Seal of the CIA
|Operational scope||Weapons sales, training of Syrian rebel forces|
|Location||Eastern Europe, Jordan, Syria|
|Planned by||Central Intelligence Agency|
|Date||2012 – 2017|
Central Intelligence Agency|
United States Department of Defense
Jordanian Armed Forces
General Intelligence Directorate (Jordan)
Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah (Saudi Arabia)
Qatar State Security
Secret Intelligence Service (U.K.)
Thousands of Syrian rebel fighters trained and equipped by U.S., U.K. and Arab governments in an effort to topple the Syrian government.
Timber Sycamore was a classified weapons supply and training program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and supported by Arab intelligence services, such as the security service in Saudi Arabia. Launched in 2012 or 2013, it supplied money, weaponry and training to rebel forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. According to U.S. officials, the program has trained thousands of rebels. President Barack Obama secretly authorized the CIA to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013.
The program's existence was suspected after the U.S. Federal Business Opportunities website publicly solicited contract bids to ship tons of weaponry from Eastern Europe to Taşucu, Turkey and Aqaba, Jordan. One unintended consequence of the program has been to flood the Middle East's black market with weapons including assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
In July 2017, U.S. officials stated that Timber Sycamore would be phased out, with funds possibly redirected to fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or to offering rebel forces defensive capabilities.
CIA director David Petraeus first proposed a covert program of arming and training rebels in the summer of 2012. Initially President Obama rejected the proposal, but later agreed, partially due to lobbying by foreign leaders, including from King Abdullah II of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Seymour Hersh has said that the CIA had been facilitating the flow of arms from Libya to Syria "for more than a year" before summer 2013 in collaboration with "the UK (United Kingdom), Saudi Arabia and Qatar."
Timber Sycamore began in late 2012 or early 2013, and is similar to other Pentagon or CIA-run weapons routing and training programs that were established in previous decades to support foreign rebel forces. Greg Miller and Adam Entous of The Washington Post stated that "The operation has served as the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside." The program's principal backers are the United States and Saudi Arabia, but it is also supported by other regional Arab governments, and by the United Kingdom. While Saudi Arabia provides more money and weaponry, the United States leads training in military equipment. The program is based in Jordan, due to that country's proximity to the battlefields in Syria.
According to The New York Times, the program initially allowed U.S. forces to train Syrian rebels in use of military equipment, but not to directly provide the equipment itself. A few months after its creation, it was amended to allow the CIA to both train and equip rebel forces. The Salon website reports that Saudi Arabia has provided billions of dollars in military equipment, and covert financing of rebel forces has also been provided by Qatar, Turkey and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the CIA smuggled thousands of weapons and millions of ammunition rounds to Syrian rebels in 2012 before the program's launch. A classified U.S. State Department cable signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported that Saudi donors were a major support for Sunni militant forces globally, and some American officials worried that rebels being supported had ties to Al Qaeda.
The existence of Timber Sycamore was revealed by The New York Times and Al Jazeera shortly after Jane's Defence Weekly reported, in late 2015, that the US Federal Business Opportunities website was soliciting contracts to ship thousands of tons of weapons from Eastern Europe to Taşucu, Turkey and Aqaba, Jordan.
Timber Sycamore was run by the Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman and provided Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles, night vision goggles, pickup trucks, and other weapons to prospective Syrian rebel forces. Many of the weapons were purchased in the Balkans or other locations in Eastern Europe, and then routed to Syrian rebel forces and training camps by Jordanian security services. CIA paramilitary operatives trained Syrian rebels in use of the weaponry. According to Charles Lister at The Daily Beast there were at least 50 vetted rebel groups fighting in Syria that received weapons or training through the program after late 2012; the exact number is not known.
According to American officials, the program has been highly effective, training and equipping thousands of U.S.-backed fighters to make substantial battlefield gains. American officials state that the program began to lose effectiveness after Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian Civil War. David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post, remarked that while the CIA program ultimately failed in its objective of removing Assad from power, it was hardly "bootless": "The program pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups. One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years."
U.S.-backed rebels often fought alongside al-Qaeda's al-Nusra Front, and some of the U.S. supplied weapons ended up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, which had been a major concern of the Obama administration when the program was first proposed.
The program remains classified, and many details about the program remain unknown, including the total amount of support, the range of weapons transferred, the depth of training provided, the types of U.S. trainers involved, and the exact rebel groups being supported. However, The Canberra Times reported that two thousand tons of Soviet era weapons were delivered to Aqaba as recently as April 2016.
Jordanian intelligence arms sales
According to American and Jordanian officials, weapons shipped into Jordan by the CIA and Saudi Arabia were routinely stolen by Jordanian intelligence officials in the General Intelligence Directorate (Jordan) and sold on the black market. The magnitude of the theft amounted to millions of dollars, and FBI officials state that some of the stolen weapons were later used to kill two American contractors, two Jordanians and one South African at a police training station in Jordan. Arms received via Timber Sycamore have flooded Middle Eastern black markets with heavy weaponry.
