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Obama's Pentagon Program For Syrian Rebels Failed. That Doesn't Mean Everyone In Syria Is An Extremist.

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/10/2015 Akbar Shahid Ahmed

WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials told The New York Times on Friday that they're ending a $500 million Pentagon program launched last year to train Sunni Arab Syrian opposition fighters to battle the Islamic State group.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter suggested President Barack Obama would be speaking about a different approach "very shortly" and defense officials said it would involve an end to the idea that the U.S. can establish entirely new rebel brigades within Syria, the Times reported. The news comes after critics slammed the program once it emerged that it had produced a minuscule number of U.S.-trained, anti-Islamic State forces, which were very vulnerable to attack. The Times says the administration will now train a small number of anti-opposition figures to call in anti-Islamic State airstrikes.

It's tempting to believe this is all because the Obama administration cannot find non-extreme partners on the ground. That's largely incorrect. 

That misconception fits neatly with the international media's focus on the Islamic State and other extremists in Syria and with the anti-rebel rhetoric from Bashar Assad, the Syrian president whose tyranny inspired rebels to take up arms back in 2011, and his patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it's a misconception all the same. 


There are still significant and powerful groups of nationalist Syrian rebels who do not have extreme tendencies, most Syria watchers maintain. The Institute for the Study of War released detailed background on those groups earlier this week, aiming to help U.S. policymakers understand which of these rebels -- inspired by the initially peaceful democratic uprising against Assad's rule -- can be considered distinct from extremists and could be potential partners. It identifies five large groupings of rebel factions that are interested in fighting both Assad and the Islamic State.

Nationalist Syrian opposition groups have repeatedly told outlets including HuffPost that Assad is their primary focus, so while they would not like to see the Islamic State in control of their country, they are uninterested in working on a program targeting only the extremist organization and not the regime that's killed thousands of its own people. 

A separate two-year-old U.S. program for the Syrian rebels, run by the CIA out of Jordan, has in fact yielded success in recruitment and on the battlefield -- unlike the Pentagon plan. That's suspected to be because the covert operation targets the Assad regime. In contrast, fighters recruited for the overt Pentagon program had to promise not to battle Assad's forces, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Some analysts urge that rather than adopting the likely harmful view that Assad and the Islamic State are the only two viable forces left in the Syrian civil war, the U.S., Western powers and the regional players supporting the Syrian opposition like Turkey and Saudi Arabia should be ramping up aid to specific groups to prevent further radicalization of the opposition.

The Institute for the Study of War's report tackles a point many Westerners have made when advising caution in working with the Syrian opposition -- that a number of the rebel groups have cooperated with the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Its authors, Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, argue that the U.S. must identify which of the groups are only using Jabhat al-Nusra in a transactional way and may be persuaded to back away from it. They suggest that Russia's growing involvement in Syria, which treats all non-Assad groups as threats, could have dangerous consequences for the country's future and extremists' power there.

"Whereas the Russian military actions will likely drive these groups together, diminishing the influence of al-Qaeda actually requires breaking the groups apart," Cafarella and Casagrande write. "Targeting rebel groups writ large through military strikes is therefore counterproductive and will lead to entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Syria."

That argument nods to what may get lost in today's commentary about the tortured Obama program -- there's no better way to ensure that no non-extremists are left in Syria than leaving the non-extremists to fend for themselves against the Islamic State, a regime with nearly no restraints on its brutality and now Putin's Russian forces.

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