New Pentagon Effort to Train and Equip Syrian Rebels Faces Serious Challenges

Middle East and North Africa

A recent report suggested that if the current cessation of hostilities breaks down, as it appears to be doing, the C.I.A. plans to provide “more-powerful” weapons to “moderate” Syrian rebels. But this wasn’t the only recent announcement of a shifting policy to train and equip the Syrian rebels. This month, the Pentagon began a new program to train and equip Syrian rebels to combat Islamic State militants, but it’s still unclear if the program will be able to overcome the past problems.  

Congress first authorized the Defense Department’s overt training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels in 2014 with the hope that trainees would target the Islamic State and other U.S.-designated terrorist groups and simultaneously create conditions on the ground for a negotiated settlement to the civil war. Through the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, the U.S. government initially allocated $500 million to train a force of 3,000 in FY 2015 and 5,400 more the following year.

However, in October 2015, not even a full year into the program, the administration announced it was suspending its effort to train large groups of rebels. The first group to be trained fell apart in July after being attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Many of the trained rebels were captured or killed while the rest fled, leaving the United States without their trainees or the provided equipment. The second trained unit did not fare much better. Only a small number were successfully trained and Syrian rebel commanders were forced to surrender U.S. trucks and ammunition to Jabhat al-Nusra the following September, reportedly for safe passage though territory held by the group. As of the end of February 2016, the Pentagon noted they had used $384 million of the $500 million and only 145 fighters were still active.

After failing to train full units, the administration decided to airdrop arms and equipment to already established rebel groups inside Syria. However, this tactic also ran into difficulties. The Islamic State reportedly snagged one of the U.S. airdrops intended for Kurdish fighters. Yet despite all of the problems the U.S.-trained Syrian rebels faced and the loss of many U.S. weapons to extremist groups, Congress allocated an additional $350 million for FY 2016 to train and equip Syrian rebels.

Then last month, President Obama authorized a new plan. The new program will focus on transporting very small groups of fighters from within existing units out of the country to be trained in infantry tactics and then reinserted into their larger units. According to the incoming commander of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel, “a few trained fighters will lift up the whole unit.” He described it as a “thickening effort” in which trainees are expected to share what they learn with the rest of their unit. U.S. Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, said that dozens of Syrians will receive training through this new plan.

In the past, the United States has had difficulty recruiting rebels for the training program due to its stringent vetting process. Many potential recruits were excluded for having previous associations with rebel factions considered by the U.S. to be extremist groups. The administration also required that recruits only fight against ISIS, not Assad’s forces, something not many were willing to do. Lawmakers criticized this limitation as unrealistic and expressed concern that it would lead to an excessively slow recruitment process, but this requirement will remain for the new program. To speed up the process, the U.S. government will only vet the unit’s leaders for human rights and links to terrorist organizations instead of every potential trainee.

To support this new plan, the administration has requested and Congress looks poised to allocate an additional $250 million for FY 2017, which would total $1.1 billion over 3 years. The majority of the FY 2017 funding, $211 million, will go to weapons, ammunition, and other equipment, such as communication and medical gear.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee, General Votel maintained that the train and equip program is an important part of U.S. efforts in Syria. “I do think it is helpful to have people who have been trained by us,” he claimed in front of lawmakers. He also mentioned that the U.S. military would incorporate lessons learned from the earlier failed efforts, which recognizes that some rebels didn’t want to leave the fight to protect their homes and other cultural aspects of the training.  

Overt Defense Department-funded security assistance is not the only kind of military aid the United States has provided to Syrian rebels. The C.I.A. has been delivering light weapons and other munitions to the country since 2013. The shipments were accompanied by non-lethal aid, including vehicles, communication gear and medical equipment. And as mentioned earlier, if the current cessation of hostilities breaks down, the C.I.A., along with regional partners, plans to provide “more-powerful” weapons.

The Obama Administration appears determined to make the new Pentagon program a success, despite doubt and previous failures. The proposed plan presents several challenges though. For instance, it remains to be seen if the small number of trained rebels will be able to spread their knowledge to the unit. There’s also a question of who will be selected to participate in the U.S. tactical training program. The rebels have a huge need for good fighters on the ground, so the best combatants might not be sent to receive training in order to keep them on the battlefield. The decision to only vet commanders, not every recruit, also raises the risk that trainees could have ties to extremist groups.

Despite the challenges though, the U.S. government seems ready to provide over a billion dollars in support of Syrian rebels and we can only hope that they continue to learn from their mistakes.