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Conflicting Agendas, Caution Beset Pentagon’s Plans in Syria

Officials underestimated complexities of setting up a rebel ground force amid chaos of war

By Adam Entous,
Dana Ballout and
Mohammed Nour Al-Akraa
To build a rebel army, the Pentagon asked Syrian commanders last winter to nominate their best fighters. U.S. military officers spent more than a month checking each one for criminal or terrorist connections. Those who made the cut were sent to screening centers where they were questioned by American, Jordanian and Turkish officers. Then they waited, sometimes for days.
Fighters who made it to the screening centers were confused about the mission. When they learned what it was, many left. Others were found unfit, including one who showed up with open gunshot wounds. Under pressure to show operational success, the Pentagon started in July to field smaller groups than it wanted and watched from the sidelines as fighters fought the wrong enemy, or handed over equipment to al Qaeda or melted into Syria’s chaos.
The Pentagon’s effort to stand up a moderate rebel army, which would give the U.S. ground forces to fight Islamic State, has struggled since its inception to meet even its own modest goals, according to an account based on interviews with current and former U.S. officials as well as rebels who were part of the effort.
Officials now acknowledge they underestimated the complexities on the ground.
The program’s early stumbles, which follow problems with a similar Central Intelligence Agency effort, have reduced American military and diplomatic influence and left an opening for Russia—a long-standing Syrian ally—to ramp up its military assistance for the country’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Syria increasingly looks like a battleground between great powers with unequal commitments.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin began bombing regime opponents, including CIA-backed units. By contrast, President Barack Obama has moved cautiously, sending limited arms and ammunition to moderate Syrian rebels and trying, in fits and starts, to build up local forces.
Following Russia’s intervention, U.S. allies in the region, including Turkey, want the Obama administration to beef up the training effort and provide fighters with heavier weapons, a message Turkish and other officials conveyed to their American counterparts last week, according to American and Turkish officials. Doing so would mark an open challenge to Moscow and a major U.S. escalation, a situation the Obama administration has long sought to avoid.
The White House has been noncommittal. A leading proposal would scale back the mission to training small teams of “enablers” to call in airstrikes with the goal of pushing Islamic State out of areas near the Turkish border between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean. Another would speed the program by having the Pentagon vet only top commanders, rather than every fighter.
A separate plan will allow the U.S. to directly ship arms to Syrian Kurdish forces to increase pressure on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.
Asked about the setbacks at a news conference on Friday, Mr. Obama acknowledged the program “has not worked the way it was supposed to,” citing the difficulty of finding allies in Syria willing to focus on combating Islamic State instead of the Assad regime.
Pentagon officials say they knew from the outset it would be hard to build a force from Syria’s chaotic patchwork of rebel alliances. Military leaders raised questions with the White House about the mission and waited months for answers, according to current and former U.S. officials.
With spotty intelligence, officials said it was difficult, if not impossible, to figure out who was committed to America’s anti-Islamic State mission. Because the White House and Congress had so little appetite for risk, they made a priority of vetting to avoid recruiting terrorists who would turn on their trainers or run off with U.S. weapons.
Without an American presence on the battlefield, U.S. military commanders couldn’t keep track of fighters, who reported to their own Syrian leaders with their own agendas. U.S. commanders found themselves caught in the middle, under pressure to make no mistakes and to show results at the same time, officials said.
“There is no one and nothing left except for a few members who are with me now,” said Col. Mohammad Daher, who also goes by Abu Husam, a leader from the first class of recruits. “We have no weapons or equipment and we are trying to get to Turkey,” he said from Syria last month.
British and U.S. military leaders first discussed the idea of creating a rebel army in Syria in late 2011, but didn’t have political backing to proceed. Two years later, Mr. Obama authorized a limited arm-and-train program to battle the regime, led by the CIA.
To identify rebel brigades eligible to receive support, the Americans created a color-coded ranking system. Green dots were assigned to brigades deemed acceptable to all parties. Yellow dots went to borderline groups. Red dots were for radicals. Since the system’s inception, the U.S. and its allies have continued to squabble over which groups belonged in which categories, officials said.
The vetting process set up by the Americans stunned partners in the region. They complained that the White House’s risk-averse approach put U.S.-backed rebels at a disadvantage to the Assad regime, whose Russian and Iranian allies moved more swiftly and decisively.
“The Americans color-coded; The Russians invaded,” a senior Turkish official said.
Last year, the White House cautiously embraced the idea of creating a parallel military program to combat Islamic State. Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders sent private memos to the White House asking for clarification about the mission’s goals, according to current and former U.S. officials.
