After months of planning, the Pentagon’s training mission for Syria’s rebels is beginning to take form. By Gordon Lubold
The Pentagon will deploy more than 400 U.S. military trainers and hundreds more supporting personnel to four training sites in three countries as early as March as part of a long-awaited plan to help rebel forces to stabilize Syria.
In addition to the trainers, the U.S. military expects to deploy hundreds of additional U.S. military personnel as so-called enabling forces who will deploy alongside the trainers to provide security and other support at the training sites, according to senior defense officials. Coalition partners are expected to contribute forces as well for an effort that for now is envisioned to train about 5,400 rebel forces each year for three years.
The number of U.S. forces planned for the effort, which the Pentagon has not yet announced publicly, provides a sense of the scope of a mission that has taken months to get off the ground. It comes amid frustration from critics arguing that the Obama Administration has not moved faster to assist the floundering moderate forces inside Syria and growing recognition that the U.S.-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria has not been effective. The Defense Department’s train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels is not expected to change the dynamic on the ground anytime soon. But after months of planning, and after Congress provided funding late last year, it is now beginning to take form.
Since December, administration officials have said that training program could begin as early as March in the three countries that have agreed to host the training: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At least four training sites in those countries are being identified and the plan is to split the approximately 400 U.S. trainers and their accompanying support forces evenly across those sites for what is expected to be a six- to eight-week training cycle.
Earlier this week in Istanbul, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, who oversees the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force, and Daniel Rubinstein, U.S. special envoy for Syria, met with members of the Syrian opposition. The meetings were intended for American officials to brief the Syrian opposition on the train-and-equip program, but also for U.S. officials to get a better understanding of the dynamic inside Syria.
Apart from what is gleaned through intelligence sources, the U.S. has little to no first-hand sense of battlefield dynamics. That has blunted the effectiveness of the U.S. airstrike campaign inside Syria, which Pentagon leaders say is secondary in strategic importance to neighboring Iraq. There, the U.S. has deployed more than 2,100 U.S. service members and is working closely with Iraqi forces in northern Iraq, Baghdad and Anbar Province in the west to help them fight the Islamic State.
U.S. military commanders and intelligence sources say that while there is not yet a tipping point in Iraq, the combination of the airstrike campaign and the assistance to the Iraqi forces there has at least slowed the Islamic State’s ability to maneuver.
But Syria is a different story. With no American combat boots on the ground and limited intelligence, the U.S. is struggling to have an impact there against Islamic State militants or the Assad regime.
One of the biggest hurdles for the U.S. training program for Syrian rebels is identifying and vetting individuals to train. Defense officials said earlier this month that the U.S. is working closely with other U.S. government agencies as well as partner nations to find rebel fighters who would be candidates for the program.
“That process is very active right now,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Jan. 6.
But identifying rebel fighters who don’t have ties to Jabhat al-Nusra, the main al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is extremely difficult for a Pentagon with limited resources on the ground.
Still, the Pentagon is confident its forces can identify, recruit and then train a moderate force. American military forces, particularly Special Forces, have decades of experience screening foreign military forces for training, Pentagon officials said.
“We also know the Syrian opposition better now than we did two years ago through the programs we’ve had providing non-lethal assistance,” said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson. The Pentagon, the State Department and other nations are using a number of sources to screen moderate Syrian recruits, and it will be an ongoing process, she said in an email.
“We've identified numerous groups that we believe are suitable for training based on our current understanding of the environment and we continue to evaluate the situation,” Smith said.
There are other concerns, however. The void left by removing those fighters from the battlefield to get them trained, some of whom will be rebel commanders on the frontlines of the fight against the Islamic State, could be detrimental to the fight inside Syria, said at least one analyst who studies the conflict.
Moreover, many rebel forces who would be candidates for training feel disillusioned over what is perceived to be the long time it’s taken for the U.S. train-and-equip program to get started.
“U.S. strategy in Syria to date has consistently undermined what rebel command and control structures exist, and as a result we’ve seen the Free Syrian Army disintegrate,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, which has been generally critical of the administration’s approach in Syria.
“The decision not to support the [Free Syrian Army] in its fight against the Assad regime in the wake of the August 2013 sarin gas attacks led to a vast loss of morale and rise in disillusionment with the West that in turn encouraged rebel commanders to take advantage of independent funding streams from other actors, predominately from the Gulf,” she said.
The U.S. covert training program in Jordan that focused in some cases on new rebel brigades served to frustrate older, more established rebel forces, she said.
Still, many believe the train-and-equip program, though limited, will begin to infuse rebel forces with the kind of training they need to more effectively challenge Islamic State fighters and bring some measure of stability to the country. The training may also amount to a morale boost, even if it is coming years after initial demands for direct U.S. military assistance for rebel forces at the beginning of the civil war in Syria.
Defense officials say they recognize the challenges they face with the training program for rebels in Syria.
“This is going to be hard,” one senior defense official said. “We have to recruit the guys, we have to assume that there are a lot of guys who are recruitable, there’s got to be some vetting,” the official said. “This is not going to be an easy enterprise here.”