The Pentagon’s overhaul of its troubled program to support a Syrian rebel force is the latest setback in the Obama administration’s ongoing struggle to establish reliable ground forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
From the beginning of its campaign against the radical group more than a year ago, the U.S. military has said that airstrikes alone will not defeat the militants, who have ambitions of ruling the entire Middle East.
President Obama has refused to send U.S. ground forces, so finding other reliable boots on the ground has been essential — but so far elusive. In Iraq, the country’s U.S.-backed armed forces have been reluctant warriors. In Syria, the Pentagon’s $500-million plan to field a force of “moderate” fighters to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, barely got off the ground.
“I remain convinced that a lasting defeat of ISIL in Syria will depend in part on the success of local, motivated and capable ground forces,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday, in announcing a “pause” in the Syrian training program.
Finding forces to take the fight to the Islamic State is hampered by what potential allies in the region see as a confused U.S. strategy and lack of commitment to defeat the militants, analysts said.
“They’re not going to commit because we haven’t committed,” said Michael Barbero, a retired Army lieutenant general who served three tours in Iraq. “Our policy is so muddled.”
Barbero said there are ways to bolster support for ground forces short of committing U.S. ground troops, such as sending arms directly to Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, who have proven to be fierce fighters, and boosting the number of U.S. advisers in the region.
Until it was suspended Friday, the Pentagon program that got underway this year aimed to train 5,400 rebels annually. Yet only a handful made it into Syria — with bad results.
Soon after returning to Syria, the first group was attacked by an al-Qaeda affiliate and dispersed. A second group that had just entered Syria from Turkey turned over U.S.-supplied ammunition and vehicles to the same group in return for “safe passage” through their territory.
Obama has blamed the program’s lack of success partly on the failure to find opposition forces who would agree to fight the Islamic State instead of the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been fighting a 4-year-old civil war. Obama has called for Assad to step down but has not wanted to take military steps to force his ouster and risk bogging down U.S. forces in the civil war.
The Pentagon said it would redirect remaining money from the training program to provide weapons and equipment to rebels already fighting the Islamic State, particularly around the militants’ de facto capital, Raqqa. The leaders of those groups will be vetted and trained by U.S.-led coalition advisers in hopes of better coordinating airstrikes with those ground forces.
The Pentagon has worked with some of these groups for months and has confidence in their abilities, said Christine Wormuth, a Pentagon official.
In particular, the Pentagon has identified several thousand Arab fighters in northern Syria who have been fighting the Islamic State and have the potential to place pressure on Raqqa.
The administration said it has drawn on lessons learned from Syrian Kurdish forces that drove the Islamic State from Kobani, a town along the Syrian border with Turkey, with the help of coalition airstrikes. “That’s exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward,” Carter said.
In Iraq, the U.S. strategy is also facing problems. More than 3,000 U.S. troops are on the ground there, including several hundred trainers working with Iraq’s armed forces and Sunni tribal fighters in western Iraq.
But an offensive to retake Ramadi, a key Sunni city captured by Islamic State militants earlier this year, has dragged on for months despite the overwhelming advantage in numbers enjoyed by Iraqi government forces.
Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria has added a new complication to U.S. policy there. Russia began airstrikes against forces opposing Assad, and that could hamper U.S. efforts to recruit fighters because the Pentagon has not explicitly said it would protect U.S.-backed rebels from the Russian airstrikes.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said the failure to protect rebels from Russian bombs was “immoral” and could help “doom this new effort to the same failure as the previous one.”