But the White House postponed answering some of the toughest questions until the first class crossed the border, according to those officials. Those questions included whether the U.S. would defend fighters attacked by the Assad regime or evacuate them if injured.
To start the process, the Pentagon sent word to opposition commanders to nominate fighters who were added to a master list of 7,000 to 8,000 names. Checking backgrounds was cumbersome, bogged down by different transliterations of the same names and the need to liaise with regional intelligence services because the U.S. didn’t have a complete database of its own.
Initially, the process took as long as four to six weeks per recruit. That has since been cut to between two and three weeks.
Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata, the U.S. commander running the training program, personally decided which fighters to invite for screening. Some didn’t show up for their interviews. Of those who did, some were rejected because they were underage or presented fake identification papers.
Many had little understanding of the role the Pentagon wanted them to play, U.S. officials said. The Jordanian officer peppered the recruits with questions about the al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group Nusra Front and Islamic State to detect whether they had any conflicts about the mission. The interviews lasted up to an hour.
Col. Daher, one of the first fighters to go through the screening process, said half of his group of 30 quit after finding out they would be allowed only to fight Islamic State, not the regime. Those who decided to proceed waited sometimes three days or longer for word on whether they were accepted.
U.S. military officers said they didn’t explicitly tell recruits they couldn’t fight the Assad regime, rather that the U.S. wouldn’t support them if they did so.
Military commanders wanted to train fighters in groups of up to 300, but vetting and logistical delays meant the Pentagon settled for classes of between 50 and 70.
The first group of 54 fighters was recruited mainly from the ranks of Division 30, a unit of the moderate, Western-backed rebel group Free Syrian Army. Gen. Nagata decided to insert the first group into northern Syria on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr in mid-July.
Having just graduated, the fighters had pockets full of money, the equivalent of two months of back pay, officials said.
“Their guidance was: ‘Go home. Spend Eid with your families. We’ll see you back in a few days,’” said a senior U.S. official.
The Pentagon initially wanted the first class to cross into northern Syria from southern Turkey through a relatively safe border post close to territory controlled by Syrian Kurds, according to a senior defense official. But Turkey insisted on using a crossing close to the major Syrian city of Aleppo, and Gen. Nagata agreed, the official said. This area of northern Syria was dominated by Sunni militant groups with close ties to Turkish intelligence. That change also put the U.S. recruits within easier reach of hostile Nusra forces, who operated in that area and targeted the Pentagon-trained fighters.
A spokesman for Division 30, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Iskandar, said 13 of the fighters stayed in Turkey to visit their families and were stranded when Turkey closed the border after a terrorist attack. Of those fighters who made it into Syria, about 15 joined a Division 30 commander who was fighting the regime, not Islamic State.
Abu Iskandar said seven other Pentagon-trained fighters were at the group’s command post in northern Syria when they came under attack from militants loyal to Nusra. After the battle, the vanguard force disintegrated further.
“We, who are directly in contact with the Pentagon, I swear to God, we have no clue what is going on. It is very complicated,” Abu Iskandar said in late August as his group was falling apart.
Pentagon-trained fighters said they stopped wearing military uniforms provided by the Americans, fearful of being attacked. On Sept. 19, Col. Daher withdrew from Division 30, citing a lack of American support and coordination.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said nine of 54 members of the first class were still operating with the U.S. in Syria. Abu Iskandar said all but three fighters remain.
Eager to go back into Syria, the second class of about 70 fighters crossed the border Sept. 20. Instead of heading to the front lines with Islamic State, about 30 members cut a deal with Nusra Front fighters, Pentagon officials said. In exchange for safe passage, the unit gave the al Qaeda affiliate six pickup trucks and some ammunition.
The U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees the training program, initially denied reports that fighters had turned over weapons to Nusra. They based their denial on reviewing photos of U.S. equipment tweeted out by the al Qaeda affiliate. The photos were, in fact, from the Facebook page of a fighter who graduated from the first class, officials said. In addition, the deputy commander of the unit assured Central Command that all of the unit’s weapons were accounted for and provided photographic evidence to back that up.
When the unit’s commander finally called Central Command, he acknowledged the lapse. Pentagon officials are still investigating whether any U.S.-supplied weapons were handed over. In the wake of the setbacks, the flow of new fighters to screening sites has stopped, pending a decision about the program’s future, officials said. The third Pentagon class has agreed to remain in Jordan, where it is helping train the fourth class. It is unclear when either will be sent to Syria.


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