President Barack Obama abruptly halted the U.S. effort to find and build a moderate Syrian opposition force on Friday after more than one year and a $500-million budget had failed to produce any significant cohort or gains in the conflict.
Instead, the Defense Department will focus on training a small group of Syrian leaders in Turkey, with a promise to provide U.S. air cover to their units when they head back into the fight, and to send additional arms and equipment to those units already showing progress inside Syria. Obama administration officials said Friday they still want local forces to fight the Syrian conflict — and that U.S.-trained Syrians were to engage and fight the Islamic State, but not Syrian state military forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Either way, there will be no increase of U.S. troops into the Syrian fight, officials made clear.
“I remain convinced that a lasting defeat of ISIL in Syria will depend in part on the success of local, motivated, and capable ground forces,” Carter said in a statement released to reporters Friday. “I believe the changes we are instituting today will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria and ultimately help our campaign achieve a lasting defeat of ISIL.”
Carter has ordered the U.S. military “to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted [Syrian] leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” according to a statement released by Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook.
“Clearly, we have had significant challenges” with the train-and-equip program, said Brett McGurk, State Department envoy to the ISIS fight. “At the same time, we have seen opportunities emerge where we have been able to equip forces fighting on the ground in Syria and have seen them make significant gains, particularly in northeastern Syria.”
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Obama administration officials, in a conference call with reporters, argued they were not ending the entire program. They described the shift as an “evolution” that still includes equipping moderate Syrians and could resume recruiting and training in the future.
“We’re going to take sort of an operational pause,” said Pentagon policy chief Christine Wormuth. The defense undersecretary said that Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata, the highly regarded two-star officer who led the failed train-and-equip effort, will continue to run the retasked program, whose new mission will focus on finding other Syrian groups already “on the battlefield.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, said the administration was “constantly” reassessing the military campaign but the war council was not considering creating a no-fly zone over Syria. “That has been our longstanding position. Again, we see significant resourcing challenges associated with focusing on the establishment of a no-fly zone that could, frankly, take away from other elements of our counter-ISIL campaign.”
That assessment echoes U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Lloyd Austin, who told Congress last month he did not have the resources to establish a no-fly zone.
Rhodes said the administration already was looking into other ways to protect Syrians on the ground.