Does President Barack Obama want Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to fall? He's said he does, but fear of an interventionist slippery slope, re-election concerns, and anxiety about America's prominence in the Middle East have severely limited U.S. efforts to topple the Damascus regime. Shaming Russia into forsaking its Syrian ally appears to be the coup de grâce that Mr. Obama and his indignant secretary of state are still counting on.
This approach may not differ much from that of Mitt Romney, who has studiously avoided revealing what he would do in Syria. Even on the more hawkish right, there isn't a lot of appetite for committing U.S. military power to the conflict, except perhaps via the air in conjunction with Turkey. Tempers in Ankara are rising against the Assad regime, but Turkish civilian and military leaders still don't want to send tanks to establish Syrian “safe havens” for rebels and refugees whom Turkey is supporting on its side of the border.
Yet there is an alternative that could crack the Assad regime: a muscular CIA operation launched from Turkey, Jordan and even Iraqi Kurdistan. The trick for Washington is to go in big, deploying enough case officers and delivering paralyzing weaponry to the rebels as rapidly as possible.
Press reports already suggest that a rudimentary, small-scale CIA covert action is under way against Assad. But these reports, probably produced by officially sanctioned White House leaks, reveal an administration trying not to commit itself. According to Syrian rebels I've heard from, the much-mentioned Saudi and Qatari military aid—reportedly chaperoned by the CIA—hasn't arrived in any meaningful quantity.
Odds are that it won't, as the Saudis and Qataris are incapable of running arms on the scale required. Institutionally, intellectually and culturally, it's not their cup of tea. And intelligence officers tell me that the White House hasn't ordered Langley to move the weaponry. To the extent Syria's rebels have recently improved their performance, the reason is better coordination among the Free Syrian Army's units, more defections from regime forces, and raids on regular army depots.
But Langley can move weapons and rapidly develop complementary intelligence networks inside Syria. It may not do these feats brilliantly, but it can certainly do them better than anyone in the region.
The White House is well aware of how strained Assad's security services are. It has been extremely difficult, often impossible, for the regime to clear rebels from more than one area at time. Instead, it has relied on selective savagery.
Syria is predominantly Sunni Arab, with substantial rebellious Sunni communities throughout the country. Assad, who depends upon his Shiite Alawite minority (roughly 10%-15% of the population) for his military muscle, does not have the manpower for a multiple-front counterinsurgency.
A coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime's border security wouldn't be hard. The regime's lack of manpower and Syria's geography—low-rising mountains, arid steppes and forbidding deserts—would likely make it vulnerable to the opposition, if the opposition had enough firepower.
The Assad regime encouraged suicide bombers and other lethal cross-border trade against the U.S. in Iraq. It would be just deserts for CIA case officers to use the same topography against those who took so many American lives.
Even with a determined president behind it, the CIA is always hesitant to engage in covert action because of the possible adverse political repercussions in Washington. And the operations directorate isn't fond of this president, who may be the most disliked commander in chief among case officers since Jimmy Carter.
But the CIA follows orders, however fitfully. And it helps to have as CIA director retired Gen. David Petraeus, a first-rate military mind with well-honed political and diplomatic instincts. Force-fed on the Middle East since 2003, Mr. Petraeus knows all the players in the region.
This Syrian action would not be a massive undertaking. Even when the CIA ramped up its aid to Afghan anti-Soviet forces in 1986–87, the numbers involved (overseas and in Washington) were small, at roughly two dozen. An aggressive operation in Syria would probably require more CIA manpower than that, but likely still fewer than 50 U.S. officers working with allied services.
Most importantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has irreversibly broken with Assad. He has allowed the Syrian opposition increasing freedom of maneuver over the border, including the shipment of small amounts of weaponry. Mr. Erdogan may not require much White House suasion to support a larger, American-led paramilitary program, but he'll want to know whether Mr. Obama is “all in.” In Jordan, where the CIA has its most intimate Arab liaison relationship and King Abdullah (with Saudi backing) has turned against Damascus, the U.S. would find a helpful partner.
And Iraqi Kurdistan, always eager for more U.S. officials on its soil, would likely give the CIA considerable leeway provided Washington promised to stand by the Kurds in any dispute with Baghdad and Tehran. Given the Kurds' concern about American staying power, this is a significant hurdle. Iraqi Kurds don't want their Syrian brothers, who have so far been hammered less than Syria's rebelling Sunni Arabs, to invite the wrath of Damascus if they lack the weaponry to defend themselves.
Still, Iraqi Kurdistan wouldn't be essential for a U.S.-led Syrian operation to work—only Turkey is indispensable. But Turkey is likely the most crucial factor for the Iraqi Kurds, who increasingly see Ankara as a strategic ally. With a muscular Turkish-American paramilitary alliance against Assad, an unstoppable three-front operation could be within reach.
If the administration doesn't let Langley loose, we will likely be looking at a protracted bloodbath in Syria rivaling the destruction that occurred in Lebanon during its all-consuming civil war from 1975 to 2000. A low figure could be 200,000 dead. The extirpation of the Alawites and their Christian allies, who together number roughly 4.5 million, is imaginable.
The Obama administration lives in fear of an illusion. Numerous times the CIA practiced the dark arts during the Cold War, and not once did America slide into war. The CIA certainly didn't have an unblemished record of triumph, but it often made our enemies bleed.
Syria offers a more promising battlefield than Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and certainly a better post-conflict chance of success. Odds are that Mr. Obama (or his successor) and Mr. Erdogan will be dragged into this war eventually, but too late. For all concerned, it would be better to pre-empt that fate.
Mr. Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.