How the U.S. rebel program and policy on Syria failed

Russia’s involvement is far more likely to secure the Assad regime’s future

Brooklyn Middleton

Published: Updated:

The Russian military continued escalating its involvement in Syria this week while the United States essentially admitted that its official $500-million dollar rebel training program has so far utterly failed.

The U.S. commander General Lloyd Austin, who is responsible for heading the war against ISIS, publicly admitted that only “four or five” U.S.-trained Syrian rebels were actually currently fighting against the militant group.

If DC is attempting to overhaul the rebel-training program – and they clearly should – making the mistake of ignoring Assad, the number-one enemy, will only result in further failure.

Brooklyn Middleton

In a follow-up statement, that potentially secured the understatement of the year award, Austin noted that the rebel-training program had, in fact, “gotten off to a slow start.”

Meanwhile, whether the CIA’s rebel training program – launched in 2013 – has been successful remains unclear. Yet the Washington Post reported in recent months that The House Intelligence Committee “voted unanimously to cut as much as 20 percent of the classified funds” allocated for the nearly billion dollar program that has seen approximately 10,000 fighters trained since its inception.

Divisions over Division 30

Worse yet, Colonel Mohammed Daher, chief of staff for the U.S.-trained and backed Division 30 Syrian rebel group, publicly announced his resignation from the program this week, citing at least six reasons for his decision. In an English translation from the Arabic provided by Business Insider, Daher notes the following issues:

“1. Slowness in the implementation of the training program of the 30th brigade and the lack of sufficient numbers of trainees

2. Failure of the 30th brigade to secure basic needs such as the ability to work

3. The lack of seriousness in the implementation of the project to establish the 30th brigade

4. The lack of census numbers of the 30th brigade members who are on the ground

5. The lack of accuracy and methodology in the selection of teams of the 30th brigade

6. The heterogeneity in the ideas of the trainees to achieve the objective on which the 30th brigade was created.”

Ignoring enemy No. 1

The reasons are unsurprising and highlight the deep failures of a program in desperate need of total overhaul. At the same time, several of the complaints, specifically numbers 2, 4 and 6, underscore the difficulty of facilitating unity among the Syrian fighters. This aspect of the program has no doubt been complicated, and often obliterated, by the fact that the United States has continuously failed to acknowledge that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains the primary enemy of opposition fighters – not ISIS. If DC is attempting to overhaul the rebel-training program – as they clearly should – making the mistake of ignoring the number-one enemy will only result in further failure.

The latest damning evidence of the rebel-training program – that, notably, has already reportedly seen approximately $42 million squandered – occurred amid what appears to be the buildup to Russian airstrikes in Syria.

The most recent reports via the New York Times indicated Moscow has now deployed over two dozen fighter jets in addition to a number of SAMs and aircraft equipped with air-to-air fighting capability. The latter two, John Kerry said, “raise serious questions.”

Despite that Kerry said DC “welcomed” Russia’s fight against ISIS, he reiterated that Assad still has to go. But his remarks on the matter appeared softer than in the past, noting that “it doesn’t have to be on Day 1 or Month 1.”

Such rhetoric, which seems to indicate that after more than 320,000 people have been killed and millions displaced there is plenty of time for Assad to depart, is a mistake. Russia’s involvement is far more likely to secure the Assad regime’s future in power, thus prolonging the bloody conflict. DC’s failure to acknowledge that could deal the final blow to U.S. policy on Syria.


Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

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