US training Syrian opposition for defense only against ISIS

Almost two months ago, Barack Obama pledged to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence … to the point where it’s a manageable problem.” When Americans scoffed for a week at the idea that an incremental approach would work against the genocidal Islamic State, Obama then told the nation that he pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Shortly after that, the White House started calling it a “war,” and put together parallel coalitions to conduct airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The airstrikes did almost nothing in either theater to degrade or even manage ISIS, as the radical Islamists advanced on both Baghdad and Kobani.

Critics argued that Obama’s strategy could not possibly work without ground troops. Obama went to Congress to get funding to train Syrian opposition forces to fill that gap, which Congress provided with some misgivings about weapons falling into the wrong hands. Still, Obama insisted that American ground troops would not return to Iraq or go into Syria, relying on the Iraqi army and the Syrian “moderates” to fill the gaps in his “degrade and destroy” policy.

The Washington Post reports this morning that the effort to train Syrian troops falls far short of that policy, and even short of Obama’s original “shrink and manage” policy that drew so much scorn in early September:

The Syrian opposition force to be recruited by the U.S. military and its coalition partners will be trained to defend territory, rather than to seize it back from the Islamic State, according to senior U.S. and allied officials, some of whom are concerned that the approach is flawed.

Although moderate Syrian fighters are deemed essential to defeating the Islamic State under the Obama administration’s strategy, officials do not believe the newly assembled units will be capable of capturing key towns from militants without the help of forward-deployed U.S. combat teams, which President Obama has so far ruled out. The Syrian rebel force will be tasked instead with trying to prevent the Islamic State from extending its reach beyond the large stretches of territory it already controls.

“We have a big disconnect within our strategy. We need a credible, moderate Syrian force, but we have not been willing to commit what it takes to build that force,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Syria and Iraq operations who, like others cited in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the training program.

Military commanders are reluctant to push Syrian fighters into full-scale battles with well-armed militants if they cannot summon close air support and medical evacuations, mindful of how fledgling forces in Iraq and Afghanistan crumbled without that assistance during the early years of the wars in those nations. But U.S. military aircraft cannot provide that aid without American or allied troops in close proximity to provide accurate targeting information on secure radio channels.

This doesn’t even qualify for “shrink and manage.” One could barely call it a containment strategy, given how little success these groups have had over the past year in dealing with ISIS. It envisions allowing the Islamic State to remain standing for an indefinite period of time while US-led air strikes continue to hit targets outside of major population centers, which ISIS has been hardening ever since that bombing campaign began.

This strategy might work in a hammer-anvil approach, but there is no anvil on which to pin ISIS, and no hammer to drive them either. The Iraqi army can barely hold Baghdad at this point; they are incapable of a major offensive that would drive ISIS forces back onto hardened defensive positions established by Syrian moderate forces, even if the latter actually existed in anything except the Obama administration’s collective imagination. The Kurdish Peshmerga are too ill-equipped and too small to make that kind of sweep, and Turkey is busy hitting their Kurdish allies in the rear.

Business Insider’s Michael Kelley accurately diagnoses the futility of the Obama administration’s approach:

Basically, the two obvious weakness in Obama’s plan are being fully exposed: The US is not willing to partner with current FSA rebels on the ground and is also no longer willing to actively back the rebellion against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Consequently, Assad is using the breathing room to intensify his bombing campaign on FSA areas, including ‘200 air force strikes‘ in 36 hours recently. So it’s unclear how much territory the FSA will actually hold when the US-backed force is ready in late 2015 or 2016. …

It’s unclear how the plan as described would serve to “destroy” and “eradicate” ISIS. As experts have noted since the beginning of the campaign, the elimination of ISIS would require a much stronger commitment.

“If destroying ISIL becomes the near-term policy goal-which seems the likely outcome of saying you are going to ‘roll back’ the group-then 10,000-15,000 troops vastly understates the true commitment, which will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops,” counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman explained in August.

However, despite the stated goal of the strategy, Obama and US officials are thus far unwilling to put American combat troops in harm’s way in Syria (on top of Iraq).

If Obama is serious about degrading and destroying ISIS, then it will take a lot more than just this effort, which is a cover-the-rear strategy in more ways than one.