Timber Sycamore: The CIA’s Illegal Syrian Regime Change Operation
Murder Of Green Berets In Jordan Exposed Secretive CIA Syria Program Details
“The Jordanian government had a strong incentive to gloss over the murders of the three Green Berets. Likewise, the CIA was scared of potential blowback and the exposing of their covert program,” says investigative journalist Jack Murphy, himself an Army special forces veteran.
A premeditated green-on-blue attack in Jordan outside of King Faisal Air Base (at al-Jafr in Southern Jordan) late last year resulted in the deaths of three elite US Green Berets in what the media initially dubbed a mere unfortunate gate incident and what the Jordanian government dismissed as a “a tragic accident devoid of any terrorist motives”. But the whole event and subsequent attempts at cover-up just as Obama was leaving office enraged both the families of the slain and the US special forces community; and it further threatened to blow wide open the CIA’s illegal Syrian regime change operation, called Timber Sycamore, which involved American special ops soldiers being tasked with training so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels in Jordan and Turkey as part of an inter-agency program.
As details of the court case involving the shooter continue to emerge this week, the media continues to misreport the true nature of the what the US special forces personnel were doing in Jordan in the first place, and how a CIA secret program put them at risk.
On Monday (July 17) a Jordanian military court sentenced the attacker, a Jordanian soldier named Marik al-Tuwayha, to life in prison with hard labor for the premeditated murder of Staff Sgt. Matthew C. Lewellen, 27, of Kirksville, Missouri; Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe, 30, of Tucson, Arizona; and Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty, 27, of Kerrville, Texas. In Jordan a “life sentence” can mean the possibility of being set free after serving 20 years for good behavior.
Last November the three Green Berets were entering King Faisal Air Base assigned as part of the CIA’s ‘Timber Sycamore’ training. According to court testimony as well as evidence collected by the Pentagon, a soldier in the US-allied Jordanian Army opened fire as the Green Berets’ convoy was stopped in front of the base. The Jordanian guard fired for six minutes, reloading multiple rifle magazines. The Jordanian government and media attempted to paint a picture that the approaching US convoy charged the gate and neglected protocol, and that the guard thought he was acting in self defense (a claim later retracted by Jordan). But initially suppressed surveillance footage captured the entire event, and confirms a methodical and willed attack as the Americans yelled in English and in Arabic, “We’re Americans! We’re friendly!” (the Jordanian military court refused to show the footage). As Foreign Affairs reported, “they were hunted down and executed at close range.” A fourth US soldier was able to wound the shooter, bringing the attack to an end.
Crime scene photo evidence by the Army’s official 15-6 investigation.
Monday’s verdict is being widely reported as “case closed” concerning the attack even as the victims’ families and active special forces personnel themselves continue to ask questions. While family members consider the verdict a “good first step,” they have all along pointed to deeper issues regarding their sons’ presence in Jordan and the policies that sent them there. Official family statements from a March press conference included the following:
Based on their behavior, the Jordanians apparently believe that our sons were expendable…
Finally, our government gives Jordan more than a billion dollars each year in foreign aid. The American public is told that the government of Jordan is our ‘ally.’ …As for the foreign aid for Jordan, I say, ‘No more.’ Enough is enough.
In a remarkably candid 2014 speech at Harvard, then Vice President Joe Biden admitted and emphasized Jordan’s role among “our allies” in funding and supporting the rise of ISIS.
After Trump took office Staff Sgt. Kevin McEnroe’s father published a letter asking the new US president to “reconsider our relationship and aide to an ally who murders our soldiers and then lies about it.”
Perhaps more significant is that the whole episode threatened to expose never before known details of the ground level nuts and bolts of how the CIA’s program to destabilize and topple the Syrian government worked. While the program began to be the subject of vague references in major US media in 2013, specific names and locations of military units, persons, and places involved had never been known or understood until just before and after the tragic attack in Jordan. Even as of 2014, as reports and rumors of CIA training camps in Jordan’s vast deserts were abundant, and as some enterprising journalists literally stumbled around Jordan looking for the whereabouts, locations and details remained a complete mystery.
