Home The Washington Diplomat October 2015 U.S. Efforts to Train Syrian Rebels in Disarray

U.S. Efforts to Train Syrian Rebels in Disarray

U.S. Efforts to Train Syrian Rebels in Disarray


On Oct. 9, the Obama administration announced it was ending the Pentagon’s program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. Instead, a smaller initiative will provide weapons and equipment to existing rebel groups.

“Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is now directing the Department of Defense to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” a Pentagon statement said, referring to the Islamic State by another acronym. It noted that U.S. forces will provide air support.

The shift in strategy, which took place after this article went to press, is an acknowledgement that the Pentagon’s much-criticized training effort failed to produce fighters capable of taking on the Islamic State. The focus will now be on aiding more than a dozen rebel groups already on the ground in northeastern Syria in the hopes of replicating the successes that Syrian Kurdish fighters have had.

Since President Barack Obama appeared on television a year ago to declare his intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State, the U.S. effort to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the extremist group is a long way from fulfilling its ambitious mission. It was a daunting task, numerically and logistically, from the outset.

At the time of Obama’s announcement, the Islamic State had reportedly amassed as many as 31,500 troops in Iraq and Syria. The amount of Syrian rebels the Pentagon has trained, as of July, was an incomparably modest 60. Tracking the myriad armed groups in Syria, many of them sizable terrorist organizations with conflicting agendas, is difficult even for America’s vaunted intelligence apparatus. While discerning coherence out of the vacuum of violence in Syria has been a tall order, “what is very clearly not happening is there has not been any meaningful military action or success on the part of any of the rebels that we have trained,” Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in an interview.

Photo: Kumar Tiku / UNICEF
On Jan. 24, 2015, U.N. vehicles travel a dusty road lined with the rubble remnants of destroyed buildings in the Old City of Homs, Syria.

Critics say U.S. training efforts thus far have been a failure, the result of a muddied strategy that’s too little, too late to make a dent in Syria’s civil war. Supporters counter that it’s too soon to write off a difficult undertaking that is still getting off the ground.

Inauspicious Start

Alarmed at the spread of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, across swathes of Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration in July 2014 requested $500 million from Congress to train moderate Syrian rebels in a Pentagon program that would be separate from a clandestine CIA training mission already underway. The initiative received congressional authorization in September 2014, and with it clear criteria for vetting the trainees. “The term ‘appropriately vetted’ means … at a minimum, assessments of such elements, groups, and individuals for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the government of Syria, and groups associated with the government of Iran,” the law states.

That definition excludes groups like the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has battled ISIS and had tactical successes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Critics say the plan’s narrow scope is its Achilles’ heel, as evidenced by the paltry number of rebels who have been vetted. Although the painstaking screening process is meant to weed out extremists, it has also shut out fighters with front-line experience, leaving the training program with slim pickings.

The program’s fundamental aim is perhaps an even bigger source of contention. The initial announcement of a U.S.-trained Syrian fighting force was hailed by some as a long-overdue step to intervene in a war that has claimed the lives of at least a quarter of a million people. But Obama made it clear that the focus was limited to targeting the Islamic State and not removing Assad from power.

That, in turn, has complicated the mission on the ground. Finding trustworthy rebels who meet the Pentagon’s stringent vetting requirements and who only want to take on the Islamic State — not Assad, their original adversary — has been an enormous challenge. The program has also struggled to attract and keep recruits, who face retaliation from more powerful Islamist groups for teaming with the United States.

As a result, the Pentagon’s initial target to train 3,000 to 5,000 fighters a year, with the eventual goal of building a force of 15,000, looks like an elusive — and expensive — prospect. At the current rate, the U.S. military is estimated to be spending about $1 million per fighter. Supporters of the program say those numbers don’t reflect start-up costs and that only about $41 million has been spent so far. They also note that 7,000 applicants are still in the vetting pipeline.

