Getting serious: U.S. troops headed to train Syrian rebels

The White House was dragged kicking and screaming into the war against ISIS. Politically and materially, the Obama administration saw few upsides to engaging in the fight against the brutish Islamist militants despite their rapid advance across Syria and Iraq in the spring and early summer of last year. The administration’s hand was forced when it appeared as though ISIS was poised to drive the Yazidi minority into extinction.


Even then, the White House only cautiously engaged in Iraq and utterly refused to take on the Islamic State in their Northern Syrian stronghold. Since then, the Islamic State has outgrown its nursery. What began as a containable civil war in Syria has expanded into a regional fight against an emboldened Islamist radical movement with battlefields ranging from West Africa to Southeast Asia and terrorist actors taking the fight to European, Canadian, and Australian soil.

When the president was forced to confront the reality that ISIS could not be halted in Iraq unless it was also challenged in Syria, the administration hatched a Rube Goldberg plan to address the Syrian threat that was so absurd it boggled the mind.

Initially, the Pentagon planned to identify moderate indigenous Syrian rebel forces with ideals that aligned as closely with those of Western countries as possible. Once those groups and individuals were thoroughly vetted, they would be removed from the Syrian theater and transported to third-party Arab countries where they would be trained and equipped. Once that process was complete, these rebels would be reintroduced into Syria to fight ISIS, but they were also expected to avoid engaging forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Pentagon thought this was a reasonable expectation even despite the fact that Assad’s brutality gave rise to the rebel movement in the first place.


It was perfectly asinine. Moreover, it was logistically implausible.

It is not clear that the White House and the Pentagon recognize the folly of this antiseptic approach to warfighting. On Friday, the Defense Department revealed that 400 American soldiers were heading to Syria’s neighbors to train Syrian rebel forces directly. Oddly, they have not entirely abandoned the involved processes outlined above:

The training mission is expected to begin in the spring at sites outside Syria, Colonel Steve Warren said. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have offered to host the training.

The training program is a part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to field local forces in Syria to halt and eventually roll back Islamic State fighters, while pounding them with airstrikes.

But the insurgency in Syria is now dominated by hardline Sunni Islamists, including both Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, complicating U.S. measures to find a suitable ally on the ground.

“The Pentagon has estimated that it can train more than 5,000 recruits in the first year under a $500 million program, and that up to 15,000 will be needed to retake areas of eastern Syria controlled by Islamic State,” Reuters reported.


Do the math.

The Obama White House’s most urgent priority when it comes to confronting the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism, it seems, is running out the clock. It will be up to the next administration to take the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria with the seriousness it deserves.

Correction: An earlier version of this post claimed that troops were deploying to Syria. That was inaccurate and I regret the error.

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David Strom 6:00 PM | February 27, 2024