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Will the new plan to train Syrian rebels differ from the CIA's program?

If the CIA has already been training rebels in Syria, what are the lessons from that to help the mission currently being debated by Congress?

Partial transcript from the 9/17/14 TRMS:

Rachel Maddow: The United States government is already arming and training the rebels in Syria. That's supposedly what the big debate is about in Congress right now, and the big vote in Congress this week. Instead of voting on the actual war they are going to vote on this little piece of it. But this little piece of it is already hapening. It's the CIA doing it.

And like everything the CIA does, it's a covert action and so they don't want to talk about it really. But it's not a secret really, it's already happening. It's already happening. There are already efforts under way, for months now, to arm and train those rebels. The debate in Congress is just to ramp that up and expand it and make it less covert.

If that's the case, shouldn't we know if what we've done already is working? I mean, if we've been doing this already for months has it been successful? And if it hasn't been successful, presumably, shouldn't we wonder why we would do more of it?

If it has been successful, then why are we starting out own war now out of apparent desperation? And so fast that it can't even wait for Congress to vote?

Joining us now is Nancy Youssef. She's a national security correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. She's covered the American government's current, ongoing campaign conducted under the CIA to arm and train the Syrian rebels, among lots of other things in this region. Ms. Yousef thanks very much for being here.

Nancy Youssef: Thanks for having me.

Maddow: So the CIA has already been part of an effort - in fact, a multinational effort, to arm and train rebels in Syria. How has that operation gone thus far? Has it met the objectives that it was set out to meet in the first place?

Youssef: Well, so far they've trained about 3000. This was a program that began last spring and the first fighters started showing up in September, and given the progress that IISS has made, the territory that they've taken in that time, it is a program that has frankly struggled.

The fighters themselves are divided. They don't have any real leadership. They lose time going off of the battlefield. The definition of a moderate depends on who you ask, and the fact that they only have been able to train 3000 against an ISIS force that is upwards of 31,000 now, really strikes at some of the challenges tht his program has faced.

Perhaps the biggest one of all and the one that will continue to confront this effort is a lot of these fighters don't want to fight ISIS immediately. Their primary concern is getting rid of the Assad regime and then dealing with ISIS.

And so convincing them to change their objectives and to align themselves with their fellow rebels to fight ISIS and not Bashar al Assad, that is, in the immediate, the biggest challenge facing this program and has been a challenge of this program from its inception last spring.

Maddow: So, this program, as you say, started last spring. There's a political question that I think its worth asking about why Congress is voting on this while letting the authorization for the use of military force by U.S. forces sort of drift until after the midterm elections. That's a political question. But there is sort of this strategic question about whether or not what they are voting on in this program would just expand that thing we're already doing or whether this would change the program in some significant way. You say they've already trained about 3,000 rebels through the existing program. They're saying they'd want to do about 5,000 rebels over the course of a year under what they're debating now, would they be doing it in a significantly different way?

Youssef: Well it would be done by the military versus the CIA, and of course the military has done this for upwards of a decade in Iraq and so that would perhaps be the biggest change. We perhaps would see a change in the types of weapons that are provided.

The duration of the training under the CIA was over a period of months. The Pentagon has said that they could do it in a matter of weeks. And so that would be a big difference.

But perhaps the biggest change you would see in the two programs is where the CIA was something that was covert, this would be something that would perhaps lay the groundwork for training more if successful.

Whereas the CIA one was essentially a trial program in terms of creating a rebel force, this would be laying the groundwork for perhaps training more fighters over the course of the conflict depending on how these fighters do.

Maddow: That's a very interesting and I think important structural point, this idea that when you are doing something at a covert level, yeah, you can avoid political debate on it because it's technically covert, but it also, to a certain extent, limits the scale of what you can do before it's too big for you to avoid talking about it.


Nancy Yousef, national security correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Thanks for helping us talk about this part of this tonight, I appreciate it.

Yousef: Thank you.