Woes with US-trained rebels noth­ing new


The new band of rebel re­cruits was sup­posed to prove the United States could train mod­er­ate Syr­ian fight­ers to de­feat the ji­hadists in the war-rav­aged na­tion. But soon af­ter re­turn­ing to Syria, the Amer­i­can-backed fight­ers handed over a quar­ter of their am­mu­ni­tion and other equip­ment to a lo­cal al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate, known as the al-Nusra Front.

The U.S. De­fense Depart­ment’s star­tling ac­knowl­edge­ment last week that its latest trained rebels helped al-Nusra — pur­port­edly in re­turn for safe pas­sage — il­lus­trates the com­plex­i­ties of the Syria con­flict. It also high­lights Amer­ica’s check­ered record of train­ing lo­cals in other coun­tries. The sit­u­a­tion grew even murkier this week, with re­ports Rus­sia hit CIA-backed rebels when it launched air strikes in Syria, in­stead of tar­get­ing the Is­lamic State group.

Amer­i­can spe­cial forces and the CIA have in re­cent decades backed for­eign fight­ers across the world. The re­sults have hardly been stel­lar, ex­perts say, and there’s scant rea­son to think the cur­rent Syr­ian en­deavor will fare bet­ter.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in Jan­uary un­veiled the US$500-mil­lion pro­gram to train vet­ted Syr­i­ans, with the rebels sign­ing pledges to only fight IS ji­hadists. But the pro­gram got off to a dis­as­trous start. In July, the first grad­u­at­ing group was at­tacked by al-Nusra. One was re­ported killed. The Pen­tagon isn’t sure what hap­pened to at least 18 of them.

And on Thurs­day, Sen­a­tor John McCain said Rus­sia’s first strikes had hit CIA-trained rebels. Un­like the De­fense Depart­ment, the se­cre­tive agency doesn’t talk about its Syria oper­a­tions, but it re­port­edly has its own ini­tia­tive — the re­sults of which are not known.

‘Has not worked’

The Pen­tagon this week ac­knowl­edged the rebel pro­gram was on a par­tial hold, and even Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said Fri­day the ef­fort was strug­gling. De­fense Depart­ment spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the De­fense Depart­ment con­tin­ues to “be­lieve that we need a lo­cal Syr­ian force on the ground that we can work with.”

Per­haps the best-known prece­dent of the United States sup­port­ing a lo­cal group is the back­ing of Afghanistan’s mu­ja­hedeen to fight the Sovi­ets in the 1980s. The pro­gram was vaster than what is be­ing tried in Syria and helped has­ten the Soviet with­drawal.

In Iraq, Amer­ica’s decade-long mis­sion to build the Iraqi army re­sulted in some suc­cesses, but also dis­as­ter when lo­cal forces col­lapsed as IS ji­hadists bar­reled across the coun­try. Sim­i­larly, multi-bil­lion-U.S.-dol­lar ef­forts to train Afghan forces have yielded an army still strug­gling to con­tain the Tal­iban, as seen when their forces this week seized Kun­duz.

No Good Op­tions

Given the Gor­dian knot that Syria has be­come, An­thony Cordes­man of the Wash­ing­ton­based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies said the train-and-equip mis­sion is ac­tu­ally one of Amer­ica’s few palat­able op­tions.

“Life doesn’t al­ways of­fer you good op­tions in the mid­dle of what’s be­come one of the most di­vi­sive and de­struc­tive civil wars in mod­ern history,” Cordes­man said.

The rebel-train­ing mis­sion is only one com­po­nent of Amer­ica’s ef­forts to de­feat IS, and there have been some suc­cesses — in­clud­ing re­tak­ing much of the Tur­key-Syr­ian bor­der — by the U.S.-led coali­tion as it flies near-daily plane and drone mis­sions.

Derek Chol­let, for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs and a se­nior ad­vi­sor at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund, said though the pro­gram was fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties, Amer­ica should con­tinue with at least some ver­sion of it. “Syria is go­ing to be a prob­lem for a long time,” he said. “If As­sad leaves, we are still go­ing to have a huge prob­lem in Syria. We will need ca­pa­ble mod­er­ate forces who can help se­cure that coun­try.”

Loch John­son, an in­tel­li­gence ex­pert and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, was not op­ti­mistic. “Given the in­er­tia that one finds in the Pen­tagon, we’ll blun­der for­ward in con­tin­u­ing to try and put to­gether the kind of army that can rise up against both As­sad and ISIS, com­prised of mod­er­ate pro-Western groups — if in­deed any ex­ist there — and it will again peter out and lead to vir­tu­ally no suc­cess,” John­son warned.

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