When the first group of Syrians from a U.S.-trained force intended to combat the Islamic State crossed into their country from Turkey in mid-July, they arrived in uniform carrying M16 rifles, mortars and flak vests. But they had no expense money, little food and no clear idea of how they, just 54 men, were to do battle against the extremists.
Most had been in near-total isolation during their two months of training in Turkey and Jordan, and they wanted to see their families, many of whom had been under heavy government bombardment. And it was Ramadan, a month of fasting, so they voted to take a two-week break, according to their elected commander, a former Syrian army lieutenant colonel, Amin Ibrahim.
Disaster struck when the break was over and they were headed back to their base. On July 29, a day after U.S. aircraft had attacked an outpost of the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra seized Col. Nedim Hassan – the commander of Division 30, the rebel unit in which the trainees were to be embedded – along with seven of his men.
Then on July 31, Nusra attacked the headquarters of the division in a battle that ended with U.S. airstrikes and ground intervention by Kurdish militias. As many as 50 Nusra members died in the fighting, according to some reports, but Nusra managed to seize 10 graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program.
Ten weeks later, the Pentagon announced that it had halted the program, which until that moment had been the keystone of the Obama administration’s policy to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Syria.
The program’s demise has been ascribed to a number of factors, including the participants, the Turkish intelligence agency MIT and a Syrian militia, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, better known as the YPG.
But a McClatchy investigation shows that the primary factor may well have been the United States itself, which conceived of a program that didn’t have the support of the people it was intended to train and was viewed with deep skepticism by its key training partner, Turkey.
I told them the whole idea is wrong. I said: ‘We are Syrians. Our problem is with the regime. Help us to get rid of the regime.’ The response was: ‘You should not shoot a bullet against the regime.’
Amin Ibrahim, trainees’ commander
Adding to the calamity was the ill-timed U.S. airstrike against Nusra, an al Qaida force that could easily avenge its losses by targeting the train-and-equip units as they returned to their base from their unscheduled home leave.
Interviews with two Syrian rebel officers and two recruits who were involved in the training course depict a program that was chaotic from the beginning, with daily arguments over goals, low morale among the participants and clashes over resources, from food supplies to armed escorts.’
‘If I quit, everyone will’
Even Ibrahim, the trainees’ commander, said he’d contemplated quitting midstream. He didn’t only because he knew it would doom the effort. “I’m the commander. If I quit, everyone will,” he said he’d often thought.
But Ibrahim said he’d never bought into the training mission’s goal of targeting the Islamic State before turning to battle the government of President Bashar Assad.
“Every day I had a meeting with them,” Ibrahim said of the American trainers, who numbered one for every two trainees. “I told them the whole idea is wrong. I said: ‘We are Syrians. Our problem is with the regime. Help us to get rid of the regime.’ The response was: ‘You should not shoot a bullet against the regime,’ ” he recalled.
More than once, “we all got up and walked out.” Sometimes the Turkish trainers asked the Americans to leave the room. “Either follow what the Syrians say or just leave,” he quoted the Turkish trainers as saying. The Turks “were always on our side,” Ibrahim said.
The train-and-equip program had been, until it was halted in October, the Obama administration’s primary strategy to confront the Islamic State on the ground in Syria.
Officials in the office of the Turkish prime minister and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A Turkish security official who spoke only anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak for publication did not comment specifically on the allegation of tension between Turkish and American trainers but he made clear that Turkish officials were skeptical of the program. “The Americans live in a fictive world,” he said.
U.S. officials responded to several questions about the program but were reluctant to discuss trainees’ alleged discontent.
“These are all good questions,” said a defense official who also wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “All I can say is that we work with thousands of Arabs” through a new Arab-Kurdish alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Syrian Arabs “are very supportive and fighting alongside the SDF daily.”
Asked about the Syrian fighters’ complaints, Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, spoke of the program’s accomplishments.
