US seeks fix to failed training of anti-ISIS Syrian rebels

© Bassam Khabieh
The Pentagon is considering changes to the program of training ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, admitting that its efforts to create a local fighting force against Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) militants have been an embarrassing failure so far.

Among the proposed options are deploying the trainees in larger groups and in safer portions of Syria, as well as giving them better intelligence about the enemy, senior Pentagon and Obama administration officials told the New York Times on condition of anonymity.

The first group of 54 US-trained fighters was ambushed and scattered in late July by Jabhat Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda group fighting against the government in Damascus. They never saw combat against Islamic State.

It was the first group of 'moderate rebels' to be trained as part of the $500 million US program, run by the Pentagon and separate from the covert CIA operation. Using training camps in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the program’s aim was to create a 15,000-strong force by the end of 2017. In early July, Defense Secretary Ash Carter admitted that the goal of training 3,000 fighters by the end of 2015 did not seem very realistic.

As late as last week, the Pentagon still pretended the rout of the first rebel unit had been an operational success. Brigadier General Kevin Killea of the Combined Joint Task Force tried to tell reporters that the July 31 firefight was proof that the US-led coalition successfully supported the “new Syrian forces,” who were “able to beat back” the Al-Nusra attackers. Asked whether he knew the outcome of the fight, or how many “new Syrians” ended up killed or captured, Killea dodged the question.

“Yea, I don’t have those details for you, thanks,” he said.

The Pentagon is now saying the rebels were “ill-prepared” for an enemy attack, with poor intelligence and no support from the local population. US officials have denied rebel accusations that Turkey may have tipped off their foes. However, there does appear to be a disconnect between the US and its Turkish allies concerning the Syrians: while the Pentagon refused to disclose the number of fighters currently in training, citing operational security concerns, Turkey’s Foreign Minister put the number at 100.

Many rebels see Turkey’s hand behind the appointment of Nadim Hassan, an ethnic Turkmen, to lead the mainly Sunni Arab 'Division 30' – a motley coalition of Syrian rebel groups conjured into being earlier this year with the purpose of providing trainees for the US-managed program.

While no specific course of action has been decided upon, Gen. Killea’s comments at the press conference suggested the US was looking for more direct control over their proxies.

“We don’t have direct command and control with those forces once we do finish training and equipping them when we put them back into the fight,” the New York Times quoted Killea as saying. “If I had to point to a place where we could explore better lessons learned, that would be it.”

Meanwhile, former CIA director and ex-Army general David Petraeus even suggested that the US should “peel off” members of Al-Nusra and entice them to join the anti-IS coalition by offering them a “credible alternative.”

Pentagon officials insist they knew the mission would be difficult from the start, and that both setbacks and successes should be expected. However, the program has so far resulted only in failures, confusion and mistrust, baffling observers.

“What is the coalition’s most fundamental goal then? To defeat ISIS? They’ve as much as said that’s not possible. To bolster ‘moderates?’ They can’t even name them,"  analyst Sharmine Narwani wrote for RT.

"Although there has been some skepticism about it, it is far too early to write off this program. Massive resources have been invested in this to make it work and we think it will work in the end," one unnamed diplomat told Reuters last week.

One of the Division 30 commanders is not so convinced, telling the New York Times he had no intention of sending his men to fight ISIS until the Americans had a “convincing plan” to protect them.

“We have to work with the reality that exists, not dreams and ideas,” the unnamed commander said.