- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
President Barack Obama has signed off on a new plan to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, a move that comes just months after the Pentagon shut down a more ambitious train-and-equip program that burned through hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for the effort.
The effort is part of a Pentagon push to capitalize on recent momentum in the long campaign in the Islamic State, which has been battered by coalition and Russian airstrikes, ground attacks by a Syrian army that has been refitted by Moscow, and ongoing assaults by U.S.-armed Kurdish, Yazidi, and Sunni Arab fighters. The militants have lost about 22 percent of the land they once controlled in Iraq and Syria in recent months, and Washington wants to move on the group’s capital of Raqqa sooner rather than later. And with no significant influx of U.S. or allied ground troops on the way, Pentagon officials believe that training local forces to take the lead is the best way forward.
The new plan promises to be more narrowly focused than the previous one, which embarrassed the White House by producing virtually no fighters. The original $500 million training program began in the spring of 2015 with talk of fielding a force of about 5,000 rebels by the end of the year, but due to desertions and attacks by other rebel groups produced only about five trained fighters before being shut down in October.
When informed of that number during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last September, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain thundered that the Pentagon’s plan was “divorced from the reality” of the urgency of the situation on the ground.
Since then, though, U.S. special operations forces have continued to work with individual Syrian Arab commanders, bringing them to Turkey for training before infiltrating them into Syria with American-provided equipment. There are also about 50 American commandos on the ground inside Syria, helping to direct the fight against the Islamic State.
The new training program endorsed by Obama will expand those contacts by bringing very small groups of fighters out of the country for training in infantry tactics, though officials would not describe in detail what the training would consist of, where it would take place, or how many fighters it hoped to graduate and get back onto the battlefield.
“This is part of our adjustments to the train-and-equip program built on prior lessons learned,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. The Pentagon wants to “accelerate” the coalition’s counter-ISIS campaign, he said, but “the provision of our support to these local forces will be measured against their performance” in fighting ISIS.
American forces and their proxies on the ground have had a difficult time recruiting for the program inside Syria, as the Americans demand that any trained forces fight only the Islamic State, and not the Assad regime.
There is no word when the new program will get off the ground or how much it might cost, but it has the full backing of the incoming commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, who tried to tamper congressional expectations and concerns over the size and scope of the program last week. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Votel described it as a “thickening effort” designed to increase the competence of a small number of fighters who can then go back and share the lessons learned with other rebels.
“I do think it is helpful to have people who have been trained by us, who have the techniques, who have the communications capability and the resources to link back into our firepower,” Votel said, alluding to the potential ability of rebels to call in U.S. airstrikes. “We’re trying to avoid the problem that we had the last time, where we didn’t know what their allegiances are.”
Military officials will probably remain cautious about the program, given last year’s embarrassing attempt to build a Syrian force. It took months of vetting by U.S. officials to decide who to let into the program, raising howls of protest on Capitol Hill over the slow pace of building the force as ISIS gained ground throughout northern Syria. And things went only downhill from there. In July, the first group of about 50 trainees to cross back into Syria were ambushed by the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. The fighters mostly scattered and the U.S. military was unable to account for their whereabouts, or their equipment.
Then in September, roughly 70 other trainees were forced to surrender most of their U.S.-supplied trucks and ammunition to Nusra once again, in return for safe passage through the group’s territory in northern Syria. By December, U.S. officials said there were fewer than 100 of the trained rebels still active inside Syria.
The latest training program will probably deal only with Syrian Arabs, Warren said, since Kurdish fighters have proven themselves the most effective fighting force in northern Syria. The Kurds have also caused Washington some headaches, however, given their willingness to work with Russian forces to attack other rebel groups, and attack rebels trained by the CIA.
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