“We were able to train over 150 Syrian fighters in the program, many of whom remain active in the fight” against the Islamic State, “but over time assessed the program was not working out as we had hoped. So we decided to end it,” he said in an email.
“We want to go home’
The tension hardly helped the morale of his men, Ibrahim recalled. “They hated the program,” he said. “Every day we told them, ‘We want to go home.’ ”
None of those strains were evident in public testimony in Washington, where senators in September declared the $500 million program a failure, or on Oct. 9, when the Pentagon announced that it was calling a halt to the effort.
A 23-year-old recruit who was interviewed in Adana, Turkey, and who asked to be called only Mahmoud for security reasons, echoed Ibrahim’s comments on the mission. During his training in Jordan and in Turkey, “we told them that ISIS is bad, but the regime is worse. If you want to get rid of ISIS, get rid of the regime.”
The trainers were unbendable in following the dictates of the congressional act that funded the $500 million program: “No, let’s focus on the Islamic State and then you will fight the regime,” Mahmoud quoted the Americans as saying.
That was a mistake.
Mohammad Daher, on the trainees’ decision to take a two-week break
Another source of tension was the growing relationship between the United States and the Kurdish YPG militia, which in the first six months of the year had, with U.S. aerial support, forced the Islamic State from dozens of villages in northern Syria. Syrian Arab fighters distrust the YPG, in part because of longtime ethnic rivalries and in part because they’re convinced it still has ties to the Syrian government; Assad police and government offices still function in key parts of Kurdish-controlled areas.
When Division 30 was being set up at the end of April and early May, Col. Mohammad Daher, the new unit’s chief of staff, had several meetings with Kurdish officials in Afrin, a Kurdish area northwest of Aleppo, Syria. He noted then that the YPG seemed to be flourishing, despite the presence of government police and intelligence.
“They have an army, and an army needs a state for support,” Daher said, hinting that the backing came from the Syrian government, something Assad himself confirmed in an interview earlier this month with The Sunday Times of London, according to the official transcript of the interview.
From his contacts, Daher said, he became convinced that the Kurdish militia would prefer to let the Islamic State seize the entire northern countryside. “Then it’s our chance to attack” the religious extremists and take control of the territory, he asserted was what the Kurds had in mind. When the YPG invited Daher to merge his fighters with theirs, he was immediately suspicious that the Kurds’ real hope was “to neutralize as many people as they can” in the Arab rebel ranks.
Suspicions and disconnects
But it was Daher’s belief that the U.S. wanted the YPG to play a leading role that doomed his support. He felt that the site the U.S. had picked for Division 30 headquarters merely confirmed American favoritism toward the Kurdish forces – Maryameen, west of the border town of Azaz, and just five miles from the Kurdish controlled Afrin area. Turkey, and Daher, had wanted it in the front-line town of Mar’e, which is threatened by the Islamic State. “But the Americans wanted it close to where the Kurds are,” he said.
The U.S. defense official dismissed Daher’s concern as a “conspiracy theory.”
At Col. Nedim Hassan’s request, Daher submitted 70 names for admission to the U.S. training program. The Americans accepted 30 and Daher, who was concerned about taking too many fighters from the front lines in Aleppo – where they were confronting not just government forces but also the Islamic State – sent 15 to be trained, he said. Others came from Hama province, Ibrahim’s home area.
The training was high quality, particularly in Turkey, according to recruit Mahmoud, who also had trained in Jordan. The day began at 5 a.m. and after an hour of sports and breakfast, there were six hours of classroom instruction or training on weapons.
But there were many disconnects. Although their task was to fight the Islamic State, which nowadays relies on suicide car and truck bombs as its weapon of choice, there was no training on TOW anti-tank missiles, the only effective defense against those attacks. Only two of the 54 were trained as spotters to call in airstrikes.
The U.S. trainers tried to boost morale with promises.
