Pesident Obama has decided to end the Pentagon’s failed effort to field a proxy force in Syria, senior administration officials familiar with the plan said today.
Instead of trying to back a moderate Syrian rebel force that the U.S. would train, the administration will focus on supporting the Kurds and other established rebel groups in the country’s civil war, the officials said.
Since Congress first approved money for a Syrian proxy force last year, the U.S. has slowly set up a program in which it has selected potential fighters from moderate Syrian rebel groups, taken them out of the country to camps and given them arms, equipment and basic training.
The goal was to develop a force that could tackle the Islamic State fighters who have seized control of large parts of Syria.
The effort has been a thorough failure, as officials have conceded.
Just 125 fighters — originally envisioned to be a force of 5,400 — were trained before the Pentagon put the effort on hold last month. The first 54 recruits were ambushed by the Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, after they crossed back into Syria. The second class of 71 surrendered much of their U.S.-issued ammunition and trucks to Al Nusra Front fighters in exchange for safe passage.
“We have clearly faced challenges with the train-and-equip program,” said one senior administration official familiar with the discussions.
“President Obama has been clear that we intend to continue our efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL in Syria,” the official said, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State group.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish militia, backed by U.S. airpower, has proved to be a highly organized and trained ground force.
Known as the Popular Protection Units, or YPG, they defeated Islamic State forces in the town of Kobani near the Turkish border in January after a yearlong siege that involved coordinating daily with U.S. warplanes.
In June, the Kurds beat the militants again in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad and cut a critical Islamic State supply line for weapons and reinforcements funneling in from Turkey.
“That’s the kind of more effective approach we’re looking at,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a speech in London on Friday.
“The work we’ve done with the Kurds in Northern Syria is an example of an effective approach where you have a group that is capable, motivated on the ground and you can enable their success,” he said. “We and others have been working. That’s exactly the kind of example that we’d like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria.”
Under the new approach, the administration will continue to work with a range of groups to capitalize on the successes that Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen groups have had over the last several months driving the Islamic State forces out of much of the Turkey-Syria border region.
The Pentagon has signaled there would be a change to the train-and-equip program last month when they put training on hold, saying no new recruits would be allowed out of the training camps.
“I wasn’t satisfied,” Carter said.
Of the $500 million Congress appropriated last year for the Pentagon effort, $41.8 million had been spent as of May.
The decision to end the Pentagon training program does not appear to immediately affect a separate program run by the CIA.
Credit: Los Angeles Times