Lessons from the Pentagon’s training of Syrian rebels
DUBAI - The US Department of Defense’s plan to train and equip Sunni Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) has met the fate of all plans whose military objectives did not match political realities. The nearly 60 rebels who underwent extensive vetting and a three-month training programme were effectively routed on the battlefield.
Worse, despite assurances that US firepower would come to their aid, their ambush by al-Nusra Front caught American military planners by surprise. By the time air cover arrived for the Division 30 fighters — men who had spent years fighting Assad militias and ISIS — it was too little too late.
In 2014, when US President Barack Obama presented to the US Congress an unprecedented plan that would have the Pentagon overtly train and equip Syrian Sunni rebels, many doubted he would receive requisite approval.
Sceptics pointed to the lack of political resolve on the part of a White House that seemed to want to court Iran while simultaneously arming Syrian rebels fighting a three-way battle with ISIS, Iranian advisers and fighters and Assad regime militias.
The Obama administration correctly came to the conclusion that an expanded military train-and-equip programme could lay the foundation for long-term institutionalised support for Sunni rebels who have been battling ISIS since early 2014. But the administration wrongfully assumed that it could somehow adopt a half-measure approach to this mission. The authorisation for the programme strictly stipulated that trained rebels could only target ISIS. It was a policy decision wholly detached from the most basic rudimentary understanding of on-the-ground dynamics.
Sunni rebels had long come to associate ISIS with the Assad regime, claiming that ISIS has reserved most of its offensives for rebel-held territory. Defending their territory against Assad militia’s onslaught and fighting ISIS were viewed as complementary. In Washington, White House lawyers warned that an overt military effort to support the rebels would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Syrian President Bashar Assad — and, by extension, Iran.
Administration insiders began leaking to US media that they feared a potential blowback of ratcheting up the heat against Iran in Syria at a time when al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani was spending a considerable amount of time in the field.
The programme’s initial objective of training and equipping thousands of fighters by year’s end seems laughable. And the delay by the White House to authorise provision of close air support to what the Pentagon was calling “the New Syrian force” proved deadly for the Division 30 rebels as they were haphazardly moved into northern Syria without adequate coordination with larger rebel coalitions.
A cursory check of Arabic social media ought to have triggered alarms as threats were being made against Division 30 once it was publicly revealed that the unit would inaugurate the “New Syrian Force” experiment. Sadly, no one in the US Central Command took notice.
A better approach would have been to work with Gulf allies and the Turks to have Division 30 included in the mutual defence pact among powerful rebel factions that could have deterred an al-Nusra Front assault.
But US policy was mired in a quixotic legalistic tangle as it sought to place a firewall between the train-and-equip programme from alleged US covert efforts with the jointly run Military Operations Centre overseeing logistical support for rebels.
Just a few days after the Division 30 debacle, al-Nusra Front was forced to vacate its positions in northern Aleppo province as part of a Turkish-facilitated deal to lay the groundwork for establishing an ISIS-free “safe zone”. In short, from inception to implementation of the programme, the glaring miscalculations by the Obama administration’s National Security Council and US Department of Defense could have been avoided with a modicum of common sense.
For starters, the joint operations group tasked with providing rapid close air support ought to have been established prior to the introduction of any force on the ground. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has the power to coordinate and call in close air support on short notice.
Sunni rebels ought to have the same level of close operational cooperation with the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition.
The Americans could have also gleaned lessons learned from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition train-and-equip effort of Yemeni loyalist forces: Namely, when you train and equip an asymmetric local force, you do so with the intent of winning and not simply hoping for a draw.
US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., rightly — and presciently — remarked in a Senate hearing in May that “refusing support to the forces we train is not only ineffective, it is immoral.” Gaining local Sunni trust and support in the fight against ISIS in Syria must be reprioritised.
Accordingly, the US train-and-equip programme must be wholly revamped to avoid a repeat of the tragedy that befell the men of Division 30, whose trust in a reluctant and fickle superpower cost them dearly.