“ ‘You are the first group. We will not give up on you, whatever happens,’ ” Mahmoud recalls the U.S. officers saying. They even promised more air protection than what was being given to Kurds. “ ‘We will give you more support than in Kobani. You will be protected,’ ” he said he was told.
But the group had a rocky re-entry. First, Daher’s request that 1,000 armed men from Division 30 accompany the 54 trainees back to Syria failed to be fulfilled. The 200 men who arrived to provide an escort ended up leaving the trainees on their own, miffed that the Americans hadn’t provided them with ammunition, food or funds.
180 Number of trainees who graduated from the program
And operational security was lax. They crossed at the much-trafficked Bab al Salaam entry, though Daher had asked the Americans to pick a more isolated point. Worse, the fighters were photographed – apparently by another group – as they transited the crossing.
The last straw was the amount of food the Americans provided – 200 pounds of rice and 200 pounds of kidney beans, enough for each of the course graduates for a week or two, but not for their families, who are in dire financial straits. That’s when the group voted to take two weeks off and go home.
“That was a mistake,” said Daher. Ibrahim concurred. “It was not a good idea. But they’d been disconnected from the world. They asked, and we agreed. We are in a revolution, not standard military life. If you say no, they’ll just go anyway.”
Attack and counterattack
At that point, the question was who would pay for the transport. Although each had earned $225 a month for the two months of training, none had money for expenses.
So Ibrahim paid for 13 of his men to go to Hama. It cost $175, “two-thirds of my salary,” he said. The Americans wouldn’t reimburse him. “They said they didn’t ask me to send the men to Hama,” he said.
On July 28, according to the U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike “against a network of veteran al Qaida operatives,” a part of the Nusra Front the U.S. has dubbed the Khorasan Group. The aircraft struck a tactical unit and destroyed a vehicle, according to U.S. Central Command.
Nusra retaliated the next day, detaining Hassan minutes after he crossed into Syria from Turkey.
35 number of trainees who are no longer active
The conflict with Nusra was just beginning. On July 31, Nusra attacked the Division 30 base at 4 a.m. Daher, claiming advance word of the attack, said he’d informed the U.S. military at midnight that an assault was coming. Lacking secure communications, he sent the SOS via cellphone using WhatsApp, an encrypted smartphone application.
What happened next is disputed. Daher said the U.S. didn’t counterattack until 6 a.m., and then used airstrikes only against the Nusra base in nearby Azaz as YPG troops joined the battle at the Division 30 base. A Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Roger Cabiness, said that according to Central Command reports, less than an hour elapsed between notification of the attack and the first airstrike. And he said the coalition strikes hit Nusra forces, not their headquarters.
Division 30 counted six dead and 17 wounded, but Nusra’s losses were said to be several times greater. That same afternoon, Nusra detained 10 graduates of train-and-equip as they crossed its checkpoints, later releasing five.
That battle was not enough to kill the program. That didn’t happen for another month, after a second group of trainees was found to have handed over weapons to the Nusra Front.
When the Pentagon announced that the program was being halted, it said the balance of the $500 million would go to equip Syrian Kurdish fighters and others who over the preceding months had become America’s most important anti-Islamic State ally in northern Syria.
But most of it had already been spent. The program cost just $30,000 per recruit and had graduated only 180 trainees when it was ended, according to Cabiness. Yet the program’s expenditures totaled $384 million, Warren said.
Of that sum, $325 million was used to buy equipment that included 4,000 weapons, 1,000 vehicles, communications gear and ammunition, Warren said. The remainder covered infrastructure improvements, airlifts and other costs. Less than $160,000 was spent on the monthly stipend for the trained forces, he said.
Of the 180 trainees, 145 remain active, Cabiness said, about 95 of whom are operating in Syria. Thirty-five graduates “are no longer considered active,” he said. He didn’t say whether they’d been killed or had merely faded away.
James Rosen in Washington and special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria in Reyhanli and Adana contributed to this article.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc