The Slatest

The CIA’s Drone War Comes to Syria

A U.S.-made Reaper drone.

Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

It was probably only a matter of time before the Obama administration employed its preferred fallback counterterrorism strategy against the growing threat posed by ISIS: The Washington Post’s Greg Miller reports today that the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, have launched a secret drone campaign in Syria.

Unnamed U.S. officials tell the Post that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center is only involved in identifying and locating the targets while JSOC is carrying out the strikes, which are exclusively focused on “high value targets.” Officially, the CIA has no established presence within Syria, though it has certainly been involved in the conflict, notably by vetting and supplying rebel groups in the country. The drone program means that its role has escalated, likely due to recent setbacks in the not-secret campaign against ISIS.

The Obama administration, as part of an overall attempt to roll back the quasi-military role the CIA has taken on since 9/11, has pushed over the last couple of years to transfer control of the drone program to the military, though this has encountered opposition in Congress. The joint operation in Syria seems like a compromise in the turf war between the two agencies. If only the military is operating all the drones, then according to the logic of the past several  years, the operations can be legally justified under the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which has been dubiously applied to Syria thanks to Congress’s failure to take up the issue.

One recent target of the new program, which represents only a small fraction of the thousands of airstrikes in the U.S.-led air campaign, was Junaid Hussain, a British citizen, hacker, and ISIS propagandist linked to a number of international plots, including the attack on a “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas in May. He was killed in a drone strike last month.

Obama’s stated goals of reducing and restricting the controversial drone program have been stymied by the rise of ISIS and the collapse of Yemen. “Signature strikes,” those that target suspected terrorist facilities rather than specific individuals, have continued despite promises that they’d be phased out. There’s also little evidence to support the administration’s claims that it prefers capturing terrorist subjects to targeting them with drones. The number of strikes in Pakistan, once the center of the drone war, has lessened as the threat from al-Qaida central has diminished and the U.S. presence is Afghanistan has been reduced. But Yemen has already seen more drone strikes this year than in all of last year. And now, the secret drone war has expanded to yet another country.