The lights are on 24/7 in the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group these days, with real-time spy satellite imagery, electronic intercepts and drone videos pouring in from Iraq and Syria, along with intelligence reports from agency bases in Baghdad, Kurdistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Turkey. But the whispered corridor conversations and worried looks among analysts and operations officials, sources say, tell the real story: Even if the White House decides to go to war against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, there are no good options.
The last time the CIA faced an Iraqi insurgency it had the backing of 140,000 U.S. troops, a 500-strong Baghdad station and constant air cover from in-country bases, not to mention the support of President George W. Bush and Congress for a big troop “surge.” It was also able to promise Sunni tribal leaders that they would have a seat at the table in Baghdad. Today, it has none of those advantages, and it faces an enemy far more lethal, and based across the border in Syria.
“There are just a lot of least-bad options right now,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA operative in Iraq who frequently travels to the region for the Soufan Group, a private intelligence organization staffed by former CIA and FBI personnel. “I’m not political in any way, but I don’t fault the administration too much for the situation overall. I mean, you’ve got Syria collapsing and a civil war in the heart of the Middle East along with everything else going wrong. We can change certain things, but to change the overall trajectory of that is an international and regional affair.”
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Others aren’t as kind to President Obama. “The White House is the big issue,” says Charles Faddis, a former top CIA operative in Kurdistan during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. “There’s no plan, no coherence, just half-measures, not enough to accomplish anything” in Syria. “Nobody wants anything to do with it. It’s not just that the agency has no appetite for it. They’re also having trouble getting the [Jordanians] enthusiastic about” taking the battle to Syria. “All they see is half-measures, and that’s enough to piss anybody off.”
The immediate objective is to “stop the bleeding” with air strikes, Skinner says. But U.S. war planes need reliable spotters on the ground to accurately identify enemy units and guide pilots and drones to their targets. During the first air strikes in late August against ISIS fighters threatening the Mosul Dam and Izidi refugees, U.S. Special Forces personnel and their Kurdish agents guided pilots onto their targets, intelligence sources say. A broader, sustained bombing campaign is probably beyond their capabilities. “Putting in U.S. military people for days or weeks to be spotters, that’s a very different proposition,” says Skinner. Using Kurdish or U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) irregulars as spotters for U.S warplanes is out of the question, he says. “ I can’t imagine a scenario where U.S. aircraft would drop ordnance on the instructions of even a vetted agent. Only a certified U.S. air controller could do that.”
A sustained bombing campaign would also almost certainly required grassroots-level spies to track the movements of ISIS units, CIA veterans say. And there, too, the U.S. is wanting. “We don’t have the intelligence,” says Faddis, who recounted his experience organizing resistance forces against Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan prior to the 2003 invasion in a 2008 book, Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq. ”After you take out the tanks, you’re down to going after guys with AKs in houses. We don’t have that kind of intelligence in Syria. Who’s going to tell you that this house is the ISIS headquarters in this town?” Without reliable, precise intelligence to hit the “right” house, civilian casualties would be immense—a result ISIS would no doubt publicize.
Skinner agrees. “I mean, you almost have to [penetrate] ISIS on the ground to know what you’re hitting because they’re going to blend in with so many other rebel groups. Some of them we wouldn’t mind hitting, but that’s not the point. It’s incredibly complicated.”
Ideally, the FSA, the so-called “moderate” forces backed by the Obama administration against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could put pressure on ISIS with reconnaissance missions to support the air war, if not hit-and-run raids of their own. But the FSA is woefully under-equipped, especially now that ISIS forces have captured so much of the weaponry the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi army. On August 24, the ISIS fighters overran a Syrian air base at Taqba, capturing even more advanced weaponry, including sophisticated missiles capable of knocking U.S. warplanes and drones out of the sky.
The FSA, already wobbling before ISIS swept across the region, is completely overmatched now. What does it need just to survive? “Ammo, ammo, ammo,” says Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for its Washington mission. That, and heavier weapons. “We’re only getting enough ammunition for weeks at a time,” he tells Newsweek. “We need a C-130 full of ammo that we can draw on. There’s been a constant shortage.”