In conjunction with air strikes, the American mission to train and equip the Syrian moderate opposition is a central part of the Obama administration's strategy to counter ISIS. Yet this strategy and its execution are deeply flawed, say Congressional lawmakers focused on national security issues—which raises questions about whether the planned training of some 5,000 fighters will ever happen.
Congress authorized the train-and-equip mission in mid-September, but two months later, recruitment has not even begun. Instead, the time has been spent setting up a system to vet potential recruits. According to Pentagon and Congressional sources, training of opposition fighters won't begin until March or April at the earliest, and it will take a total of eight or nine months to train an initial small group of fighters.
"So far it's been slow, and it will continue to be slow, and it certainly won't be sufficient to stop the Islamic State," Senator-Elect Tom Cotton told The Daily Beast. "It's probably necessary for success in the long term, but it's far, far, far from sufficient."
House and Senate skepticism of the program is at its highest point ever. Irritated members of Congress say that the authorization of the train-and-equip mission is merely about optics. Congress hasn't actually authorized airstrikes in Syria, but approval of the train-and-equip mission in Syria makes it seem like it has, one lawmaker acknowledged frankly.
The authorization in September, before the midterm elections, was "solely for your consumption, all optics… and it worked," a GOP member of Congress said. "It was amazing, going home and people thinking that we had authorized the President to deal with Syria and Iraq… most of this was done for public consumption prior to the election."
In a candid background discussion with national security reporters last week, the lawmaker predicted that the Obama administration would never reach its goal of training more than 5,000 fighters to combat ISIS.
A different lawmaker, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who recently traveled to the Syrian border, slammed the Obama administration's plan for training and equipping the opposition as merely "for optics right now." The strategy needs to be "done in a bigger way," he said, and "has to be done with a no-fly zone… [Otherwise] we're going to train thousands of people and then send them right back in, where they're going to be killed by the air force and barrel bombs of Assad."
Even when the train-and-equip program gets underway in earnest, substantial roadblocks lie ahead, and bipartisan members of Congress warn they could imperil the entire American strategy against ISIS.
Moderate opposition fighters in Syria are already deeply frustrated with the United States over a lack of communication, coordination, and follow-through. Members of the Syrian moderate opposition want to coordinate on airstrikes, but say they have been rebuffed. They want to pass on valuable intelligence about ISIS positions, and it's ignored. They're promised supplies, and they wait for months.
"[They're frustrated by] our constant leaving them hanging, leaving them out to dry, time after time after time," said a Republican lawmaker. "Simple things, like telling them we're going to give them trucks to deliver food and ammunition… they come six to eight months after the fact. Unbelievable."
Khalid Saleh, secretary general of the Hazzm movement, a Free Syrian Army group that has received almost 50 percent of the CIA's lethal aid, went to the U.S. Congress last week and, in a series of private meetings, told lawmakers, staff, and activists that there has yet to be any engagement from the Department of Defense on the train-and-equip mission, according to several individuals present.
"There has yet to be any direct engagement between the Department of Defense and the Free Syrian Army," said Mouaz Moustafa, a spokesman for the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella group of Syrian American political advocacy organizations.
As the recruitment process begins, the question of motivation could also prove to be a hurdle. The moderate Syrian opposition emerged to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and they may balk at recruiting fighters to leave Syria and train for what could ultimately be an anti-ISIS campaign, with Assad benefiting from chaos in the rebel ranks.
"The principle motivation of the moderate opposition is to go after the regime of Bashar Assad. If they don't perceive that to be their central mission… it will pose certain recruitment challenges," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. While Schiff believes the Pentagon will ultimately train about 5,000 fighters, he warned that "far more people are going to be motivated by desire to take on the regime, than to take on ISIS. That will pose a problem in recruiting."
Added Republican Sen. John McCain, "Their enemy is Bashar Assad. Their enemy is also ISIS, but it's Bashar Assad that has killed 200,000 of them. It's Bashar Assad that has engaged in this grotesque torture and murder."
In September, Congress authorized the train-and-equip mission in Syria as part of a larger spending package. The authorization lasts until Dec. 11, coinciding with the deadline for a new government spending bill to forestall a government shutdown.
Although two months have passed since the original authorization, no training or equipping has actually occurred, and none will occur until Spring at the earliest, as the Department of Defense has acknowledged.
“We are just beginning in laying the groundwork on the [train and equip] mission,” said Maj. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for CENTCOM, the command responsible for executing the anti-ISIS strategy.
For its part, the Pentagon said that it is no surprise that it is taking some time to implement the mission. Even after training begins, it will take months to complete, and that's just starting with a small group of initial recruits. "We anticipate that when we first start training, we won't have that many [recruits] to begin with," said a defense official. "It's not that the process is going slower than expected, we've always anticipated it would take some time."
The larger strategic questions, to be determined by the White House, remain unanswered: once trained, how precisely will the recruits be used? Will they be protected with a no-fly zone? Will Assad ultimately be targeted in the military campaign?
As decisions are mulled over, moderate rebel groups and Republican hawks are urging an expansion in the scope of America's intervention in Syria, to include strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime or to create a no-fly zone in the north of the country.
"International airstrikes need to be coordinated with the [Free Syrian Army] and target Assad and Iranian-backed militias... to gain the requisite local support critical for the effectiveness of the [Department of Defense's] train and equip program," said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington.
Added Kinzinger, the Illinois rep, "We have to level the playing field in terms of creating a no-fly zone."
Sen. John McCain, who is expected to become the Senate Armed Services Committee's chairman next year, called the current administration strategy in Syria "a degree of unreality and immorality that I have not seen."
"If they train them, [the Obama administration is] now saying their mission will be to protect areas, not to defeat Bashar Assad. How do you motivate people, and say, 'go in and defend your area,' while we don't do anything Assad's air [power]?" McCain told The Daily Beast in an interview this past weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada.
--with additional reporting by Shane Harris