The failed US strategy of training Syrian rebels
BEIRUT - The US Defense Department is scrapping a controversial $500 million programme to create a 5,000-strong rebel force to fight in Syria’s increasingly complex civil war after a series of humiliating blunders led to the admission that the ambitious operation was a dismal failure, reflecting the Americans’ confused policy in a bewildering conflict that epitomises the chaos in the region.
US generals have admitted that only “four or five” of the first batch of 54 fighters actually saw combat and were killed or captured by al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, in July. The second 70-person group handed over its US-supplied weapons to a-Nusra to avoid capture.
The Americans now say that instead of building their own rebel army, the putative New Syrian Forces (NSF), they will focus on a far more modest undertaking: training a cadre of leaders to embed with Arab and Kurdish organisations that have succeeded in giving the jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) a bloody nose.
The US move reflects the disarray among Western and Arab powers in their fractious involvement in the complex Syrian war, particularly since the Russians launched a military intervention to save Assad’s battered and beleaguered regime.
It also underlines how badly the United States was wrong-footed by Russia’s military intervention in September and its campaign of air strikes against rebel forces and is now scrambling to stitch an effective strategy in Syria, something it has consistently failed to do since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
The train-and-equip programme, the most visible aspect of US support for the Syrian rebels, was launched by the Pentagon in December 2014. The operation, which began in May, was to produce 5,400 fighters, which would mean it would cost nearly $10 million for every trained fighter. In the end it only produced a handful of bumbling rebels.
“I don’t think at all that this was a case of poor execution,” Christine E. Wormuth, the undersecretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon, said October 9th. “It was inherently a very, very complex mission.”
So what went wrong? Partly it was because the programme was mandated to produce rebels to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) group that is virulently anti-American, rather than topple Assad — underlining one of the most basic flaws in the Obama administration’s confused and hyper-cautious policy on Syria.
“It was doomed to fail with these restrictions,” said US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the most vociferous critics of Obama’s risk-averse Syria policy.
Critics argue that the programme was doomed because the process of vetting candidates for training was concentrated on building up forces to fight ISIS only, rather than Assad’s regime, which most Syrians consider to be the greater enemy. In that sense, the train-and-equip programme was also an intelligence failure.
The new US plan to focus on aiding a small number of Arab and Kurdish rebel groups that have proven their combat capabilities against ISIS, is likely to be burdened with the same problems.
The United States’ refusal to provide rebel groups with surface-to-air missiles, for fear they would end up in jihadist hands, has alienated many insurgents with little defence against Syrian air raids. With the Russians now hammering rebel forces from the air as well, the United States’ standing is likely to fall even further if it sticks to that decision.
The CIA began its own covert programme in 2013 to train, fund and arm the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad’s regime, with no special focus on ISIS. Some 10,000 rebels have been trained, although the scale of the operation, based in Jordan, is not clear.
“Though it is a less ambitious programme than the one involving the NSF… the CIA operation has had considerable success generating pressure on Assad’s forces,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
“This programme, with its large supply of TOW anti-tank guided munitions, is a key tool the US can use to pressure the Assad government, and even discourage a more active Russian ground deployment in Syria.”
It, too, has been plagued by problems, although none as catastrophic as those that beset the army’s training programme. Some CIA-trained rebels defected to jihadist groups and others have been captured. “Probably 60% to 80% of the arms that America has shovelled in have gone to al-Qaeda and its affiliate,” observed Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria with the University of Oklahoma.