Why the Pentagon's Plan to Train and Equip Syrian Rebels Against ISIS is Failing

Naji Dahi
July 7, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) When President Obama unveiled his strategy to combat the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) 9 months ago, the plan was to train moderate Syrian fighters to combat IS while the U.S. supported them with airstrikes. Advocates of the program claimed it would produce 5,600 U.S. trained and equipped fighters per year while costing a mere $500 million. These well-vetted moderate Syrian rebels were to form the bulwark around a new democratic, secular Syria.

A month ago, the Daily Beast reported that the program was in trouble and that a leader of the 1,000 man group that signed on to the U.S. military-led program was on the verge of withdrawing. In what could only be described as a dereliction of journalistic duty, the mainstream media ignored that important report.

A month later, that same mainstream media finally caught on. CNN is now reporting that there are fewer than 100 trainees left in the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program. So why are the trainees quitting the program? There are two primary reasons.

First, the Pentagon cannot find enough rebels that do not have extremist ties. As Stars and Stripes reports,

“The main problem thus far has been finding enough Syrian recruits untainted by extremist affiliations…Officials said that as of Friday, the number in training had dropped below 100 and that none has completed the program. Dozens who were initially accepted have been sent home during training or quit because of revelations about their background or other problems.”

Many U.S. trained and armed anti-IS operatives have already defected to the Islamic State, bringing their training and even weapons with them.

Moreover, the criteria that the Pentagon uses to select the trainees is hazy and muddled with jargon. When Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith was asked to name groups that are receiving weapons and training, the response was enigmatic. She said,

We are only accepting candidates from recognized groups…We define recognized groups as groups that have a hierarchical structure, a recognized tribal and geographical affiliation and that are easily identifiable with regard to their allegiance, beliefs, ideological spectrum and organizational scope.”

Second, and more importantly, the recruited rebel fighters were specifically told that they could only fight ISIS and were not allowed to use their weapons and training to fight the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria, which started the civil war to begin with. As the Observer-Reporter wrote,

“Many Syrian rebel volunteers prefer to use their training to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, the original target of their revolution. While IS has been a brutal occupant of much of their country, the rebels see the extremists as fighting a parallel war.”

In addition, the moderate fighters fear for their lives because they are seen as U.S. collaborators and proxies by other rebel groups that are simultaneously fighting the Assad regime and IS. As the Daily Beast reported, “…by openly aligning with the United States as a counterterrorism proxy,…[rebel] troops will have a bull’s-eye painted on [their] back for all comers—al Qaeda, the regime, Iran and Hezbollah.”

It is clear to any objective observer that the fight the U.S. started against ISIS 9 months ago is failing. IS is as strong now as it was 9 months ago despite false claims that the U.S. has killed 10,000 IS fighters. Since the start of U.S. attacks, IS has extended its influence to Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. While it has been pushed out of Tikrit in central Iraq, it has out-flanked the Iraqi army and Shiite militias and taken control of Ramadi and Fallujah. These two towns are far more strategically valuable than Tikrit because of their closeness to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. IS has become what al-Qaeda used to be, a multi-headed hydra—only more vicious and more sectarian than al-Qaeda ever was.

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