Reassessing the still-born U.S. rebel program in Syria

Washington needs an urgent reassessment not just of the program, but of its entire policy toward the Syrian conflict

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

The U.S. program to train and equip vetted Syria rebels to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was launched in May amid little fanfare and low expectations, even from American officials. Since then, the prospects of the program making any difference whatsoever have only dimmed further.

Among the myriad problems it faces, recent events have clearly shown that it is the victim of Washington’s own decision, when launching the coalition air campaign a year ago, to target Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front as well as ISIS. This despite the two jihadist groups being at war with each other, and despite Al-Nusra being a key ground player among Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS.

Al-Nusra attacks

In the last fortnight and in a series of incidents, Al-Nusra has kidnapped and killed rebels involved in the U.S. program, days after an Al-Qaeda leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was reportedly killed by a coalition airstrike in Syria.

Washington needs an urgent reassessment not just of the program, but of its entire policy toward the Syrian conflict, and the wider war against ISIS

Sharif Nashashibi

It was not difficult to foresee such an outcome. Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, warned in May that although his organization “doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West... our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves.”

In its attacks against U.S.-backed rebels, Al-Nusra described them as “the arms” of the American government in Syria. The numbers of those killed and captured are disputed, but they are enough to have forced the U.S.-backed rebels to leave their headquarters, declare their refusal to fight Al-Nusra, and express their opposition to airstrikes against it.

Those killed and kidnapped represent a significant proportion of the program’s total recruits, who numbered a paltry several dozen even before Al-Nusra's attacks (in recent months, it also defeated two Western-backed rebel groups, forcing them to disband).

If Al-Nusra continues its campaign against the U.S. program, ISIS may end up not having to fight the latter’s recruits at all, and the program itself may collapse. Recruits have reportedly already been leaving due to various frustrations, and the refusal to fight Al-Nusra may represent a crippling division between recruits and their American backers.

Coalition airstrikes

As such, while much has been made of Washington’s recent decision to provide air cover for the recruits against any force that fights them (including the regime and its allies), such support is likely to be inconsequential.

A year of airstrikes against Al-Nusra and ISIS has done nothing to degrade their capabilities. The former is still one of the most formidable rebel groups, and U.S. intelligence agencies (including the CIA) acknowledged this month that the latter is no weaker than it was when the coalition air campaign began, despite billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 jihadists allegedly killed. In some areas in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is still advancing.

With the pitiful pace of recruitment, Al-Nusra’s attacks, the program’s primary foe ISIS being far stronger, and the hostility of the regime and its allies, there may not even be a rebel force to protect from the air.

Obstacles and enemies

The program is also viewed with suspicion and antagonism by other rebel groups, including those that are not Islamist. They are wary of American intentions, antagonistic over arms supplies and funding (some have brandished American weapons after capturing them from U.S.-backed rebels), and angry that the force is designed only to take on ISIS rather than the regime.

As such, they view the U.S. program as diversionary and divisive, and hence of potential benefit to the regime at a time when rebel coordination has contributed to a string of battlefield successes against Damascus.

The program has so far proven still-born, and with the array of internal and external obstacles and enemies it faces, as well as poor American decision-making, it is difficult to see any developments on the horizon that could resuscitate it.

Rather than simply continuing to invest resources and manpower into this failed project, Washington needs an urgent reassessment not just of the program, but of its entire policy toward the Syrian conflict, and the wider war against ISIS.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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