jihadis did not conquer Syria and turn it into a base of the global holy war.
Charles Glass has covered Syria since 1973 and is the author of the newly released They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France (Penguin Press).