In a grim assessment of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday that the country’s armed opposition will not be able to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now or in the foreseeable future, despite the existence of a Pentagon program to train and equip 5,000 rebels per year.
“We do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove him from power,” Brett McGurk, one of the State Department’s point men in managing the ad hoc international coalition battling the Islamic State, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It will have to be a diplomatic process.”
In recent weeks, the situation for Syria’s beleaguered moderate opposition has gone from bad to worse, as they continue to lose ground in the crucial northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The near-extinction of many moderate rebel groups has coincided with increasing gains by Salafist groups tied to al Qaeda or the Islamic State. For the remaining “moderates,” aligning with Washington poses a deadly risk, as U.S. airstrikes against al Qaeda-aligned militant groups in Syria fuel conspiracies that Washington tacitly supports Assad.
That’s a problem for the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which relies in part on recruiting and training moderate rebels to combat Islamic State militants before taking the fight to the Syrian government.
“For a rebel commander seeking to convince his fighters that cooperation with Washington is in the rebellion’s best interest, American strikes that ignore the Assad regime while hitting [Islamist rebels] are extremely difficult to explain,” Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group wrote recently in Foreign Policy.
Although some members of the anti-ISIS coalition, such as Turkey, would prefer to degrade the Assad regime simultaneously, other coalition members outside the Middle East oppose making regime change an official policy.
The $500 million train-and-equip program, which already has the hurdle of finding “moderate” rebels who don’t harbor deeply anti-American attitudes, has been slow to get off the ground, and isn’t scheduled to begin until March of 2015 at the earliest — a fact that is giving some members of Congress pause.
“How long is it gonna take before we get all of these people getting trained in Saudi Arabia back in Syria to fight?” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) asked at the hearing.
McGurk responded that the program would take a year to train 5,000 rebels, a timeline that Poe sharply criticized. “People are dying in Syria and the cavalry [isn’t] showing up till 2016 the way I understand it,” he said.
McGurk pushed back, arguing that the Obama administration’s train-and-equip program is just “one small element in an overall campaign.”
“This is a multiyear campaign,” he said. “Phase one is Iraq. What we’re doing in Syria right now is degrading ISIL’s capacity.” He emphasized the coalition’s success in working with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which has resulted in the deaths of a hundred enemy fighters every week in Syria.
In any event, McGurk’s remarks serve as the latest reminder that the administration’s focus is not the overthrow of Assad, whose demise would likely create a power vacuum for hard-line Islamists. Instead, the United States and, increasingly, Russia are pushing for opposition groups to restart talks with the Assad regime to explore the possibility of a long-elusive political solution to the war.
With 200,000 dead and millions of refugees without a home, such an outcome looks increasingly remote.