A year ago today, the Senate voted to authorize $500 million to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to help in the fight against ISIS. One year later, the effort has become an embarrassment.
First came the news that nearly 10 months and $41 million after the program started, despite the initial goal of training 5,400 rebels in the first year, the program only managed to train and equip 60 fighters. Then came the disturbing news that upon entering Syria, those rebels were attacked by al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate supported by our allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Recently, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Gary Peters (D-MI) traveled together to the Middle East to try to make sense of the situation on the ground. They met with the American general in command at Al Udeid Air Base; the headquarters of the US led air campaign against the Islamic State. He told them that so far we’ve killed 18,000 ISIS fighters. When the Senators asked how many fighters have joined ISIS since the campaign began, he said, “unfortunately, around the same number.” While that realization was perhaps the most disturbing of their trip, it was not the only bad news. According to Sen. Murphy’s account, there were 54 fighters trained in the first round of the rebel training program, and after their training was complete, they were given time to go home before entering the fight against ISIS. The problem was that many of them never came back. “They took the cash and equipment and stayed home, sometimes to defend their villages against attacks from ISIL or Assad.” When Sen. Peters asked how many did return, the briefer told them the number, and said it was classified. “The look on Sen. Peters’ face is hard to describe,” wrote Sen. Murphy.
Wednesday, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command, was asked that same question in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. He reluctantly explained that there are now only 4 or 5 American-trained rebels fighting in Syria.
Naturally, Senators on both sides of the aisle, some of whom voted for the train and equip program one year ago, took turns denouncing it. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) then rightly reminded the committee of another problem: “We can be fans in the stands and throw all the criticisms we want, but we are in the 14th month of an unauthorized war… If we’re not willing to do our constitutional duty, why are we here?” As the war against ISIS rages on with little to show for our efforts, the need for Congress to debate this war and repeal the authorizations of force from 2001 and 2002 is as dire as ever.
In light of the complete failure of the arm and train strategy thus far, Foreign Policy reported that the Pentagon is working on a new approach to the program: embedding smaller numbers of US-trained fighters within larger forces already on the ground, and training them to facilitate US airstrikes on ISIS targets. While that may be a more achievable goal, it still fails to appreciate the larger problem: the US military strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS is not working.