A little more than a year ago, President Obama asked Congress for $500 million to train and equip some 15,000 opposition fighters in Syria, arguing that the best way to defeat Islamic State terrorists was to arm local forces.
The war against Islamic State “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama promised. “Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists.”
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave Congress a progress report. The training program is up and running, he said, and almost 7,000 Syrians have applied to join — but the total number of fighters trained comes to exactly 60.
… That’s “not an impressive number,” Carter acknowledged.
Skeptics instantly did the arithmetic: If that’s all we get for $500 million, it comes to almost $9 million per fighter — and the trainees haven’t even made it onto the battlefield yet.
Actually, a Pentagon official said, only $36 million has been spent so far, and some of that includes start-up costs for a program that still aims for 15,000 trainees — just much more slowly than expected.
Still, the story of the Pentagon’s amazing shrunken training program — an idea that almost looked bold when Obama first proposed it — could serve as a metaphor for the whole of U.S. strategy in Syria: ambitious in its goals, but so risk-averse in design and so hamstrung in execution that it remains painfully ineffective.
Obama has called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down since 2011, but has also ruled out any direct U.S. military intervention against Assad’s regime. In 2012, he authorized covert CIA help to insurgents fighting Assad; but the U.S.-backed rebels said the aid was too little and too late, and their organization collapsed this year.
Now Obama has made defeating Islamic State his top priority, but the ground force to wage that battle in Syria, where the terrorists have their main bases, doesn’t yet exist.
What’s holding up the training program? The Pentagon wanted to make sure no Islamic extremists slipped into the training pool, so it imposed a tough vetting process that scrutinized applicants one by one. Of the 7,000 applicants Carter mentioned, only about 1,700 have made it through the screening so far.
“The vetting has been truly glacial,” said Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council, a former Obama administration diplomat. “The biggest fear is that one of these guys will show up in a picture with a three-foot beard, holding a U.S. antitank weapon and shouting ‘All-hu akbar.’ That’s understandable, but it makes it almost impossible to get from here to there.”
Another hitch: The Pentagon requires Syrian recruits to pledge that after their training, they would fight only against Islamic State — not against the government of Bashar Assad. Administration lawyers imposed that rule, arguing that Congress hasn’t authorized military action against Assad. But for many Syrian rebels, it’s a deal-breaker.
“If you insist on working only with Syrians who won’t fight the Assad government, it’s very difficult to find able-bodied fighters,” said Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.
Perhaps more troubling than these procedural problems is that, even if the Pentagon were able to reach its goal of training 5,000 fighters a year for the next three years, that might not be enough to dislodge Islamic State, which has as many as 32,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq according to CIA estimates.
It’s tempting, at this point, to say: So what? At least Obama’s cautious approach has kept U.S. forces out of harm’s way.
Only that’s not quite true; U.S. pilots are already flying combat missions over Syria every week.
And if those 60 newly trained Syrian recruits ever go into battle, Carter and other officials have said, the United States would feel a responsibility to protect them from annihilation — although no decision has been made as to how.
There’s also no guarantee that Syria’s civil war won’t get worse. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing last week that Israel and Jordan are worried that Assad’s regime could soon collapse, sending Islamic State and al-Qaida forces into “a foot race … converging on Damascus.”
“I won’t sit here today and tell you that I have the answer to that,” Dempsey confessed.
Is there an alternative? Hof and others have proposed one: A much larger training effort, with less draconian restrictions. In Hof’s view, the administration should be aiming at a force of 50,000, not 15,000 — and it should declare that the new force would be free to fight the Assad regime as well as Islamic State.
And instead of vetting rebels individually, Hof said, the United States should be willing to enlist insurgent groups already on the ground — even though they might include some former members of extremist factions. “If you aim for perfection, you’re not going to get anywhere,” he warned.
President Obama may have hoped to finish his last 18 months in office without facing more agonizing decisions about military action in Syria’s no-win civil war. But if he wants his campaign against Islamic State to succeed, he won’t have that luxury.