US effort to train Syrian rebels ramps up: Can Pentagon avoid past follies?

The facts on the ground in Syria will make it very hard to find 'moderate' rebels to fight the Islamic State and the Assad regime. But modest goals to start should help.

Hosam Katan/Reuters
A rebel fighter of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (the Shamiya Front) takes a position inside a room in Aleppo Sunday. The group said it took control of the area from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States effort to find and train “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has begun in earnest, and it will be about as easy as searching for unicorns, experts have said.

About 100 American troops tasked with the job began arriving​ in the Middle East earlier this month as part of President Obama's broader plan to stabilize Syria, which faces both a civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. A second wave of several hundred more US troops will arrive in a couple of weeks, according to Pentagon officials.

The recruiting and vetting effort is expected to take three to five months, with the training mission expected to begin in “early spring,” Defense Department officials estimate. The training will take six to eight months, they add.

The work is certain to be a challenge. Many of the fighters motivated to take on the Islamic State are not the most savory of characters, and the trainers must have some degree of confidence that those they arm and groom won't turn against American troops, American allies, or civilians in their own countries.

But the process also presents an opportunity, both for the rebels and for the US.

As with the US-trained mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, US-trained Syrian rebels have the chance to shift the course of the war and potentially carve out a position of future influence. The US, too, has a chance to show that it has learned lessons from foreign forays of the past and that it can think long-term about stability in the region.

The commitment must not be a short-sighted one, experts say. The Afghan mujahideen, largely abandoned after the Soviet war in Afghanistan, over time mutated into the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Likewise, the US will want to prevent short-term goals from evolving into future problems in Syria.

The US training mission is “not going to work overnight – or even over the course of the year,” says Nick Heras, research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s going to take years, and must be built on trust​: ​on the Syrian opposition side that the US will support it, and on the US side that these groups are in it for long haul – and are not opportunists.”

The stakes are high. As challenging as the situation in Iraq is – marked by deep by sectarian strife – the situation in Syria is in some ways more complex. A broad eastern swath of the country is controlled by the brutal Islamic State, while much of the remainder is held by an Assad regime that used chemical weapons against its own people, according to a United Nations investigation. Meanwhile, the civil war continues.

“The situation in Syria is so complicated, yet so important to global stability, as to make the situation in Iraq look benign,” argues a report released this week from the Soufan Group, a security intelligence firm.

Given the difficulties on the ground, the training effort – at 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters – is a modest one. That number might be small enough to be attainable,​ analysts say,​ ​provided the focus of the US troops and allied trainers is clear.

“Opposition forces are formidable but lack unity of purpose, unity of command, and unified international support,” a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released last autumn notes. 

That fact will likely inform which rebels the trainers choose and how they train them, says Mr. Heras.

“My sense is that you’re going to see a lot more emphasis on supporting Syrian opposition groups that act like an army,” he says. This includes ​focusing on ​getting rebels  “​to ​try ​to​ show that they have better command and control, ​and​ better control over rank and file.”

​In this way, these​ groups may have a better chance of being successful on the ground once the training is over. This ​will be the real test, analysts say. It ​includes ​making sure​ that the rebel groups are prepared for the prospect of their own success: a Syria without Mr. Assad. They need to have “bought into a political platform that supports a pluralistic Syria and for their phased transition into local defense forces under civilian control,” Heras says. 

Finding moderate Syrian rebels who fit these qualifications will be fraught with difficulties in a region where allegiances can be fluid.

“The people we need have some combat experience – those are the people that you want to put into these training programs – and many will have fought for the bad guys at some point,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “One of the problem in running these operations is that you are not going to end up recruiting in many cases from the best of all possible choices.”

Some of the US standards for providing arms and training to rebel fighters may actually prove too rigorous. The Leahy Law, for example, prevents the Pentagon from funding groups that violate human rights with impunity.

“I don’t know that they’re going to be able to comply with the exact precision that the Leahy Law requires, in the time frame they’re going to need to be able to be put on the field to fight for their country,” former Sen. Carl Levin told attendees of a Monitor breakfast in December before he stepped down as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Indeed, throughout the Syrian civil war, “Various opposition groups have, depending on the circumstances, cooperated and competed,” notes the CRS report. This makes disentangling loyalties tricky. If a self-professed “moderate” Syrian rebel at one time cooperated with a current Islamic State fighter against the Assad regime, should this disqualify him from US training?

But having a positive impact on Syria's future – and, by extension, American foreign policy in the region – will depend on navigating these complexities.

“It’s one thing to train up groups surrounded by the Islamic State. It’s another thing to make sure they have a sustained impact,” notes Heras. “To survive from within and against the Syrian regime – and to become an important model to be replicated in other parts of the country.”

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