September 24, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Policy in Syria Combusts
• In the latest of a series of disastrous events, the chief of staff for the U.S.-trained Syrian rebel group known as Division 30 has quit and publicly denounced the ‘train and equip’ program as dysfunctional and poorly managed
• In Syria, the U.S. focus on the Islamic State has failed to garner the local rebel support needed to be even marginally effective
• Reports that the U.S. could begin providing weapons and support to a wider array of rebel groups suggest that the narrow focus against the Islamic State is giving way to the reality that most rebels want to fight Assad foremost
• This possible U.S. refocus comes at a time when Russia is now actively and militarily supporting the Assad regime against the Islamic State and all rebel groups.
The year-old U.S. program to create and sustain an effective group of Syrian fighters to combat the Islamic State has failed; the ‘train and equip’ strategy has not produced enough fighters to make a difference on the ground against the group. While understandable issues of lengthy vetting processes and stop-and-start training initiatives have plagued the program from the beginning, the single greatest reason for the failure of the program is far more basic. The program never managed to overcome the reality that the Syrian rebels en masse want to fight whom they view as the greater enemy: overwhelmingly, that is the Assad regime. The program’s fatal flaw is not its management, but in its foundational assumption that in the midst of a raging civil war against a deeply hated despot, the rebels would prioritize fighting a group that is also fighting the regime, however superficially.
On September 19, the chief of staff for the U.S.-trained rebel group known as Division 30, Colonel Mohammad Dhahir Abu Hassam, publicly quit the program. In his written statement, he asserted a lack of seriousness in the running of the program, as well as a lack of recruits. His resignation is only the latest in what is a cascade of setbacks—both actual and perceived—for the U.S. effort in Syria. Unconfirmed reports that a commander of the program, Major Anas Obayd aka Abu Zayd, had defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, only highlight the toxic environment surrounding the program. The downsides of the initiative now far outweigh any upside; while the U.S.-sponsored group is failing, extremist and other rebel groups are scoring military and propaganda victories against it with regularity.
Amidst the continuous setbacks for the U.S. effort, there were recent reports in the Washington Post that the U.S. might begin to provide weapons and other support to a much wider array of rebel groups than in recent years. Concerned about providing non-vetted rebels with weapons, and having witnessed the dissolution of two of its sponsored groups last year, the U.S. has been reluctant to become more involved in the fight against Assad. Its stated priority has been the Islamic State—even if few other actors shared that priority. Providing more arms to rebel groups that intend to use them against Assad and not the Islamic State is a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
This shift comes at a time when Moscow has dramatically increased its military support for the Assad regime. On September 23, unconfirmed reports circulated that Russian airstrikes were directly supporting a regime attack on an airfield near Aleppo that has been under siege by the Islamic State. The Russians have stated that their priority is to fight the Islamic State and ‘other terrorists’—by which they mean all rebel groups fighting the regime. It is unlikely that the Russians will target only the Islamic State, raising the possibility that Russian forces will soon be fighting U.S.-backed rebels if U.S. policy does indeed shift. An increase in military support for the regime and for the rebels means the war is entering yet another destructive stage, with little hope for peaceful resolution.
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