Fighting Between the Pentagon- and CIA-Backed Militias Portrays a Chaotic U.S. Foreign Policy

In the past, struggles for dominance and strategy between U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon played out within the confines of the Beltway, in cocktail parties and congressional hearings and high-level, closed-door meetings. Not anymore.
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If you think the cross-currents of the U.S. presidential election constitute societal madness and national decline, revelations about actual fighting between the CIA and the Pentagon through their proxies in war-torn Syria raise more concern about U.S. foreign policy, enough at least to rate comparison with Donald Trump's suggestions that the NATO alliance is obsolete or nuclear proliferation should be considered by allies such as the Japanese and South Koreans.

Want to talk crazy? Both the Pentagon and CIA support separate militias. Problem: These well-armed, well-financed militias are fighting each other on the desolate plains between the besieged city of Aleppo and the Turkish border. All this highlights a lack of vision and leadership over implementation of the proper foreign-policy strategy regarding Syria.

The fighting accents how little control U.S. intelligence has over various groups financed through taxpayer money and armed through our government, at least in this stretch of the Middle East. And you thought the Russians introduced chaos to this region?

The CIA-armed militia, dubbed Fursan al Haq, which translates as Knights of Righteousness, operates out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo. The Pentagon, on the other hand, backs the Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east. And one wonders why American foreign policy is seen as stagnant, stubborn and reactionary.

Add to this volatile mix Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey's ongoing funding and arming of different rebel groups with wildly different agendas. Yet fighting between two groups armed and financed by the United States -- the CIA and Pentagon -- is a new phenomenon and our own bid for international insanity. It's sure evidence of the need for a major overhaul of U.S. foreign-policy strategy -- and not only involving Syria but the region at large.

This disturbing news comes in the wake of the Obama administration's recent effort to restart and re-authorize the Pentagon to train rebel fighters following the United States' disastrous, short-lived, multimillion-dollar training program last October. The program's failure saw recruits ultimately handing over their U.S.-issued weapons and other materials to members of the terrorist group al-Nusra, an al-Qaida offshoot. Some of our recruits even turned out to be members of al-Nusra. So much for a systematic vetting process.

Let us now review the scorecard and players: As stated earlier, the CIA supports the Knights of Righteousness group (one can almost imagine a group so-named right here in America, though involved in different sorts of mischief); the Pentagon supports the Syrian Democratic Forces. The latter group is problematic because a majority of its members are Kurdish; thus, they're viewed by some as an invading force. This could not come at a worse time for Turkey, given already simmering tensions over U.S. backing of Kurdish armed forces. The last thing Turkey wants is any armed Kurdish elements near or in control of its southern border.

Such dynamics also threaten to put the CIA in the limelight -- not really a preferred prospect for an intelligence agency that favors the shadows. The agency is arming its rebel groups with sophisticated weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles stored by our increasingly mercurial ally, the Saudis. And thus history threatens to come full circle: Didn't the agency arm the Taliban back in the 1980s in similar fashion? We saw how all that worked out.

In the past, struggles for dominance and strategy between U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon played out within the confines of the Beltway, in cocktail parties and congressional hearings and high-level, closed-door meetings. Not anymore. The ideological collision once limited to brainy ideas, arguments and different opinions is exploding in an arena with combustible and deadly consequences through guns and proxies, setting a dangerous precedent at a time when some of our presidential candidates all too readily reflect the American public's tragic ignorance of foreign affairs.

But then our foreign policy is a mess. The United States is supporting Shia Muslims in Iraq while backing their arch-enemy, Sunni Muslims, in neighboring Syria. No wonder so many are confused. It's hard enough for Americans to understand how sects of the same basic faith can be bitter enemies. By its actions, our government only makes a deeper muddle of any simple understanding of the problems.

If the United States wants to defeat ISIS, which now controls much of Syria, betting entirely on the Kurds to do most of the fighting is a questionable strategy, given that the Kurds do not represent the majority of the Syrian population. The United States needs Sunnis of all stripes to take part in the fighting. And to that end, cool heads at the Pentagon and CIA need to step back, re-evaluate conflicting strategies and find real international consensus for everyone's sake.

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