Obama Drops Syria Training Plan, Shifts to Equipping Fighters

  • Faltering plan to train, equip rebels has had few results
  • Carter cites assistance to Kurdish groups as a model

Syrian rebels attack Syrian regime forces in Aleppo, Syria.

Photographer: Saleh Mahmoud Laila/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Obama administration is abandoning its failed attempt to build and train a rebel force in Syria to take on Islamic State and will focus on equipping selected leaders and providing air support to their units.

The change is a recognition that President Barack Obama’s original plan to train thousands of moderate fighters fell short, producing only a handful of rebels to combat the terror group. The U.S. instead will identify leaders in the region and provide their forces with arms and other support short of missile launchers or anti-tank weapons.

“We’ve has some significant challenges, so we’re going to pause the training where we recruit specific fighters,” Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy told reporters Friday in Washington. “Obviously this is a different approach.”

The president’s strategy in the region is being retooled as the U.S. faces a new challenge from Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war to defend its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

The revamped program will provide small arms and ammunition to Arab and Kurdish groups in Syria that are fighting the terrorist group, according to a U.S. official. Some of the leaders selected will be trained to pass information on potential targets for airstrikes to Joint Operating Centers run by the U.S. and allies, according to the official, who asked not to be named discussing details of the plan.

While the U.S. won’t initiate more training under the existing program, it will complete training that’s already under way and support the few fighters already in Syria, the official said.

Few in Fight

General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate hearing last month that only “four or five” of about 50 U.S.-trained rebels were in the fight against Islamic State at that point. Lawmakers of both parties called the program a failure.

“So we’re counting on our fingers and toes at this point,when we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year,” Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat said.

Congress appropriated $500 million for the training effort in this fiscal year. Of that, $300 million has been obligated so far, with $42 million under contract as of May, the most recent data available. The program is separate from a classified training effort run by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Obama’s Strategy

The change in approach is likely to prompt additional questions about the viability of Obama’s Syria strategy. The president signaled as recently as last Friday that he wasn’t happy with the train-and-equip program, saying at a news conference it had "not worked the way it was supposed to."

Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into the battle. In Iraq, the U.S. has about about 3,550 troops at six locations to train and advise Iraqi army forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Kurds are also involved in the Syria fight.

“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, that you can enable their success,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday in London. “That’s exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward. That is going to be the core of the president’s concept.”

Extremists Advance

Islamic State made its biggest advance in months in Syria’s Aleppo after overrunning several areas in the northern governorate, the U.K. based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement on Friday.

Administration officials said there is no change in the broader U.S. strategy to seek a political process to remove Assad from power while also fighting Islamic State.

“At the same time that we are countering ISIL, we’ve made very clear we see no lasting resolution to the conflict as long as Assad is in power,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on a conference call with reporters. “It’s not going to be a military solution imposed by the Assad regime, or Russia, or by any opposition group.”

Obama’s Syria strategy has been been complicated by Russia stepping into the conflict to defend Assad. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has pitched the offensive, which includes air and missile strikes, as a bid to combat Islamic State, the U.S. and its allies say that the effort so far has targeted mostly other groups, including those backed by the U.S.

About 80 percent of Russian missiles are hitting Assad’s other opponents and not Islamic State, whose militants are also expanding in Libya, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Europe 1 radio on Friday.

Obama cast Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria as a desperate move prompted by the weakness of Assad in an interview with "60 Minutes."

"Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally," Obama said in an excerpt of his interview released Friday by CBS News.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE