In New Airstrike Plan, U.S. Scales Back Ambitions for Syrian Rebels

Hoping to avoid another fiasco, U.S. weighs embedding Syrian rebels with larger local forces, including possibly Kurdish troops.

Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on June 10, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo. AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABI        (Photo credit should read BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on June 10, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo. AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABI (Photo credit should read BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)

After a disastrous start to a program aimed at building a moderate Syrian rebel force, the United States is drawing up a new plan to send teams of American-trained fighters into Syria to help direct U.S. air raids against the Islamic State.

Anxious to avoid another damaging setback for the training effort, the White House and the Pentagon are looking at attaching small numbers of fighters to larger established forces in northern Syria to ensure the rebels are better protected on the battlefield by more numerous experienced troops.

Instead of a stand-alone combat unit, the American-sponsored rebels would be trained to serve as a link to U.S. warplanes overhead, senior administration and military officials told Foreign Policy. Although the idea of empowering rebels to help direct air raids is not new, previous plans had anticipated a broader combat mission for the force.

The tentative plan reflects scaled back ambitions for the troubled U.S. train and equip program announced last year. It remains unclear if the new approach — involving only dozens of fighters — will deliver decisive results on the battlefield.

Under the proposal that is still being drafted, the rebels would focus mostly on key tasks associated with air power and communications, playing a supporting role instead of leading combat operations.

While the White House debates how to employ a modest number of rebel fighters, Russia has been flying in tanks, troops, air traffic control towers, and other hardware to an air base outside of Latakia in western Syria. Russia’s rapid military build-up appears designed to shore up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and could pave the way for Moscow to take on a direct role in combat in the air and on the ground against rebel groups, according to U.S. officials.

In Washington, the proposals under discussion for training Syrian rebels envisage a number of possible scenarios, though there are key questions yet to be resolved.

Under one option, dozens of U.S.-trained rebels would be deployed in northeast Syria with Kurdish and other local opposition forces, which have rolled back the Islamic State and put pressure on supply lines linked to the group’s bastion of Raqqa.

U.S. officials said another option would be to place the graduates of the train and equip program with opposition forces in the northwest, in a contested area running from Marea to the key border town of Jarablus — where American aircraft have stepped up bombing raids since August.

A third possibility, which is considered a longer-term prospect, would place the trained soldiers in the south near Daraa.

Senior officials at the White House and the Pentagon have weighed the options over the past several days. A meeting of top decision-makers, including possibly Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, will take up the issue this week, officials said.

“It’s at a very high-level now. They are talking about when and where this would happen,” a U.S. military officer told FP.

Initially, the $500 million train and equip program was supposed to generate a 5,000-strong force of “moderate” rebels in the first year. But after strict vetting of thousands of potential recruits, only dozens were approved to join.

The screening is designed to weed out potential Islamist extremists and includes a controversial requirement that applicants pledge to fight the Islamic State — not the Assad regime.

As a result, President Barack Obama’s administration has had to make do with a much smaller number of trained fighters until a larger force can be built up over a longer period, officials said.

“Given the experience of the first class, which did not wrap itself in glory, we are taking a pretty hard look at this,” a senior administration official said.

The first group of roughly 50 fighters trained by the U.S. military crossed into Syria in July, and their mission unraveled almost immediately.

Two of the rebel commanders reportedly tried to meet with al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front forces to explain to them they would only be targeting the Islamic State and not al-Nusra Front. But they were captured along with other members of their team.

Soon after, the rest of the unit came under attack by Nusra Front militants.

Before they deployed, some of the fighters had visited relatives — including some in refugee camps in Turkey — and word leaked out of their unit’s plans.

For Obama’s critics, the rebels’ embarrassing foray into Syria reflected a fumbling, incoherent U.S. policy on the four-and-a-half-year civil war.

Syrian opposition activists and some officials inside the administration had previously urged Obama to back existing rebel groups, instead of trying to construct an entirely new military force. But that strategy would have required the White House to accept that those fighters would also be waging war against the Assad regime.

Administration officials have defended their efforts, saying there are no straightforward options in the multisided war and that finding rebel partners is challenging given the dominance of Islamist extremists.

The next group to be sent to Syria will have better intelligence and a clear plan to link up with a more numerous friendly force, officials said.

But the graduates of the training program could find it difficult to stick with Washington’s demand to fight the Islamic State exclusively, as fellow opposition forces are often fighting both the extremists and the Assad regime.

“The administration will still have to, at some level, expect that the people that they train and equip may get into situations where they are fighting the Assad regime — not only the Islamic State,” said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Damascus.

“Or they are going to put the people that they train and equip in impossible situations,” said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

It is possible that the U.S.-trained fighters would be asked by their partners in an opposition force to call for airstrikes or other help if their comrades came under attack from Assad regime troops, Ford added.

The Pentagon’s train and equip project is separate from a covert CIA-led effort based in Jordan that has reportedly trained and armed 10,000 fighters since 2013. That program, which has been coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, has also come under fire over lackluster results, with lawmakers at one point threatening to cut off funding.

The small numbers of fighters approved for training in the Pentagon program poses a delicate dilemma for the Obama administration, which must balance the need to provide security for a small number of rebels while ensuring they still have an impact on the battlefield.

“How do you protect them while making them relevant?” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“You could put them in the middle of nowhere and protect them, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything. Or you can put them in the mix, but then they’re vulnerable,” the official said.

Under the blueprint being considered, the rebels “would be distributed across” a local force and would serve as “the connective tissue” between opposition fighters on the ground and U.S.-led air power, the official said.

The troops would be trained in some specific skills, as forward observers for air strikes, communication specialists, snipers, and “command and control” organizers, the official said.

“They would be able to communicate. We would be able to pass intelligence [to them],” the official said.

Fighters with satellite phones would call in coordinates for air raids. “They could show us where to look and validate that it’s a legitimate target,” the official said.

The rebels would be filling a role roughly equivalent to U.S. military advisors in other conflicts.

The revamped program represents a gamble for a White House that has been reluctant to be drawn into the war and has ruled out sending any ground troops into combat against the Islamic State. Unlike its allies in the region, the United States has only limited contacts and ties with opposition fighters, which limits its leverage in any talks on ending the conflict, according to former diplomats.

With the world’s attention focused on a tide of refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria, Iraq, and other war zones, the Obama administration has come under fierce criticism for its approach to the Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Republican lawmakers and advocates of intervention say the president’s reluctance to wade into the conflict helped create a security vacuum that, in turn, gave rise to the Islamic State and opened the door to meddling by Assad’s patrons — Iran and Russia.

“Capitalizing on American inaction, Russia is now engaged in a dangerous military buildup in Syria,” Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday.

The United States faces an uphill struggle to build up a credible rebel force, when a myriad of other groups have been fighting in Syria for years and enjoying support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or other backers.

“They were unrealistic about what pool of potential recruits could be available this far into the war,” said one senate staffer.

The effort also could be derailed by rising tensions between Turkey and Kurdish groups in the area.

America’s NATO ally Turkey, which has waged a long war against a Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders, has been dismayed at Kurdish territorial gains in neighboring Syria. As a result, Ankara may oppose any U.S. move that could help Kurds advance further inside Syria.

But the administration is determined to forge ahead and cites the success of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a rough model. In that case, Kurdish fighters advanced with the aid of American bombing and helped relay information to U.S. forces by phone, enabling coalition aircraft to strike Islamic State positions.

“There’s still a belief that we need to do this,” said a defense official.

The training and weapons supplied will remain similar to what was provided for the first group of fighters, but “the issue is insertion” — where to put the small teams of fighters and with what partners, the official said.

“They’re not under our absolute control. In some ways, they do not answer to us when they go back to Syria,” the official said.

Meanwhile, the training of new recruits — carried out by U.S. Special Forces and other members of an international coalition — continues at camps in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. A fourth class recently started its course, the U.S. military said.

“It’s important to keep in mind this program is still in the early stages and the forces trained as a part of the train and equip program are expected to be additive in nature,” Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said last week.

“They will further contribute to what’s already being done by the Syrian Kurds, Arabs, and various other anti-ISIL forces,” he told reporters in a teleconference, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Administration officials hope the rebels will achieve some victories on the battlefield soon, which could help build momentum for a program that has been plagued by bad news.

“You have to demonstrate a little bit of success in order to create a kind of a virtuous cycle,” the administration official said.

Photo credit: Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

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