Training Jihadists for Syria Operations: Whistleblowers Speak
One month before the attack at King Faisal Air Base, a Green Beret associated with covert operations in Syria spoke out to a prominent military news site called SOFREP, blowing the whistle on details surrounding the CIA’s use of jihadists to overthrow Assad:
“Nobody believes in it. You’re like, ‘F–k this.’ Everyone on the ground knows they are jihadis. No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘F–k it, who cares?’
The lengthy whistleblower report (member restricted) circulated widely among special forces veterans and professional analysts, but never reached a broader public audience and was ignored in mainstream press as it sat behind a members only access site founded by a well-known Navy Seal for the purpose of ‘insider’ news and discussion impacting the special forces community. The report revealed that American Syrian rebel trainers (in Jordan and elsewhere) belonging to the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group had been tasked with assisting a CIA covert mission, but they knew full well that they were being ordered by the Obama administration to train jihadists and ISIS sympathizers in the push to topple the Syrian government. They warned blowback was coming as the CIA was violating America’s own counter-terror laws.
Media figures like CNN’s Clarissa Ward immediately attacked the report (Ward herself is a notorious regime change apologist), but SOFREP’s reputation is as one of the few outlets in the world with direct access to covert and special operatives on the ground in remote places. Its two co-founders appear semi-regularly on Fox News and other outlets to discusstheir investigative stories. Indeed SOFREP’s team of journalists is made up almost entirely of former career intelligence and military operatives. The site’s editor-in-chief, Jack Murphy, joined a group of high profile journalists last year which sat in a closed door interview with Syrian President Assad – among them were the New York Times regional bureau chief, a journalist from The New Yorker, and analysts from The Century Foundation.
SOFREP’s bombshell report was the result of months, and even perhaps years of a firestorm of controversy within military and intelligence ranks. Some members of the 5th Special Forces Group felt as if they were being used as pawns (“de facto expendable assets” as the SOFREP investigation describes it) by CIA bureaucracy in a legally and constitutionally questionable scheme that involved the US actively teaming up with jihadists to fight in Syria. While a general Western policy of using Islamic terrorism to pressure the Assad government has not been a secret in recent years, especially since the 2012 DIA ‘salafist principality’ memo came to light, details of how it all worked and how its overseers attempted to justify training jihadists have remained unknown.
Below are excerpts broken into sections from SOFREP’s multi-part investigation (member restricted) into the joint CIA/Army Special Forces (“inter-agency”) program. The total investigative series includes some 30+ printed pages of program history and details. It is unclear to what extent various elements of the program remained in place after Trump took office.
1) The three slain Green Berets were working under a program in which the CIA refused to properly vet trainees and allies:
The slaying of three Green Berets comes after years of the Special Forces soldiers assigned to the CIA’s Timber Sycamore program complaining that the moderate rebels they had been sent to train were actually ISIS and al-Nusra infiltrators. The vetting that the CIA does of the rebels is dubious at best, consisting of bio-metric trace searches in old databases which are far from comprehensive. The Special Forces soldiers have repeatedly brought up the fact that the rebels they have to train have also failed their polygraphs and display allegiances to Islamists during interviews. Such concerns have also been expressed by the CIA’s para-military component, called Ground Branch, which have also gone ignored.
The shooter was an [Jordanian] Air Force soldier who came from the city of Ma’an, a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Ma’an is known to be a city openly sympathetic to the Islamic State, and the black flag of ISIS has been flown over the city despite crackdowns by Jordanian Special Operations troops.
As of now, three 5th Group members killed outside a CIA base in Jordan by a Jihadist sympathizer is not enough to get Congress asking questions about what is really going on with these programs.
