In a hearing with the Senate armed services committee earlier this month, General Loyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), revealed that a $500 million program to train Syrians to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria produced only “four or five” active fighters. The plan unveiled in late 2014 to train local forces on the ground in Syria to fight IS was projected to have trained about 5,000 fighters by now. A Pentagon official assured the Senators that between 100 and 120 fighters are currently “getting terrific training,” but the committee was unimpressed.
It should be no surprise that this ill-conceived effort failed. Frankly, I’m surprised they could boast even four or five fighters at this point. Just last week, the Guardian reported that a Syrian rebel commander allied with the United States defected and gave six trucks and ammunition to the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The unit had returned from US-led training in Turkey only days before; the Department of Defense asserts that the report of the defection and missing equipment is incorrect.
The CIA has been funneling weapons into the region since at least 2013. Have we learned nothing from our efforts to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Or from our more recent efforts to equip the Iraqi Army—a favorite target for looting by IS?
Let’s be clear: I do not think that the United States should be launching a major military operation to try to “stabilize” Syria. Are people being subjected to immense suffering there? Yes, they are—but it’s not clear who the “good” guys are, given that the Syrian regime has been just as brutal as IS in some cases. Given that a major intervention is not on the table, we should stay out of it. Flowing more weapons into the region can only prolong the fighting and thus the suffering of innocent civilians. Sending in some minor peacekeeping force to safeguard refugee camps won’t work, either—without a significant presence and comprehensive mandate to use force (unlikely in multinational peacekeeping operations), the camps can only be an easy target for the fighters. Nor should we expect air strikes to work, either; France launched its first strikes against IS in Syria this week and I don’t expect them to have much of an impact, either.
I think this plan for arming the Syrian rebels reflects the Obama administration’s belief that it must be seen to “do something” in the face of the chaos in Syria. Given that there is no national will for a major intervention (rightly so, I think), the options are rather limited. Training rebels and supplying arms seems like the goldilocks solution, if you will: taking action, but action that’s relatively cheap, poses little to no risk to American military personnel, makes the administration look good if for some reason it succeeds, and provides an easy escape hatch if and when it fails. We’ll have to see how the situation unfolds over the coming months, but I don’t expect a resolution any time soon.