Jordanian officials state that Jordanian intelligence officers who stole the program's weapons used the profits to purchase luxury items, with knowledge of superior officers. The thefts were halted after months of complaints by the American and Saudi governments, the program's main backers. According to Jordanian officials, several intelligence officers were fired, but their profits were not confiscated. (In Jordan, the General Intelligence Directorate is second only to the monarchy in power and prestige.) Jordan's minister for state and media affairs Mohammad Al-Momani stated that the allegations were incorrect.
Regional trafficking and ISIL
Prior to the Syrian Civil War, southern Syria and northern Jordan were a conduit for other smuggling operations. The advent of the war transformed the region into a center for smuggling weapons, and the more formal support provided by Timber Sycamore only intensified the scale of smuggling operations on the border. Major smuggling centers include bazaars established at Ma'an in southern Jordan, Sahab near Amman, and in the Jordan River Valley.
An investigation by journalists Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh revealed that rebels supplied with weapons from the Amman MOC sold a portion of them to local arms dealers, often to raise cash to pay additional fighters. Some MOC-supplied weapons were sold to Bedouin traders referred to locally as "The Birds" in Lejat, a volcanic plain northeast of Daraa, Syria. According to rebel forces, the Bedouins would then trade the weapons to ISIL, who would place orders using the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service. Two rebel commanders, and a United Kingdom weapons monitoring organization, maintain that MOC-supplied weapons have made their way to ISIL forces.
A 2017 study by Conflict Armament Research found that external support for anti-Assad Syrian rebels "significantly augmented the quantity and quality of weapons available to [ISIL] forces," including "anti-tank weapons purchased by the United States that ended up in possession of the Islamic State within two months of leaving the factory." However, the study found no instance in which U.S. arms supplied to the Kurdish– and Arab–led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight ISIL ended up in ISIL's arsenal.
In July 2017, anonymous officials stated that President Donald Trump, in consultation with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, had decided to phase out support for anti-Assad Syrian rebel forces, possibly redirecting resources to fighting ISIL, to offering rebel forces defensive capabilities, or to other operations in the region.
The officials said that the decision was made prior to Trump's participation in the G-20 summit and July 7 meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Several officials characterized the decision as a "major concession" to Russia, with one remarking: "Putin won in Syria." However, another official stated that ending the program was not a major concession due to Assad's recent victories in the Syrian Civil War, but rather "a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia." Some members of the Obama administration reportedly had wished to scrap the program because some rebels armed and trained by the program had joined ISIL and related groups.
According to Rachel Marsden writing for The Baltimore Sun, the CIA and Saudi Arabia intended for Timber Sycamore to allow independent military forces to drive out Assad, install a Syrian leader friendly to U.S., Saudi and Qatari interests, and weaken Russia's influence in the Middle East.
Reporter Paul Malone wrote that weapons delivered by Timber Sycamore might be acquired by al-Qaeda in Syria, comparing the program to CIA support for the Afghan mujahideen, or American weaponry being seized by ISIL in 2014 in Mosul, Iraq.
The International Business Times of Italy has written that corrupt Jordanian intelligence officials facilitated weapons trafficking that supported the Iraqi insurgency after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. For this reason, according to the paper, the Obama administration was reluctant to approve Timber Sycamore and debated a year before doing so.
US Senator Ron Wyden's office has questioned the program, releasing a statement that "the US is trying to build up the battlefield capabilities of the anti-Assad opposition, but they haven't provided the public with details about how this is being done, which US agencies are involved, or which foreign partners those agencies are working with."
Robert Baer, a former CIA officer and CNN contributor, strongly criticized the Trump administration's cancellation of the program, calling it "a strategic mistake" and "a gift to Vladimir Putin ... it's crazy, frankly, I've never seen anything like it." Baer commented that "the optics of this couldn't be worse" due to multiple investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections and possible collusion with Trump's campaign: "The context of this is, at the meeting in Hamburg, Trump let Putin go on the hacking. He's not addressed the hacking and rather than taking some sort of retaliation against Putin for the hacking, he gave him a gift." By contrast, Thomas Joscelyn of The Weekly Standard defended Trump's decision, arguing "there is no evidence that any truly moderate force is effectively fighting Assad." In December 2017, Max Abrams and John Glaser observed in the Los Angeles Times that "[ISIL] imploded right after external support for the 'moderate' rebels dried up," which is consistent with studies demonstrating "that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars, which usually peter out not through power-sharing agreements among fighting equals, but when one side—typically, the incumbent—achieves dominance."
- Operation Cyclone, 1979-1989 CIA program to arm and finance Islamist insurgents fighting the Soviet-sponsored government of Afghanistan.
- Iran–Contra affair U.S. arms sales to Iran to support Contras.
- United States support for Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war.
- Safari Club, anti-communist Middle East clandestine operations group during the Cold War.
- Allegations of United States support for the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.
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- Haas 1991, pp. 17, 28–29.