CIA officers, particularly the station chief in Turkey, are known to routinely blow off the concerns of the Special Forces sergeants. The CIA has a careerist culture in which numbers have to be met in order for their officers to be eligible for promotion, therefore the mission takes second place to checking tick marks on a ledger. Special Forces trainers complain that they were taking on too many rebels for them to control, and that many were actually terrorists. Requests from the Green Berets for a security element from the Ranger Regiment to guard the rebels were dismissed. The CIA blew off any and all concerns that the Green Berets had leading many of the trainers to actively sabotage the programs by passively refusing to train rebels that they know are actually terrorists. Some senior CIA staffers stayed away from the mission entirely, believing that the eventual blowback would be enough to destroy their careers.
“A good 95 percent of them were either working in terrorist organizations or were sympathetic to them,” a Green Beret associated with the program said, adding, “A good majority of them admitted that they had no issues with ISIS and that their issue was with the Kurds and the Syrian regime.” Like the militias being trained in Jordan, the rebels being trained in Turkey were not ready for combat. “It is not in their blood to be fighters. A large majority of them are criminals,” a Green Beret said. Many were foreign fighters, some from Iraq. One even turned out to be a Lebanese drug smuggler.
“The majority of these guys have been coached on what to say at the training site and give cookie-cutter answers,” the Special Forces soldier told SOFREP. They would portray themselves as being secular, but the Americans could tell who the hardliners were because they didn’t smoke (jihadis follow Wahhabi Islam, which does not permit it) and looked at the Green Berets with disdain.
Distinguishing between the FSA and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organization. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra.
2) The CIA merely watched ISIS grow as its top priority had always been regime change in Syria:
CTC [CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center] “didn’t even track ISIS worth a damn,” a CIA officer said. Amazingly, ISIS remained in the background, regarded by CIA leadership as little more than another insurgent group. The director of CTC, who had once been chief of station in Baghdad, did not care about Iraq one way or the other according to multiple sources in CTC who spoke to SOFREP confidentially. Since this was the party line held by the CTC director, it filtered down through the lower ranks in the CIA. In Syria, the overwhelming priority for the CIA is what some CTC officers call Director John Brennan’s baby: the removal of the Assad regime.
In 2012, with the Syrian Civil War already well underway, CIA Case Officer Doug Laux was dispatched to the Middle East in order to meet with allied nations and the leadership of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). The mission was to “achieve the desired result of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power,” as Laux wrote in a memo. “Leadership on the seventh floor [of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia] and the White House had made it clear from the beginning that the goal of our task force was to find ways to remove President Assad from office,” the former CIA officer wrote in his memoir. Large sections of Laux’s book are blacked out by CIA censors, but what we do know is that American-made TOW anti-tank weapons began showing up in offensives waged by the FSA in Syria.
Brennan was the one who breathed life into the Syrian Task Force, which was able to draw upon resources from CTC/SI. “John Brennan loved that regime-change bullshit,” a former CIA officer commented. CTC/SI focuses on counterterrorism, while the Syrian Task Force conducts espionage, influence operations, and paramilitary activities in conjunction with the Special Activities Division (SAD) as needed in pursuit of regime change, including the covert arming of militia groups inside Syria.
3) Advanced weaponry went to al-Qaeda in Syria:
Weapons were provided to the FSA by the CIA under US Code Title 50, which authorizes the CIA to conduct covert operations, including the supply of arms to foreign proxy forces, after receiving permission from the White House via a presidential finding. In 2014, it became perfectly clear that U.S.-supplied TOW missile launchers had fallen into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.
Concerns about the so-called moderate rebels have been brought up time and time again by the Special Forces trainers. Even the much lauded and allegedly successful program to arm the rebels with TOW missiles has proved to be a failure. Soon after the the TOWs were delivered, ISIS raided the storage facility where they were kept, the CIA-trained rebels abandoning their own weapons systems. Even the TOWs that remain in moderate FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebel hands end up benefitting the likes of the Al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra. When a moderate FSA members fires TOW missiles in an offensive and takes new ground, that terrain is quickly ceded to al-Nusra, as moderate opposition groups are too weak to hold it.
