Obama Administration Abandoning Program To Train And Equip “Moderate” Syrian Rebels
In the wake of failure that could have been easily foreseen, the Obama Administration is ending a program to train so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels.
The New York Times is reporting that the Obama Administration will be abandoning one of the central elements of its current strategy in the effort against ISIS, thus throwing the entirety of American policy in the region into doubt:
LONDON — The Obama administration has ended the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels, administration officials said on Friday, in an acknowledgment that the beleaguered program had failed to produce any kind of ground combat forces capable of taking on the Islamic State in Syria.
Pentagon officials were expected to officially announce the end of the program on Friday, as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter leaves London after meetings with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, about the continuing wars in Syria and Iraq.
“I wasn’t happy with the early efforts” of the program, Mr. Carter said during a news conference with Mr. Fallon. “So we have devised a number of different approaches.” Mr. Carter added, “I think you’ll be hearing from President Obama very shortly” on the program.
A senior Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that there would no longer be any more recruiting of so-called moderate Syrian rebels to go through training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a much smaller training center would be set up in Turkey, where a small group of “enablers” — mostly leaders of opposition groups — would be taught operational maneuvers like how to call in airstrikes.
While many details of the new approach still need to be worked out, President Obama endorsed the shift in strategy at two high-level meetings with his national security and foreign policy advisers last week, several American officials said.
The change makes official what those in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the administration have been saying for several weeks would most likely happen, particularly in the wake of revelations that the program at one point last month had only “four or five” trainees in the fight in Syria — a far cry from the plan formally started in December to prepare as many as 5,400 fighters this year, and 15,000 over the next three years.
Already, the Pentagon has announced it was “pausing” the transfer of trainee candidates in Syria to training sites in Jordan and Turkey. Several dozen opposition fighters already at the training sites are likely to complete their instruction — learning to help call in allied airstrikes and operating 122-millimeter mortars — and they will be placed in opposition groups in Syria to enhance their combat effectiveness, officials said.
“Training thousands of infantry was not the right model, I think that’s become pretty clear,” said another senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The official said the training was “to be suspended, with the option to restart if conditions dictate, opportunities arise.” The official also said that support to Sunni Arab fighters in eastern Syria was an example of focusing on groups already fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “rather than using training to try to manufacture new brigades.”
The shift in strategy comes as critics in Congress have increasingly demanded that the administration make changes or face the elimination of the program altogether.The
In a letter to the State Department, Pentagon and C.I.A. last week, four senators — three Democrats and a Republican — criticized the program. “The Syria Train and Equip Program goes beyond simply being an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars,” the senators wrote. “As many of us initially warned, it is now aiding the very forces we aim to defeat.”
The senators — Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut; Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia; Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico; and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah — were referring to the latest debacle to plague the program.
From the beginning, the strategy of finding and training so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels who would by allies in the fight against ISIS at the same time that they are allied with ISIS in an effort to depose the regime of Bashar Assad has been one that never really seemed to make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, it has never really been clear just how “moderate” these rebels actually were. While the groups themselves were not in formal alliance with ISIS or al Qaeda, many of them seemed to hold views that were basically compatible with those organizations, and they certainly don’t seem to be all that interested in the idea of a democratic, pluralistic Syria that includes not only its Sunni and Shia Muslim populations, but also the Christian and Alawaite communities that make up a substantial part of the population in the eastern part of the country. That was one of the many reasons why President Obama was obviously so reluctant to actively start arming the rebels even while advisers like Hillary Clinton, people on Capitol Hill like John McCain, and allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States argued otherwise.
Two years ago, even the nonlethal aid we were providing to rebel groups was cut off when evidence began to surface that Islamist elements were gaining a foothold among the so-called “moderates.” As the war dragged on, President Obama eventually gave in to the pressure and announced a policy to arm and train these so-called “moderates,” but as I noted at the time it was obvious that the plan could not work for many of the same reasons that people were arguing against arming them when the war started. The President’s plan was quickly attacked by many experts, primarily because it was clear that his faith in the “moderates” was completely misplaced. It was also clear that, despite the arguments made by many of the advocates of the President’s plan, arming these groups would not have prevented the rise of ISIS, not the least because there was a long history of the arms supplied to “moderates” ending up in the hands of radical groups, a practice that continues to this day. There were also reports that one of the groups that were part of this supposed “moderate” coalition sold American journalist Steven Sotloff, to ISIS at some point after he was captured. Sotloff was eventually beheaded in one of the infamous propaganda videos that ISIS was releasing last year. Within three months after the President announced his new strategy, it was clear that whatever trust should have been placed in the “moderate” Syrian rebels was entirely misplaced and that the strategy he had announced in the summer of 2014 was doomed to fail. Finally, over the summer, the true extent of the failure of the program became clear with the announcement that no more than sixty, and perhaps as few as five, actual fighters have been successfully trained by the American-sponsored program. Given all of that, the announcement that we’re abandoning what is clearly a failed idea was largely inevitable.
The big question, of course, is where this leaves American policy against ISIS going forward. Apparently, the Administration plans to announce some kind of replacement for the Train and Equip Program that would be based in Turkey but it seems as though this will be a much lower scale program than the already low scale program we’ve been undertaking for the past year. This would suggest that we’ll be relying mostly on air power going forward, which of course raises the possibility of unintended confrontations with the Russians also using air power to attack rebel positions as part of their plan to defend the Assad regime. Most importantly, though, this development just seems to reinforce the idea that there is no coherent strategy in Syria from either the United States or Russia, and that we’re pretty much flying blind at this point. That’s a recipe for disaster.