News on Friday, Oct. 9, that the US department of defense (DOD) would be scrapping its $500 million train-and-equip program for a vetted, moderate Syrian opposition came as somewhat of a shock to those monitoring the Syria conflict closely. The decision may have been surprising for how quick it was made, but the possibility that the Obama administration would eliminate the training mission or revamp it has been public knowledge for weeks.
Indeed, ever since US Central Command (USCENTCOM) commander general Lloyd Austin testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that only four or five Syrian fighters were actively on the ground fighting, disbelief at the program’s ineffectiveness both in Congress and within the Pentagon reached a fever pitch.
When four senators send a letter asking for the training program to be replaced with “a new way forward”; when administration officials begin to trial-balloon new options on the front page of The New York Times; and when President Obama himself acknowledges to a roomful of reporters that vetting Syrians to fight ISIL “has not worked the way it was supposed to,” it’s clear that something had to change.
The administration is hoping that the DOD’s reconfiguration of $500 million towards a less lofty objective will be the beginning of a more successful counter-ISIL strategy in Syria. While details have yet to be fully disclosed to the American people, the new Pentagon program includes the delivery of ammunition and basic weapons to vetted rebel commanders whose units operate in northeastern Syria. Those groups, in turn, would unite with a Kurdish force that is roughly 20,000-strong in order to isolate ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa from the rest of ISIL-held territory.
In addition, the US would significantly reduce its training by closing up bases in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, and focus its efforts on a small-scale operation in Turkey, where up about 100 Syrians currently in the pipeline would be re-tasked to serve as spotters for US and coalition air strikes.
Brett McGurk, the administration’s envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition, summed the policy shift in these terms: “We need to be flexible. We need to be adaptive. Is it best to take those [recruits] out and put them through training, or to keep them on the line fighting and give them equipment and support?”
The White House and DOD are betting that a more tailored and less ambitious approach with anti-ISIL forces will generate far more positive effects on the battlefield. It’s way too early to determine whether or not this will pan out, but what can be said for sure is that the administration’s adaptation to the old plan creates a list of questions that will need to be answered if the new policy is to succeed.
1. Can Arabs and Kurds unite?
The new DOD program is based on the assumption that a 20,000 man Kurdish militia will coordinate and cooperate with a 3,000-5,000 group of Arab fighters during joint kinetic operations. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the “Syrian Arab Coalition” have one objective in common: expelling ISIL from their territory and securing the Syrian-Turkish border to stop foreign fighters from coming in and ISIL-produced crude oil from going out. Yet that appears to be the only interest that both share.
The YPG holds a very different view from Arabs as to what Syria should look; the Kurds would eventually like to govern themselves once the civil war is over, while Syrian Arabs are generally far more committed to keeping the Syrian state intact. Just four months ago, those two visions collided when Arabs along the Syria-Turkey border accused Kurdish militia of ethnic cleansing in their anti-ISIL operations. Can this shaky history be reconciled under the new strategy?
2. What kind of weapons will the fighters get?
According to the very little information we now have regarding the Pentagon’s plan, the weapons that the US intends to ship to anti-ISIL forces in the northeast will be relatively basic. Anti-tank tube-launched optically-tracked wire-to-command-link
(TOW) missiles and heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles will not be included in the package until the Syrian Arab Coalition and the YPG have both proven that they can operate together effectively and demonstrate that the weapons they receive are not passed along to extremist groups. Will this new force be able to hold their own—let alone execute offensive operations—against ISIL without guns that are more advanced?
3. Where does Assad fit into all of this?
Like the previous train-and-equip program, the administration’s new policy is designed solely for the anti-ISIL campaign. Recruits who will be become spotters for coalition warplanes are presumably not permitted to use their new skills against Bashar al-Assad’s regime—the very regime that has killed far more Syrians over the past four and a half years than ISIL. Much like the earlier program, the DOD may find it just as difficult to enlist moderate Syrians for a mission that doesn’t include fighting a regime that is the main accelerant to the conflict.
4. What about the no-fly one?
Although president Obama remains opposed to the creation of a safe-zone where refugees can congregate and Syrian rebels could plan and train, the administration has authorized the US air force to protect YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition fighters as they move south toward Raqqa.
But how would the US respond if a Syrian army helicopter or Russian warplane decided to engage these US-supplied rebels from the air? Would the US have some responsibility to retaliate since Washington already committed in writing to protecting them? If so, would US retaliation make things worse, particularly if US pilots engaged a Russian military aircraft?
5. Will Congress have to change the law?
US senator John McCain has loudly voiced absolute disgust that US training efforts to date have been designated only for anti-ISIL operations and have ignored the dangers posed by the Assad regime. Yet the fact remains that Congress only authorized and appropriated money to train moderate rebels to defend the Syrian people “from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” Current US law says nothing about using those very same funds to assist the Syrian opposition in its fight against the Assad regime. So, if president Obama does eventually decide that the United States needs to be more aggressive against the Assad regime than it currently is, he will need Congress to override previous statute with a new law.
Time will tell whether the Obama administration’s latest iteration of the counter-ISIL campaign plan will turn out to be better than the last. But with the Syria train-and-equip program having died a slow and painful death, surely Plan B can’t be any worse?