Photo: DoD / Tech. Sgt. Caycee Cook / U.S. Air Force
An F-16 Fighting Flacon piloted by the U.S. Air Force prepares to take off from Mwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan in 2009 during a multinational F-16 competition.

While the costs could go down as more fighters come on board, they illustrate the complexities of training forces in a fractured foreign land — and the potential for the venture to become a Defense Department boondoggle.

In addition to the program’s glacial pace and dubious price tag, officials have been vague about the details. One key question left unanswered: How far will American troops go to defend the trained fighters? U.S. forces have provided air cover for the rebels, but Obama has ruled out putting boots on the ground in Syria, leading some to ask why Syrians would risk their lives if the U.S. hasn’t articulated how it would save them.

Critics warn that an ill-defined, half-hearted strategy could limit the campaign’s effectiveness. “[T]he story of the Pentagon’s amazing shrunken training program — an idea that almost looked bold when Obama first proposed it — could serve as a metaphor for the whole of U.S. strategy in Syria: ambitious in its goals, but so risk-averse in design and so hamstrung in execution that it remains painfully ineffective,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus in July.

That month, the Pentagon’s training program suffered a major setback when its first batch of graduates was ambushed by the Nusra Front in Syria. The attack on the group known as Division 30 reportedly killed five U.S.-trained fighters, wounded 18 and kidnapped seven.

While there have been conflicting reports about the number of fighters captured by the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate has made it clear that its objective is to crush the nascent U.S.-led training mission and deter fighters from joining it. In addition to embarrassing the administration, the July attack dealt a sharp blow to its proxy fight against the Islamic State in that 30 U.S.-trained fighters were reportedly taken off the battlefield.

The episode also forced the Pentagon to acknowledge that it would go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate aspects of the training program. According to a Sept. 6 New York Times article, the proposals under consideration “include enlarging the size of the groups of trained rebels sent back into Syria, shifting the location of the deployments to ensure local support, and improving intelligence provided to the fighters.”

Potentially compounding the setbacks for U.S. officials was the revelation that, according to a McClatchy report, Turkish intelligence officials facilitated the Nusra Front kidnappings in a bid to keep U.S.-trained fighters from targeting the Islamist groups that Ankara supports. A Pentagon spokesman told McClatchy there was no indication that Turkey, a reputed U.S. ally, had tipped the Nusra Front to the rebels’ movements.

For Cordesman, the debacle illustrated just how convoluted the state of play is in Syria. The area of northwest Syria where the alleged abductions took place features a “very unstable mix of rebel factions,” he said. In addition to Iran’s involvement in the conflict, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all sponsored armed groups in Syria, making it a surreal proxy playground, even by Middle East standards.

Falling Short of Ambitions

In interactions with lawmakers and journalists, defense officials have tried to put a positive sheen on the Syrian training mission and articulate a premise behind it. “The strategy … for defeating ISIL on the ground in Syria and Iraq is to train and then enable local forces,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a July hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That takes some time. I know it’s difficult, it’s complicated,” the Pentagon chief went on, before being interrupted by an indignant senator.

Photo: DoD / Senior Airman Matthew Bruch / U.S. Air Force
A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft flies over northern Iraq on Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. The aircraft was among the first to strike Islamic State targets in Syria.

Earlier in the hearing, committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the 60-person training program, “I got to tell you, after four years, Mr. Secretary, that’s not a very impressive number.” Carter acknowledged in the hearing that the figure is well short of his ambitions and intentions.

Likewise, in an Aug. 20 press briefing at the Pentagon, Carter described the Syrian train-and-equip mission as a work in progress. “I’ve been candid that it is difficult and has been difficult with respect to” the program, he said, adding that the Defense Department is “working on adjusting that program constantly, based upon the lessons we’ve learned so far, the experience we’ve had, to try to expand the numbers and the scope of that program.”

In fact, Pentagon officials have reportedly floated the idea of loosening vetting requirements, possibly only screening unit leaders, and sending weapons to groups such as the Syrian Arab Coalition.

