Syrian Rebels Lose Again as U.S. General Departs

Yet another setback for the troubled program to train and equip rebels.
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Not scaring Islamic State.

Photographer: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

The man in charge of the troubled U.S.-led program to train and equip a new Syrian rebel army is leaving his job, yet another sign of the deep troubles with the Barack Obama administration’s plan to fight the Islamic State in Syria.

Major General Michael Nagata, who has been leading the Syrian training program since last year, will leave his post as commander of Special Operations Command Central in May or June, having completed two years in the job, Pentagon spokeswoman Amy Derrickfrost told me. There’s no word what job Nagata will have next or who will replace him. The Syrian program will continue under the Special Operations Command Central. There is a possibility Nagata would stay in the mission by maintaining his secondary title as Syria director for the Combined Joint Inter Agency Task Force, which administers the program on the ground. That decision is ultimately up to the Army and Pentagon leadership.

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In any case, Nagata was not only the head of the Syrian program, which Congress voted to finance last September to the tune of $500 million at Obama's request, but the face of it as well. He was the one who explained it Congress, foreign governments and the Syrian opposition. Congressional leaders were shocked to learn of his exit.

“I don’t recall a time when a mission was entrusted to a senior officer, that that officer didn’t see that mission through to completion. We need to know why this change is taking place,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain told me Tuesday. “Whoever is replacing him will take time to get up to speed on a process that has already been significantly delayed.”

Several administration sources told me that Nagata was leaving as part of the normal rotation schedule of a senior officer. Nagata may even keep some connection to the Syrian mission in his new job, although that isn’t certain, they said. McCain, however, was skeptical: “It doesn’t make sense to me. When you have a job with that level of responsibility, there should not be a time frame."

The program has been plagued by delays and problems from its inception. I asked House Speaker John Boehner, who just returned from a trip to the Middle East, how the program was going on Tuesday. “Very slowly,” he said.

For many in Congress, the general's departure is one more sign that the administration is not serious about a program it lobbied so hard for only a few months ago. “The immediate loss is that Nagata commands a tremendous amount of respect on the Hill, within the government, and with the Syrians,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s hard to have someone leaving when this is just getting off the ground.”

Tabler also pointed out that Nagata the latest in a string of senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials working on Syria to leave the government recently. These include Daniel Rubinstein, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, who will soon be appointed the next ambassador to Tunisia. “They just don’t see the president doing much, so people tend to do that in a bureaucracy, they abandon ship,” Tabler said.

The nascent program has a slew of other problems. For one, the U.S. has not been able to recruit enough fighters to achieve the goal of churning out 5,000 battle-ready Syrians to fight against the Islamic State in the first year. The U.S. is also not sure it can convince the fighters, once trained and armed, to actually fight the jihadists instead of their prime enemy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The theory is that the fighters will be dependent on the U.S. military for logistical and intelligence support, and therefore will have to obey U.S. instructions to point their guns only at the terrorists. But nobody knows if that will play out as envisioned.

In addition, there’s no real agreement with the countries that are supposed to host the training camps, which include Jordan and Turkey, as to what the program's goals are. The Turks, in particular, still want the force to fight the Assad government. Until the U.S. agrees to broaden the mission, Turkey is limiting its overall involvement in the coalition fighting inside Syria.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the White House has not yet decided if and how it will protect the newly trained Syrian rebels when Assad's forces attack them, as the Syrian leader has promised. The current plan is to keep the rebels in areas where the Syrian regime has no ground forces. But this won't protect them from Assad's air forces, infamous for using crude "barrel bombs" filled with explosives.

 “We’re getting them ready to be barrel bombed. And every time I ask the administration about that, they say, ‘Well, that policy decision hasn’t been made yet,’ ” McCain told me. “You would think that these young men would have a right to know.”

In previous years, when the CIA armed and trained Syrian rebels, the program was secret and nobody was able to judge success or failure, although most of the U.S.-supported groups have now been defeated. This new program, run by uniformed military, was supposed to be more transparent. Yet the administration holds close any details about its progress or trajectory.

This has led some in Congress to doubt whether White House is really serious about it in the first place. The suspicion is that the administration no longer thinks Assad’s departure is good, at least in the near term, and worries the rebels will fight Assad no matter their U.S. overseers tell them. Yet the administration benefits by keeping the program alive, if only because it is Obama’s alibi when people accuse him of not having any strategy in Syria at all.

For the military planners charged with completing the mission, however, the White House’s micromanagement is confusing and sets back the fight against the terrorists. Military officials want to train killers, not deal with politics. Nagata was the one man people believed could do both at the same time. Without him, military and Congressional confidence in the program could disappear as well. 

Postscript: After this article was published, Central Command issued a press release that General Nagata was not leaving the Syria mission. I asked for clarification from the Pentagon press officer who had originally confirmed the re-assignment. Another spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, e-mailed me that "Nagata will stay in his current billet," with no further explanation of the conflicting statements. 

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