The Obama administration is shutting down the Pentagon’s beleaguered and dismally unsuccessful $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made the announcement in London on Friday and President Obama is expected to speak on it later today.
The 150 recruits currently in the program will finish their training and a much smaller center for leaders of opposition groups will be set up in Turkey. The Obama administration is also currently considering Turkey’s proposal that the U.S. aid a separate force of Arab fighters that would fight alongside Kurdish militias to march on ISIS’s capital in the eastern city of Raqqa. A Pentagon official told the New York Times that from now on the U.S. would focus on supporting groups already fighting ISIS “rather than using training to try to manufacture new brigades.”
The train-and-equip program, which began a little over a year ago to recruit “moderate” Syrian rebels for training in neighboring countries, probably should have been seen as a long shot from the start. The U.S. was looking to recruit rebels to fight the Islamic State exclusively, rather than Bashar al-Assad’s military, which the potential recruits have been battling for years and care much more about defeating. So recruits were hard to come by. The plan was to train 5,400 fighters by the end of 2015 and 15,000 over the next three years, but only a few dozen actually went through the program. Last month, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, admitted to Congress that only four or five U.S.-trained rebels were actually fighting against ISIS.
This isn’t quite the full story. Since 2013, the CIA has been running a separate covert program that has, according to the Washington Post, “trained and armed thousands of fighters sent back into Syria’s civil war.” That program is presumably not effected by Friday’s announcement, but it’s facing dark days as well. Some of these CIA-backed rebels appear to have been specifically targeted in airstrikes across western Syria by Russia, which sees them as the primary threat to Assad’s regime. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, while the Pentagon has pledged to defend their trained rebels—such as they are—if they come under attack, no such guarantees have been extended to the groups supported by the CIA. The U.S., so far, doesn’t appear to have taken any steps to protect them from Russian strikes.
After Friday, it’s doubtful any rebel group would continue to count on U.S. support.