U.S. Reportedly Ending Program That Only Managed to Train ‘Four or Five’ Syrian Rebels

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Syria conflict in Aleppo
Smoke rises in Egypt’s North Sinai as seen from the border from the southern Gaza Strip with Egypt. Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Ameer Alhalbi/NurPhoto

Last month, the Pentagon was forced to admit that its $500 million program to train Syrian rebels had managed to create “four or five” fighters instead of the 5,400 they had expected to train. 

Let’s not kid ourselves,” Senator Kelly Ayotte said at the congressional hearing where the confession took place. “That’s a joke.”

A month later, the Obama administration seems to have decided that the program’s prognosis has not improved, according to the New York Times, a change of policy that will reportedly be announced on Friday. The Pentagon is expected to announce that it will instead focus on teaching strategy and skills to current rebel leaders, or placing recruits with existing units, mostly Kurdish ones. 

In a news conference yesterday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, in a deft bit of diplomatic understatement, that he “wasn’t happy with the early efforts” of the training program. When asked about its future, he responded,  “I think you’ll be hearing from President Obama very shortly.”

Meanwhile, the fighting in Syria continues unabated, and a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards general has been killed. General Hossein Hamedani died near Aleppo; he had been serving as an adviser to Syrian forces. Iran is one of President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest allies; the country has been ramping up its support of the pro-regime forces as Russia has increasingly involved itself in the conflict.

Islamic State fighters have been pushing toward Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, this week. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has called the advance, a surprise to many observers, a significant one, according to the Washington Post. It happened as Russia has waged an air-strike campaign against Syrian rebels, trying to assist Assad. “It remains our hope that Russia will see that tethering itself to a sinking ship is a losing strategy,” Secretary Carter said yesterday. 

Assad, on the other hand, seems to hope that Russia’s involvement will force the U.S. and its allies to forget about him and only focus on ISIS“This is a transitional period, not for us, but for those in the enemy camp," a Syrian foreign minister said on state television earlier this week. "It is they who will make the shift."

President Obama spoke to 60 Minutes this week about Syria, in an interview that will air on Sunday. CBS teased an excerpt this morning. Obama described Russia’s actions in Syria as “devoting his own troops … just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally.” 

"I got to tell you," he told reporter Steve Kroft, "if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership."

Retired U.S. general John Keane told the Senate Armed Forces Committee yesterday that “Putin is counting on the U.S. fear of escalation and fear of confrontation to stop any thought of retaliation. Aggression unanswered, historically, has led to more aggression.” Right now, the Obama administration is weighing options for how to deal with Russia’s decision to go to Syria and fling the carefully placed chess pieces all over the board. As Keane said, no one in the administration is keen to escalate the conflict, but no obvious way to resolve it has presented itself either. It is very possible that a change in strategy could soon accompany the announcement that the Pentagon plans to end one of its least successful Syria initiatives, the training program. 

U.S. Ends Syrian Rebel Training Program