If At First You Don’t Succeed: The Department of Defense’s Failed Syrian Rebel Training Program

Amidst the overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies remarked that the nation of Syria looked like nothing more than “a lovely country with olive groves and rolling plains that’s not of any particular strategic interest to anybody who doesn’t live there.” Fast-forward four years and that description of the country, which is now in the midst of a bloody civil war, turned out to be short-lived. With the recent suspension of the Department of Defense-backed rebel training program, the situation in Syria will only change even more.

On October 9, the Department of Defense announced that it was suspending its training of moderate Syrian rebels while continuing to supply arms and other aid to Syrian rebels. Interestingly, the White House has persistently characterized the decision as anything but a permanent termination, describing it as both an “operational pause” and an effort at “adaptation.” The program, which, all told, cost $500 million, had only just been approved last year in a move that the BBC retrospectively called more “symbolic than serious.”

As short-lived as the program’s implementation was, the discussion regarding a program to provide training and arms to Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government originated in 2011. The BBC notes that as the “Arab Spring” spread across the Middle East, the motivation behind training rebels was as grounded in symbolism as pragmatism, and “rooting for the rebels was…synonymous with rooting for democracy and freedom.” Despite general bipartisan support from Washington’s foreign policy establishment, Obama opposed training and arming rebels because he saw such a policy as the first step into another potentially decades-long quagmire. Others were more outspoken in their support for training and equipping the Syrian rebels. As Mohammed Ghanem of the Syria American Council bluntly remarked, “You can’t stop barrel bombs with fruit baskets.” Nevertheless, the program was finally approved in 2014; this time, the target was no longer al-Assad, but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Despite the years of deliberation that went into creating the US training program, the results had been fairly lackluster, thus leading to its early demise. While the program aimed to train 5,400 fighters in its first year and 15,000 the next, only four to five American-trained fighters have been active in Syria since the program’s inception. Emerging reports that other trained rebels have been actively exchanging and handing over American-supplied vehicles and ammunition further damage the program’s credibility. The results of the program look unequivocally unsuccessful, but debate over what went wrong has been sharply divisive. Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina says that we made a mistake expecting Syrian rebels to focus on fighting ISIL instead of al-Assad while Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has more pessimistically responded that the United States has never expected to best ISIL solely by assisting the efforts of an opposition group. Michael Flynn similarly remarked that the process was one that created a “mother-may-I” relationship between the army and Washington, which was problematic because asking “mother-may-I would always take a long time.” Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter blamed the immense difficulty of identifying rebels that had the “right mentality” and could be trusted not to give weapons to other militants.

The end result is a product of all these factors; the US decision to train rebels was always one mired in uncertainty, pessimism, and a lack of direction. Nevertheless, that does not mean that simply giving up on training and sticking to aid is viable either. As a temporary measure, the US is continuing its supply of aid to Syrian rebels in the form of basic weaponry. If rebels receiving American training, no matter how imperfect, managed to do little with the support, the prospect of what rebels lacking any training would do is even more troubling. While there are concerns that the training of militants can backfire, the threat of mishandled weaponry and ammunition is equally potent. As State Department spokesperson John Kirby asks, “Who will the US be equipping? If the training part failed because they couldn’t identify the right people, then why would the equipping work better?” The United States has identified benefactors of the training and, now, of arms support as a group of rebels known as the Syria Arab Coalition. Despite the official sounding name, many anti-Assad rebels interviewed by CNN haven’t even heard of the existence of such a group. Regardless of who has been getting the weapons, the policy seems to have been working recently. The United States has created a strict oversight procedure that applies to their TOW anti-tank missiles, requiring rebels to record videos whenever such missiles are used and send empty canisters back to the United States, ensuring that weapons are not being misallocated. Furthermore, all 50 tons of ammunition airdropped into Syria the week of October 10, 2015 have been confirmed as successfully recovered by its intended target. These are all steps in the right direction, but the US is still ignoring one critical flaw: All of these initiatives to establish oversight and accountability over supplied aid are after-the-fact. The government may be able to confirm if a weapon hasn’t been misallocated, but they have few proactive options to ensure that misallocation does not occur in the first place and even fewer options to retrieve misallocated weapons. Although the most recent ammunition shipment went smoothly, there is very little reason to believe that every future shipment will have similar results.

The US decision to train rebels was always one mired in uncertainty, pessimism, and a lack of direction.

And while the US policy to continue resupplying aid can be considered troubling in any context, Russia’s recently increased involvement in Syria complicates the matter. The Department of Defense’s decision to suspend rebel training coincided with an unprecedented level of Russian activity in Syria, as the country dropped over 50 bombs in the span of 24 hours and claimed that 29 terrorist camps and 23 training sites had been destroyed. Syrian rebels contest this figure, saying that Russian involvement is predicated less on eliminating ISIL than on supporting al-Assad’s government. Russia has also faced criticism that its airstrikes are not only not targeting ISIL, but also actively creating an environment where extremists seeking to eliminate Russia’s presence in Syria can flourish. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have all responded to Russia’s airstrikes by supplying weaponry to anti-Assad rebel forces and Sunni forces (that Russia has labeled terrorists) fighting the Islamic State. Syria faces the problem of misallocated weapons and ammunition supplied from a total of four countries fueling the conflict.

While there will never be one clear solution to a conflict that involves many competing countries and interests, a starting point to discuss a potential solution has been an anonymous Saudi government official’s plea for “clearer US leadership.” US efforts at both training and equipping rebels may have been riddled with problems, but the solution is not to suspend one effort under the ambiguous pretense of re-strategizing while blindly continuing the other. Choosing to supply aid is not only a decision that carries a massive risk, but also indicates a fundamental lack of direction. Instead, the US government ought to consider taking one of several alternatives. The first and most heavily discussed is an American ground presence. However, given that President Obama has stated that he unequivocally rejects “the idea of a ‘proxy war’ between Assad’s soldiers and US-backed factions,” the possibility of a direct American presence looks very unlikely. A second alternative is establishing US leadership through diplomacy. Since late September, there has been a substantial presence within Congress that has wanted the US to take a stronger leadership role in finding diplomatic solutions to the Syrian civil war. Representative Jim Himes from Connecticut authored a letter signed by 54 colleagues to Obama calling for international negotiations with Russia. The United Nations has made similar efforts, passing a statement calling for Syria and its opponents to negotiate a “political transition.” However, both of these statements simply lack teeth. Because both are nonbinding and came before Russia’s entrance, they fail to recognize the newfound nuance of the situation and to create a path toward substantial action. Further, Russia seems unwilling to pursue negotiations with the US, causing one State Department official to call substantive negotiations a “pipe dream.”

The last alternative might actually depend on picking back up the paradigm the US just abandoned: re-directing American attention to the CIA’s effort to train Syrian rebels. The CIA program, which avoided suspension, has trained around 10,000 Syrian rebels over the past two years. Business Insider outlines two reasons why the CIA’s training program can succeed where the Department of Defense’s failed and how it can ameliorate problems like the factional nature of Syrian rebel groups. First, the CIA has established supply and oversight procedures for over 42 different groups, unlike the select few the Department of Defense chose, which mitigates perceptions of favoritism. Second, the CIA has taken a much more local-oriented approach, manning their Military Operations Command posts with the help of local intelligence agencies as well as moderate groups in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey. But at the end of the day, the United States doesn’t just need any training program: It needs one with clearer goals and more commitment from the Obama administration. Otherwise, the American role in shaping Syria’s future will meet the same fate as the weapons the US government is currently supplying: swallowed into a quagmire of countless countries, factions, and interests.

Photo: Freedom House