Will U.S. Protect Its Syrian Rebel Army?
The long-awaited Syrian train-and-equip program that President Barack Obama sold to Congress as the way to keep American boots off the ground in Syria is finally about to start training its first troops. Three Obama administration officials who work on the Middle East told me that after months of preparations, the vetting of rebel troops for the first tranche of training is nearly complete. About 1,800 soldiers from Free Syrian Army brigades in southern Syria will soon move to a training camp in Jordan to undergo weeks of preparation for a coming fight against Islamic State inside Syria.
But here's the problem: The administration hasn't figured out what to do if and when those troops are attacked by Bashar al-Assad's air force, after they get back into Syria. One Obama administration official described that prospect to me as the "Achilles' Heel" of the whole program, calling the deployment the administration's last and best chance to make the Syria component of its anti-IS strategy work.
On Thursday, administration officials met to ponder how to protect the new U.S.-trained Syrian rebel army from barrel bombs and other air attacks. Next Monday, Obama will preside over a meeting of his National Security Council on the campaign against Islamic State where this issue could be debated.
The Pentagon has prepared a memo that sets out a few basic options. The U.S. could use its formidable air assets to cover these rebels, but that would mean engaging militarily against the Assad regime, an act with big political diplomatic, and legal implications. Alternatively, the U.S. could provide its new rebel army with anti-aircraft weapons, such as MANPADs, so it can defend itself. But the risks of proliferation of those weapons to extremists would be dire.
Some inside the administration favor warning the Assad regime not to attack these specific brigades, hoping that Assad will realize that they are only targeting Islamic State. Assad himself rejected that idea in a recent interview with Foreign Affairs, when he said the Western-trained force would be fair game for attacks.
“Any troops that don’t work in cooperation with the Syrian army are illegal and should be fought. That’s very clear," Assad said. "Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army.”
Michael Nagata, the general in charge of the $500 million Syria train-and-equip program, heavily favors either giving the new rebel force the means to defend itself from air attacks or using U.S. air power to protect them. He has told lawmakers and congressional aides in briefings that the U.S. has a responsibility to protect the fighters it is sending in on behalf of the international community.
Many experts doubt that any strategy that relies on Assad not to attack the new Syrian rebel army would work.
“If President Assad said he’s going to attack those troops, we have to take him at his word,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This begs the question: Can you hit Assad’s forces and under what circumstances? That was always going to be a key question in this policy.”
The White House has real concerns about the legal implications of attacking Assad's forces. More broadly, its desire to see Assad go also seems to have waned, given that under current conditions extremists might end up taking control.
Also, especially in the South, rebel forces are likely to find themselves fighting IS and the regime at the same time, even if the U.S. only wants them to fight the former.
“The White House doesn’t want to get in the middle of that, they want something that deals with ISIS only,” Tabler said. “The regime’s collapse right now, they feel, would lead to the spread of ISIS. But at the end of this, if Assad doesn’t go, you can’t put the pieces of Syria back together again. That’s the conundrum.”
There’s deep frustration within the top ranks of the U.S. military about both the White House’s policy constraints on the mission to fight Islamic State in Syria as well as its insistence on micromanaging all aspects of the campaign. "There are many sincere people in our government who frankly are paralyzed by this complexity,” General Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a Washington industry conference this week. So they “accept a defensive posture, reasoning that passivity is less likely to provoke our enemies.”
The National Security Council declined to comment for this article.
The White House’s concerns are real. Attacking Assad's forces could have unanticipated consequences. Although the U.S. has covertly been arming rebels to fight Assad for years, the legality of fighting the regime directly is questionable. Giving Syria rebels heavy weapons would be risky, considering their poor track record on handling such weapons so far.
But U.S. policy toward Syria can't continue to straddle the fence. Defeating Islamic State requires dealing with the problem that is the Assad regime one way or the other. Leaving the regime in place might result in the emergence of perhaps even worse extremists down the line. The political reconciliation process is nonexistent. If Assad is going to attack U.S.-trained rebel forces in Syria, the White House must have a real plan for how that army, and through it the overall U.S. Syria policy, can survive.
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