The Cable

U.S. Acknowledges Reality and Scraps Failed Syria Training Program

The Obama administration set aside $500 million to train rebels to take on the Islamic State. With just five of them still in the fight, the White House is pulling the plug.

A rebel fighter fires a heavy machine gun during clashes with government forces and pro-regime shabiha militiamen in the outskirts of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on September 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADHOUR        (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fighter fires a heavy machine gun during clashes with government forces and pro-regime shabiha militiamen in the outskirts of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on September 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADHOUR (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Capitol Hill, it’s been called “a joke,” a “total failure,” and “a bigger disaster than I could have ever imagined.” And now we have another name for it: dead.

The U.S. Defense Department’s Syrian train and equip program — which sought to raise a 5,000-strong rebel army by the end of this year to take on the Islamic State — was finally scuttled by the White House on Friday, a candid admission that Washington had abjectly failed in its push to find capable allies amid the chaos of a country in the grips of a grinding, multisided civil war.

Just this spring, the $500 million program was being billed as the centerpiece for how Washington would defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, in Syria. But from the start, it stumbled through a number of high-profile disasters, culminating late last month when the head of U.S. Central Command admitted that after six months of planning and training, only “four or five” U.S.-trained rebels remained on the ground in Syria.

In response to the outcry those comments spawned, the White House bluntly distanced itself from the program, with spokesman Josh Earnest taking the remarkable step of arguing that President Barack Obama had essentially been forced into the program by his critics, despite his deep reservations.

“Many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now,” Earnest said. “[But] that is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

Now as Russian jets, helicopters, and cruise missiles continue to pound Syrian rebel positions in a bid to shore up the battered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United States is essentially going back to the drawing board in trying to come up with a new strategy.

On a call with reporters on Friday, Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy, said the program has switched from recruiting individual fighters to giving the leaders of various rebel groups weapons and supplies to hand out to their troops.

“We have been working with these groups for months,” she said, and the United States will now “build on that and work with groups on the ground who are already fighting ISIL and provide them some equipment.”

She wouldn’t comment on the kinds of equipment specifically, other than to say it will not include “higher-end” weapons like anti-tank rockets and ground-to-air missiles.

Obama’s deputy envoy to the international coalition battling the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, said on the same call that the changes are necessary because groups in different parts of the country require varying levels of support. “This is the most complex situation imaginable, every part of the map is different. We need different tools at different points,” he said.

Even with the new focus on working with rebel leaders as opposed to individuals, there has still been no firm commitment from Washington as to how and when the United States might provide air support or protection for the rebel groups it has backed — and are now being hammered by Moscow.

In July, when the first group of U.S.-trained rebels was attacked by the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front almost immediately upon crossing the border from their training base in Turkey, American warplanes did provide some air cover. The situation on the ground has since changed dramatically. Russian warplanes targeted CIA-trained Syrian rebels in the opening salvos of Moscow’s own air war in Syria earlier this month, and as Washington now looks to expand the number of so-called moderate groups it does business with in Syria, there remains little commitment to them beyond supplying equipment.

The Pentagon training program was further damaged last month by reports that a second group of fighters handed over U.S.-provided weapons, trucks, and other equipment to al-Nusra Front almost immediately upon crossing the border from Turkey.

In a statement released Friday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, “I remain convinced that a lasting defeat of ISIL in Syria will depend in part on the success of local, motivated, and capable ground forces,” and the changes in the program “will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria.”

But many on Capitol Hill aren’t quite so sure. Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.) a longtime critic of the program, called it “deeply problematic” on Friday, saying that “an effective campaign to degrade ISIL does not require the U.S. to become dangerously intertwined into the Syrian civil war.”

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Friday she finds it “somewhat encouraging” that the Obama administration has acknowledged the failures of the program. Still, she said, “it remains clear we have lost valuable time and opportunities waiting to address this situation. I fear our options moving forward are increasingly limited.”

Photo credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

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