The Obama administration has effectively pulled the plug on the Defense Department’s $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic militants.
The decision to scrap the effort less than a year after it was overwhelmingly endorsed by Congress is an acknowledgement that it had failed to live up to expectations, including producing any considerable gains in the fight against ISIS.
Defense Department Under Secretary for Policy Christine Wormuth told reporters that the program is taking an “operation pause” but would continue to support the handful of fighters it has already trained.
The effort will no longer focus on finding and recruiting individual fighters, training them and sending them back into Syria. Instead, the Pentagon will vet leaders of rebel groups and Kurdish militias already on the ground and provide them with “basic kinds of equipment” for their fighters, Wormuth said during a conference call on Friday.
DOD officials involved in the failed training program will also try to identify other indigenous groups that might be able join the battle against the terror group. All of the groups will be backed by the U.S.-led air campaign.
The moves are unsurprising given that the DOD assistance program had suffered the kind of public, embarrassing setbacks that typically kill federal government initiatives.
Last month, U.S. Central Command chief Lloyd Austin stunned Congress when he said there were only “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters still in the field after the first cohort of troops were killed, captured or went missing.
The figure was nowhere near the intended goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.
Things didn’t improve when a few weeks later another batch of trainees surrendered their equipment to an al Qaeda affiliate in exchange for safe passage through a turbulent part of Syria.
Frustration over the program has been building in Washington. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA chief John Brennan calling for an end to the effort.
Even President Obama, who in the past held up the program as a key element in the anti-ISIS fight and a way to keep U.S. troops out of Syria, expressed dismay over its lack of results.
"I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to," he said during a press conference last week.
Critics in Congress agreed that the program was a failure, and called for more substantial changes. "The administration has had a weak, inadequate policy in Syria and a weak, inadequate policy against ISIS,” House Armed Services Committee chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said in a statement. “Adjusting one program, even if it were successful, will not solve the problem.”
Wormuth said the program’s failure wasn’t due to “poor execution” but to other factors, like conditions on the ground and the “very high bar” the administration had to meet to identify rebels who vowed only to fight ISIS and not the Assad regime.
The administration has spent around $50 million of the funds allocated for the rebel effort. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policies for all DOD initiatives, gives the president up to $600 million to spend on the effort but the administration must first talk to lawmakers and detail how the money would be used.
Carter, speaking to reporters in London on Friday, said the U.S. "remains committed" to the idea of training rebel forces but said officials "have been looking now for several weeks at ways to improve" the current program.
"I wasn't satisfied with the efforts on that regard, so we are looking at different ways to achieve basically to the same kind of strategic objective," he added. "We have devised a number of different approaches to that moving forward, and President Obama ... I think we will be hearing very shortly from him in that regard.”
Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon said he is “hopeful that this is best viewed as a redirection of the program rather than a scaling back—and I think they would have been wiser to describe it in such terms, as well.”
“If we were only training dozens at a time anyway, in practical terms the significance of the retrenchment is very minimal, and may be more than counterbalanced by the increase in weapons flows to other, existing opposition groups,” he noted.