The Pentagon’s plan to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS had already devolved into farce, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter informing Congress this month that a mere 54 had so far graduated from a program meant to produce 5,000 by the end of this year. But now the inevitable has happened: America’s new-minted counterterrorist proxies have been abducted by al Qaeda.
Colonel Nadim al-Hassan and as many as 20 other members of his U.S.-backed “Division 30” faction of Free Syrian Army rebels were kidnapped in the northern Aleppo countryside Thursday. The culprit, apparently, was Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria. A statement put out by Division 30 called for their comrades’ immediate release “to avoid bloodshed between Muslims.”
Jabhat al-Nusra has yet to comment as of Thursday afternoon.
However, a senior U.S. defense official confirmed to The Daily Beast the snatched fighters had gone through the initial vetting process to receive training in Turkey. But then, for reasons that remain unclear, they traveled to Syria before they were ready to do battle with ISIS. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, eight Division 30 members were grabbed at a checkpoint near the city of Zahart al-Malkia, about 25 miles northeast of the city of Homs. (Other reports have estimated that the number could be as high as 20.)
This latest setback to the train-and-equip program has only realized the quiet fears percolating throughout the Pentagon for months that the U.S. was essentially creating cannon fodder—rebels it was not prepared to defend in the likely event they needed defending. The raison d’être of all Syrian rebels, after all, is to overthrow at the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, not fight jihadists. And any inductees of the program were bound to have targets painted on their backs from all other comers in a complicated and gruesome four-year-old civil war with many attendant sideshow conflicts. Pro-Assad forces including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-built militias, Nusra, ISIS and even other independent rebels—all were bound to try to kill or capture Sunni Arab proxies of Washington.
“If you wanted to sabotage your strategy, this is a pretty good way to do it,” said one official advising on the process. “None of this is about achieving the objective. It is about going through the motions.”
“The Pentagon’s vetting process itself is basically an invitation to everyone who knows who these rebels are,” said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and helped train Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers. “The people being vetted out of the program know who made it through, and so Nusra, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Assad’s guys know it too.”
For this reason, the U.S. has seen its recruitment effort all but stall, despite the $600,000 spent per rebel so far. As The Daily Beast reported in May, one candidate for the program withdrew, along with as many as 1,000 men, because of the condition that they sign a declaration pledging to only use U.S.-supplied weaponry and military know-how to combat ISIS. Officials have spent at least $36 million for the recruits who have turned up and been approved.
And there’s a question as to how effectively that money has been spent. According to The New York Times, Hassan, who defected from the Syrian Arab Army, had just this week complained about how exposed, underfunded and under-outfitted his men were. He hadn’t received night-vision goggles the Pentagon promised him, and was apparently out of funds to pay Division 30’s salaries. “He also said his fighters had received assurances that American warplanes would protect them if they were attacked by government forces, not just the Islamic State militants they were slated to fight,” the Times reported. Yet Hassan also received contradictory answers from U.S. officials who suggested that they were not authorized to engage the Assad regime.
In May, Secretary Carter told reporters that the protection would likely be with surveillance drones: “If they are contested by regime forces, we would have some responsibility to help them. We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility but we have acknowledged we would have that responsibility.” But he added, “we have not determined yet all the rules of engagement under those circumstances.”
Elsewhere officials have said that they fear any American confrontation with Assad, an ally of Tehran, would sabotage the loose, ad hoc U.S.-Iranian alliance of convenience against ISIS. America tackling the Damascus regime will lead Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force to instruct Shia militias in Iraq to shoot at U.S. trainers of the Iraqi Security Forces, the thinking goes.
“It’s a tragedy, but we are not protecting them, so that’s not surprising,” Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast. “If we say that they have to fight against ISIS only, there’s other organizations [to do that with]. This program has been a disaster from the beginning, and you’re not going to recruit people who are actually willing to serve unless two things occur: one, we allow them to fight against Bashar al-Assad as well as ISIS, and, two, we protect them.”
This raises another question, though, as to when U.S. protection should begin, given that recruits are clearly capable of entering and exiting the combat zone while they’re midway through the Pentagon program. Should they be defended at the first point of their approval for the process or only after graduation? If so, in what form? Should they be offered close air support or the ability to call in airstrikes from the coalition against pro-Assad assets, much as Syrian Kurdish militias now can against ISIS ones?
“We have no idea,” the train-and-equip adviser said.
“It’s up to those guys across the [Potomac] river,” said another, a Pentagon official, pointing toward the White House.
—With additional reporting from Tim Mak.