Timber Sycamore is a classified weapons supply and training program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and supported by various Arab intelligence services, most notably Saudi Arabia's. Launched in 2012 or 2013, it supplies money, weaponry and training to rebel forces fighting in the Syrian civil war. According to US 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 US 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.
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. 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 US 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. Salon.com 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 US 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 is run by the Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman and provides 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 are 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 then train Syrian rebels in use of the weaponry. According to The Daily Beast there are approximately 50 vetted rebel groups fighting in Syria that have received weapons or training through the program since late 2012, though the exact number is not known.
According to American officials, the program has been highly effective, training and equipping thousands US-backed fighters to make substantial battlefield gains. American officials state that the program began to lose effectiveness after Russia intervened militarily in the civil war.
Timber Sycamore is distinct from another, discontinued Pentagon program established to train Syrian rebel forces to fight against ISIS.
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 US 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 rebels as recently as April 2016.
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.
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, Sabah 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 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who would place orders using the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service. Two rebel commanders, and a UK weapons monitoring organization, maintain that MOC-supplied weapons have made their way to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant forces.
According to Rachel Marsden writing for The Baltimore Sun, the CIA and Saudi intended for Timber Sycamore to allow independent military forces to drive out Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, install a Syrian leader friendly to US, 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 ISIS 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 2003 US 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.
Il Giornale has reported that despite the program's secrecy, US Vice President Joe Biden was photographed at the center of Zarqa in March 2015.
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."
Former CIA analyst and Brookings Institute fellow Bruce Riedel has stated that Saudi support for the program has given Saudi Arabia greater say over American policy in the Syrian Civil War.