Pentagon declares ‘halt’ to its disastrous Syrian training program

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at NATO headquarters in Brussels Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at NATO headquarters in Brussels Thursday. AP

The Obama administration is ending a problem-plagued program to train and equip Syrians to fight the Islamic State, saying it will use the hundreds of millions of dollars from Congress to help Kurdish fighters and other groups that have had some success reclaiming territory from the militants.

The strategic shift represented an admission by the Pentagon and the White House that the $500 million training program, which President Barack Obama heralded less than a year ago as a centerpiece of the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State, had failed despite the expenditure of tens of millions, the recruitment of thousands of Syrians, and months of effort.

“Clearly we have had significant challenges associated with our training-and-equip program related to our counter-ISIL mission, and we have been looking at ways to address those deficiencies,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.

“At the same time, we have seen opportunities emerge where we’ve been able to equip forces fighting ISIL on the ground in Syria and seen them make significant gains, particularly in northeastern Syria,” Rhodes said. “So today’s announcement represents an ongoing process where we aim to learn from what works in our strategy and aim to make corrections where we see things that are not working.”

Pentagon chief Ash Carter, standing alongside British Defense Minister Michael Fallon during a visit to London, admitted that he had been unhappy with the results of the effort to train Syrians in Turkey and then dispatch them back to their homeland to fight the Islamic State.

“We have been looking now for several weeks at ways to improve that program,” Carter said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the early efforts in that regard, and so we’re looking at different ways to achieve, basically, the same kind of strategic objective, which is the right one, which is to enable capable, motivated forces on the ground to retake territory from ISIL and reclaim Syrian territory from extremism.”

Rhodes and other officials said that instead of trying to vet and train new Syrian fighters, who were to provide a land component to the U.S.-led, 14-month-old air campaign in Iraq and Syria, U.S. special forces will train a smaller number of leaders of opposition groups that are already on the ground in Syria battling the Islamic State.

“What we’re really trying to do here is build on what has worked for us and learn from some of the things that have been a lot more challenging,” Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters in a conference call. “So a key part of our strategy remains trying to work with capable indigenous forces on the ground.”

Obama’s senior security aides pointed to the Kurdish rebels’ retaking of Kobani, a key city in northern Syria on the Turkish border, in January as an example of the progress they and other ground forces have made in recent months against Islamic State fighters. Since then, Syrian Kurds, assisted by American air strikes, have recaptured about 6,800 square miles of northern Syria from the Islamic State.

“Through that process, we’ve gotten to know a lot of these fighters, a lot of the leaders – Arabs, Kurds, there are Christians there,” said Brett McGurk, a State Department official pegged by Obama to help lead the government’s broader counter-ISIL efforts. “And so we’re looking for ways to take advantage of those relationships and harness them.”

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that Carter had directed his staff to provide equipment and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units, in order to help them “make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL.”

Carter and Cook avoided citing the Kurds by name in likely deference to Turkey, a NATO ally that recently allowed U.S. bombers to launch raids against the Islamic State from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. Kurds in Turkey have waged a decades-long struggle for independence, aided by Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and the Turkish government views them as terrorists.

However, Rhodes and McGurk named the Kurds, along with Syrian Arabs and non-specified Christians, as groups that they said have enjoyed battlefield successes against the Islamic State, and which the United States will now focus on training and equipping.

In Ankara, there was no immediate reaction from the Turkish government. Turkey previously has indicated it would not help the Pentagon step up its arms supplies to the People’s Protection Units, the militia known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, which the Turkish government considers an arm of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Members of Congress, many of whom had bitterly criticized the train-and-equip program, welcomed the shift in strategy, but some said it should have happened months ago.

“While it is somewhat encouraging to see the administration, at long last, acknowledge the facts on the ground, it remains clear we have lost valuable time and opportunities waiting to address this situation,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee member. “I fear our options moving forward are increasingly limited.”

Fischer said the American delays had created a vacuum that Russia, which began bombing opposition forces in Syria last week to support the government of President Bashar Assad, is now filling.

“Russia is fomenting unrest and instability to advance its own imperialistic agenda,” she said.

The first two “classes” of Syrian graduates from the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program met with almost immediate disasters after they were dispatched back to their homeland to join the fight against the Islamic State.

The first group of some 54 fighters was ambushed July 31 by militants from the Nusra Front, the main al Qaida affiliate in Syria and one of several radical Islamist groups that have been fighting to overthrow Assad.

The leader of a second group turned over weapons to Nusra in exchange for personal protection after he and his men re-entered Syria following the training program.

In both instances, the Pentagon at first denied widespread reports of the problems encountered by what it calls the New Syrian Force, but later acknowledged the disastrous episodes.

Roy Gutman contributed to this story from Istanbul, Turkey.

James Rosen: 202-383-8014, @jamesmartinrose