The Obama administration’s strategy to train Syrian rebels to defend, but not seize, territory from Islamic State militants is facing stiff resistance from America’s partners in the Syrian opposition.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the United States has determined that newly trained rebel fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, without the support of forward-deployed U.S. combat troops. So instead, those rebels will only be assigned to defend already controlled territory.
On Thursday, the Syrian National Coalition, which is recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, told Foreign Policy that the plan "just doesn’t make sense strategically.
"The only way to defeat ISIS is to defeat ISIS. You cannot be reactive and wait for them to besiege liberated towns and villages," said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior advisor to the group.
The disagreement highlights the conflicting priorities within America’s anti-ISIS coalition. Although Obama administration officials are reluctant to place newly trained rebel units in a fight they could easily lose, other rebel units desperately want backup in the battle against the radical Sunni group. As a result, different rebel forces are likely to operate independently of one another, despite Washington’s marching orders.
"The force the U.S. trains will likely be just that — one opposition group fighting among others against the Assad regime and ISIS," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "While we may want them to simply hold ground, that doesn’t mean they will agree, let alone all opposition forces."
As a sign of this disconnect, the Syrian opposition says it’s bringing the fight to ISIS now with no plans to let up. "The tribes in the east are killing off ISIS fighters," said Shahbandar. "There can be no pressing a ‘pause button.’"
What’s become apparent to observers of the conflict is that the United States is engaging in an "Iraq first" strategy consisting of targeted airstrikes, the training of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and the propping up of Baghdad’s new government. On Thursday, Iraq’s newly appointed defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, told U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Iraq’s security forces also intend to go on the offensive against the Islamic State.
U.S. efforts in Syria, by contrast, rely mostly on air power — and increasingly so.
As Islamic State forces flock to the Syrian town of Kobani near the Turkish border, U.S. drones and fighter pilots have ramped up attacks in what the White House calls a "target-rich environment." In total, the United States has launched more than 135 strikes against ISIS near the town since Oct. 1, more than in any other location in Iraq or Syria.
But outside of defensive airstrikes, few expect the United States to launch any kind of immediate ground offensive on ISIS strongholds, such as Raqqa, in Syria.
"Kobani is a meat grinder for jihadis right now — perfect for the U.S.," said Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. "But I don’t think the U.S. is even going to try to roll up IS around Raqqa in the near future…. They’re probably not even going to deal seriously with Aleppo until they’ve consolidated allies in Syria and made progress in Iraq."
In an email exchange, a Pentagon spokesman did not dispute that the military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach to the Islamic State. "As we’ve said all along, the train-and-equip program would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition to enable them to counter ISIL; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria," Rear Adm. John Kirby told FP.
Though it’s clearly unsatisfactory to the rebels, some observers say the Pentagon plan is savvy, if not cynical.
"If the White House judges that it would take a much larger investment than they can or will muster the resources for in order to move forward in Syria, then holding and reinforcing while IS weakens through bombings is the best thing on offer," Landis said.