4) The Obama White House and the intelligence bureaucracy sought legal loops holes to prevent prosecution of US officials for training terrorists as part of the covert Syria program:
The legalities in arming groups which are designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the State Department are murky and complicated. If the orders are written the “right” way and lawyers are in sync at the White House and Department of Justice, they can be signed off on. Otherwise, the case can be made that support for the rebel programs are essential, admonishing the asset and personnel trained, while claiming that they will be monitored. The case would be that dubious groups have to be trained in the name of regime change in Syria, a regime that has backing from Russia, China, and Iran.
A curious loophole in 18 USC 2339, which makes it illegal to provide material support to terrorist organizations, is exception J which states that:
No person may be prosecuted under this section in connection with the term “personnel,” “training,” or “expert advice or assistance” if the provision of that material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization was approved by the Secretary of State with the concurrence of the Attorney General. The Secretary of State may not approve the provision of any material support that may be used to carry out terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B)(iii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act).
Exception J probably provides enough of a legal loophole for the CIA to train terrorists once DOJ and the White House of signed off on paperwork carefully written by a team of lawyers.
The White House and the Department of Justice have to be providing paper to the CIA for these actions, as senior management at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia won’t move without adequate protection for themselves. In this scenario, the CIA treats their Special Forces trainers as de facto expendable assets, using them to train known jihadists, when it was only a matter of time before something went wrong.
ISIS social media released photos showing possession of the US-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile.
The inter-agency mission given to 5th Special Forces Group sees the Green Berets seconded to the CIA in which they act under Title 50 covert action authorities instead of Title 10 military authorities. During such deployments, they also act in a compartmentalized manner to the point that even the Colonel who commands 5th Group is not read in on to the CIA missions. A Special Forces soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky is assigned a position called S3X in which he is read on to all of the missions and acts as coordinator. Special Forces Groups are assigned to handle different regions around the world, and 5th Group’s area of operations is the Middle East making them the natural choice for the training and equipping of rebel forces in Turkey and Jordan.
For the time being, the Special Forces soldiers assigned to carry out Title 10 programs feel as if they have to make it look like they are doing their job while actually doing nothing. With their hands tied behind their backs, options are few and far between. Many are actively sabotaging the programs by stalling and doing nothing, knowing that the supposedly secular rebels they are expected to train are actually al-Nusra terrorists.
5) Rare descriptions of covert training base details, housing and operations:
Battlespace was delineated among the Special Forces members, with the troops stationed in Amman in charge of southern Syria, and others deployed to Turkey in charge of the north. However, Damascus X [the CIA station once located in Syria, now in Amman, Jordan] maintained a tremendous amount of clout over both commands. Gradually, funding and weapons flowed into Jordan for the Green Berets to use to further their mission.
One Green Beret commented on the great living conditions they had. A marble chow hall was built for them that employed a full-time cook. “They always have sweets out, ice cream, a giant freezer with chocolate milk, giant TVs, and an Xbox,” he said. He also mentioned they had a great gym. Between training rebel groups, they would take trips to see the local attractions. All and all, not a bad deployment.
6) Internal military pressures as well as media whitewashing attempted to censor SOFREP investigation details and end soldiers’ leaking to the media:
Since those articles have been published, 5th Special Forces Group has held “sensing sessions” between the commander and his staff. The 5th Group commander has also conducted battalion briefs in which he stuck to the party line, but never actually denied any of the charges made in the SOFREP articles about what is going on in his unit. One 5th Group member reported that the briefs were extremely awkward, especially when the commander told them that he got them all ball caps which at that point felt like it was compensation to the men for the mess he had gotten them in.
The commander, Colonel Leahy, went on the record for the Washington Times saying, “No one knows how to work with rebels better than our Green Berets…”
However, the [Washington Times] article glosses over the complaints that Green Berets have made about the Timber Sycamore program in which “moderate” rebels actually turn out to be Jihadists. The Special Forces men complain and drag their feet, refusing to train the next generation of terrorists, but their words fall on deaf ears at the CIA. The brass as Special Forces also seems uninterested in challenging the CIA, and the only mission that is keeping their unit relevant at the moment.