“There is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army. People still use the term in Syria to make it seem like the rebels have some sort of structure. But there really isn’t.” — Rami Jarrah, prominent Syrian activist and co-founder of ANA Press, a Syrian news outlet
So who are we giving weapons to? Who are we funding to fight Bashar al Assad?
Short answer? No one.
Well, a handful are being trained. But no one to fight Assad. As of early July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced a grand total of sixty Syrians have passed the Pentagon’s vetting process and have actually been retained for training. We don’t want them to fight Assad, though, that’s expressly forbidden. We’re training them to fight the Islamic State, and ONLY the Islamic State. In fact, that’s been a significant difficulty in recruitment. The Pentagon said in June that a major problem was finding recruits with no connections to the Islamic State and who would be willing to fight the IS and not Assad.
And yet, in September 2014 State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Islamic State cannot be defeated as long as Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
Confused yet? How does Obama’s long-held position that Assad must go reconcile with DoD training Syrian rebels to only fight ISIS, while the State Department says Assad has to be defeated before the Islamic State can be defeated? If US-trained Syrian rebels fight the Islamic State, which is also fighting Assad, doesn’t that take pressure of the Assad regime?
US support of Syrian rebels has been confused and complicated from the beginning. Originally, it was a CIA-sponsored program begun in 2013, two years after President Obama first declared that Bashar al Assad had to be removed. Weapons, including small arms, ammunition and some anti-tank systems like the TOW, were bought by Saudi Arabia and other Arab backers, flown to Turkey and then trucked into northern Syria for rebel groups there. But the CIA’s program was fundamentally hampered by the need to scrupulously vet Syrian commanders. The ties among the various anti-Assad groups are murky, and no one in the White House wanted US weapons to end up in the hands of Al Qaeda.
The necessary close scrutiny and rigid accountability requirements led to predictable results. Weapons and ammunition shipments, when approved, were often too small or too late to do any good. According to the Wall Street Journal, “One of the US’ favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old anti-tank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks.”
Weak support led to weak US-backed rebels. In May of 2014, rebels lost Homs, once dubbed the “heart of the revolution,” to Assad’s forces. And in March of 2015, the Harakat Hazzm Movement, which was once the CIA’s favorite vetted group, was crushed by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front.
The rise of the Islamic State has further confused the White House’ strategy. Assad is no longer the target. In November of 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “In Syria, our actions against ISIL are focused on shaping the dynamic in Iraq, which remains the priority of our counter-ISIL strategy. But we are sober about the challenges we face as ISIL exploits the complicated, long-running Syrian conflict,” Hagel said in his testimony. “Because we do not have a partner government to work with, or regular military partners as we do in Iraq, in the near term, our military aims in Syria are limited to isolating and destroying ISIL’s safe havens.”
The CIA’s lack of success with its support program seems to have led the CIA to give up on the idea of supporting Syrian rebels altogether. According to a Democratic congressman quoted by the Huffington Post in September 2014, “I have heard it expressed, outside of classified contexts, that what you heard from your intelligence sources is correct, because the CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure. Specifically, the CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat Assad, al-Nusra and ISIS, regardless of whatever air support that force may receive. The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool’s errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands.”
Now, the program has been moved to the purview of the Department of Defense. Some media outlets are calling the support “new” and characterize it as “just beginning,” but of course it isn’t, the organization in charge has simply changed. The support program now falls under Title 10 DoD authority, which allows for greater overt support.
In a mid-2014 interview with the Huffington Post, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, “What the Title 10 authority allows you to do is … to be public about what you’re doing, which is, frankly, I think, a healthy way to do it in the first place. So giving this kind of authority to the Pentagon allows you to describe your policy and describe who you’re working with and have robust oversight of it, so that’s one thing it allows.”
In September 2014, Congress appropriated $500 million for the Pentagon to train up to 5,000 Syrian fighters per year for three years. US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in May of this year the training will cover a range of combat skills, “including marksmanship, casualty care, land navigation, communications, leadership and law of armed conflict and human rights principles.”
One training camp is in Jordan near Amman, the other is in Turkey. But with less than one hundred recruits actually in training, it’s unclear how the Pentagon will be able to train anywhere near the hoped-for 5,000 per year. Even with 5-15K trained, moderate, Syrian rebels, there is currently no plan on how to support them once their training is finished and they’re sent into combat.
In a February 2015 press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told the media, “There has been no decision made about any combat air support for opposition fighters that would go back into the fight in Syria. Now, we’ve said that obviously we would have to provide some measure of support, but there’s been no policy decisions about what that support would look like right now.”
And it is unclear how the United States hopes a few thousand unsupported light-infantry troops would be able to attack and defeat tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters who are supported by artillery and mechanized units. While, of course, defending themselves from Assad’s forces (since the US refuses to protect them from Assad) that they’re not supposed to fight.
Further complicating the Pentagon’s mission to support moderate Syrian rebels is the fact that nothing has changed in terms of the need for strong vetting and accountability regimes, the Pentagon can’t afford to let US weapons fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State any more than the CIA could (though US weapons DID end up in the wrong hands). Considering the ties among the various rebel groups have become even more entwined in the last year as the IS has gained power and attracted recruits from moderate rebel groups, the Pentagon has even fewer viable options for support than the CIA had.
Additionally, Turkey, our NATO ally, is far more concerned about the Kurdish YPG on its border than the Islamic State. Turkey would prefer the IS as a bordering nation than a nascent Kurdish state. Turkey blatantly allows the IS to import goods, weapons and fighters through its border with the Islamic State, and yet Turkey is supposed to be helping the US train fighters to fight the IS. This is a devastating conflict of interest that, without being seriously addressed by the US at the highest levels, will only undermine US efforts to fight the Islamic State.
To sum up, in Syria the US has an insufficient, ill-considered, contradictory plan of action, no one trained to execute it and no serious hope of having anyone to train and participate in its “plan.” The CIA’s effort was an utter failure. And while some experts believe the rebel groups in southern Syria might be more effective with US support, there is no real reason to believe moving the Syrian rebel support program from the CIA to the Pentagon will change failure to success.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Reuters)