No public announcements have been made, however, and Cordesman and other critics say the Obama administration has been less than forthcoming with the details of its broader fight against the Islamic State — which has included a steady diet of airstrikes over the last year that has reportedly killed thousands of its fighters but failed to dislodge the group from its centers of power in Syria and Iraq.

“I’m actually dismayed because I cannot piece together in my own mind what the strategic aim is other than the defeat of ISIL, which is a military objective, not a political objective and, I think, unachievable,” said retired Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, the former commander of the NATO training mission in Iraq during the 2007-08 “surge” in that country.

The U.S. train-and-equip mission for Syrian rebels is greatly complicated by the political void in Syria, added Dubik, who is now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. “An army is a political instrument that serves the interests of a political community; no such political community exists in Syria,” he told The Diplomat. Western-supported attempts to form a solid political opposition to Syrian President Assad have been undercut by the disconnect between political groups in exile and the motley crew of forces fighting in Syria.

Specter of Past Mistakes Haunts Current Campaign

The specter of past U.S. operations to arm rebel factions in foreign wars may hang over the current effort, most notably the U.S. assistance to the Afghan mujahideen during their fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Fighting alongside and helping bankroll the mujahideen was al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Photo: DoD / Sgt. James A. Hall / U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marines assault targets during a combined armed live-fire exercise demonstration in Jebel Petra, Jordan, in 2014. Jordan, a close U.S. ally, is reportedly hosting a Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State in Syria.

That experience may explain why the U.S. remains wary of engaging Islamist fighters, even those fighting the Islamic State. For example, the Obama administration refuses to partner with Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian rebel group opposed to the Islamic State and Assad’s regime but whose militant Islamist creed has precluded Washington from working with it.

Another factor in the slow pace with which Syrian rebels are being trained is the so-called Leahy amendment, which restricts U.S. assistance to human rights violators. Cordesman, the CSIS scholar, believes that law to be a significant barrier to U.S. efforts in Syria. Under the amendment, he said, “you are bound by law to use criteria which in a violent civil conflict almost preclude creating forces that are relevant.”

“It would be nice if every civil war had a large contingent of good guys who happen to be virtually American in terms of their value and background,” Cordesman said. “The history since 1945 has indicated that you have to be able to deal with the people who are there, and not the people you’d like to have there.”

The Pentagon is supporting one group that has enjoyed impressive gains on the battlefield: the Syrian Kurdish faction known as the People’s Protection Units, or by their Kurdish acronym of YPG.

The Pentagon’s collaboration with the YPG has even led to speculation that it is giving up on its own troubled training program. According to the Daily Beast’s Nancy A. Youssef, “Pentagon brass long ago moved past its own proxy force” in favor of the far more competent Syrian Kurdish militia, which has as many as 50,000 fighters in its ranks.

Publicly, however, defense officials insist they remain committed to the training program.

Critics of Obama’s Syria strategy say the president must rethink its underlying premise for it to have any chance of success. In a July 7 statement, Sen. McCain blasted the White House for its refusal to target Assad.

“Today, the administration is telling Syrians to forego fighting their greatest enemy, the Assad regime, which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and meanwhile refusing to protect these fighters from the terror of Assad’s barrel bombs. That is why it is no small wonder that our train-and-equip program in Syria is so anemic,” he argued.

But Pentagon officials warn that toppling Assad could bring unintended consequences, empowering radicals and sparking even greater chaos — which is why the focus remains on “finding moderate Syrian opposition men to train to be a stabilizing influence over time,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a May press briefing.

And so the campaign grinds on, as does the war with the Islamic State, which administration officials have said could take years. The Pentagon is now training its fourth class of rebel fighters, U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder told reporters Sept. 11. The following week, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of the command, told senators that only “four or five” of the U.S.-trained Syrian fighters remain on the battlefield (the Pentagon later revised that number to nine). Regardless of what happens in the administration’s remaining time in office, Obama’s successor looks set to inherit a messy fight.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.