The Nicaraguan Contra, the Syrian Rebel, and the Need for a New Boland Amendment

Covertly training and supplying rebel groups by spy agencies, has been chosen by American administrations as a foreign policy option in several international conflicts with little success. The list of failures continues to grow with the rebel funding program undergoing in Syria, which has an uncomfortable similarity to the program instituted during the Iran-Contra Affair in Nicaragua.

During the time of the Iran-Contra Affair, there was a global war on communism, similar to that of today’s war on terrorism. Then President Reagan, in what has come to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” established the U.S. policy of supporting anti-Communist insurgents wherever they might be, so that democratic freedom could flourish.

Nicaraguan Contras

In 1979, the dictator of Nicaragua was overthrown by the Sandinistan National Liberation Front and replaced with the newly formed Sandinistas, a leftist political party. The Sandinistas were deemed by President Reagan as a communist threat for their leftist leanings. The Contras, who were a coalition of several right-wing rebel groups, were fighting the Sandinistas, and, as a result, Reagan’s goal was to help the contras defeat the communist Sandinistas.

In late 1981, President Reagan authorized the U.S. to support the contras by giving them “money, arms, and equipment.” This created an uptick in fighting and garnered the attention of Congressman Edward Boland (D-MA), Chairman of the House intelligence committee. Boland offered an amendment “prohibiting the use of funds “for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras.”

The Boland Amendment specifically forbid government funding from funding the Contras, so, to continue to fund the contras legally, a new plan was necessary. Oliver North, an advisor from the National Security Council, came upon the idea of overcharging the Iranians for weapons sold to them by Americans and using the surplus to fund the contra resupply operation and other covert activities.

In 1984, Robert C. McFarlane, another national security adviser, met with Prince Bandar, who was the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the time. The White House made it clear that the Saudis would “gain a considerable amount of favor” by cooperating as a third-party donor. A total of $32 million was collected from Saudi Arabia between 1984 and 1986 to fund this clandestine mission.

Syrian Rebels

In Syria, there are three main power groups—Bashar Assad’s government forces, the Syrian opposition, and terrorist groups, namely the Islamic State (or ISIS) —and no one group has majority power. 

With the civil war escalating, the CIA began a covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund, and train a moderate opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict. The CIA has since trained an estimated 10,000 fighters, although the number still fighting with so-called moderate forces is unclear. The effort is separate from the failed $500 million Pentagon program meant to train fighters. This program was canceled after it trained only a handful of fighters, because few recruits would agree to its goal of fighting only the militant Islamic State and not Mr. Assad.

One of the major funding sources for the ongoing CIA program is none other than Saudi Arabia. Code-named Timber Sycamore, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and, of significant importance, the use and supply of the American-made TOW tank-destroying missiles.

Why Fund Rebel Groups?

Some say funding rebel groups helps countries steer clear of “boots on the ground” or from having a direct connection to breaking international norms and principles like state sovereignty. In Syria, the idea could be that moderate rebel groups will be able to "degrade and destroy” the likes of ISIS, giving way to the establishment of a legitimate government in Syria. The effect, however, is aiding and abetting al Qaeda.

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for over a decade, the CIA is now inadvertently helping the terrorist group gain ground in Syria. As the Associated Press reported, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.” Reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

It can only be assumed that once ISIS is handled, the US will once again have to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force, just this time in Syria.

The Need for a New Boland Amendment

Understandably, the U.S. does not want to declare war with Syria and its proxies, which has lead to the policy of arming rebel factions. This cannot be the solution, just as it was proven in other conflicts, like Nicaragua.

To prevent this policy from continuing, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. This legislation seeks to prohibit the U.S. government from using American taxpayer dollars “to provide funding, weapons, training, and intelligence support to groups like the Levant Front, Fursan al Ha and other allies of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda and ISIS, or to countries who are providing direct or indirect support to those same groups.” Just as Boland sought to stop the CIA’s illegal arming of rebels in Nicaragua, Gabbard seeks to prohibit any Federal agency from using taxpayer dollars to provide weapons, cash, intelligence, or any support to terrorist groups.

“The proposal to stop sending weapons to insurgents in Syria is based on the principle that pouring arms into a war zone only intensifies suffering and makes peace more difficult to achieve … Cutting off arms shipments forces belligerents to negotiate. That is what we achieved in Nicaragua. It should be our goal in Syria as well.”