The Obama administration is still publicly counting on a $500 million rebel army to beat ISIS in Syria. But privately, the Pentagon brass long ago moved past its own proxy force, The Daily Beast has learned. They’ve found another group to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State instead.
In recent weeks, the handful of fighters in the administration-backed rebel army—the so-called “New Syrian Force”—have been killed, kidnapped, or fallen off the proverbial radar. But the Pentagon maintained a brave face, even after these 54 fighters (out of what was supposed to be a total of 15,000) were decimated by Islamist attacks. “We continue to see volunteers want to be a part of this program,” Air Force Colonel Pat Ryder, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters Friday.
It’s a public stance that has left many in the administration and in the defense establishment scratching their heads.
“I don’t understand why we are still training, other than to inoculate criticism. … [The administration] cannot admit it is a complete disaster,” said one senior defense adviser familiar with the U.S. approach. Even after the U.S.-trained fighters vanished, “there was no receptivity to new ideas.”
But what Ryder didn’t say is that, in the eyes of the administration, a better force had emerged—already trained, competent, organized—that posed little risk of abandoning the fight or worse yet, switching sides. They are the Syrian Kurdish militia—the Popular Protection Units or YPG, by their Kurdish initials. And they have successfully wrested Syrian territory out of ISIS’s hands.
“We knew it would be a challenge but we didn’t expect them to confront the fight they did,” said a second senior defense official, referring to the New Syrian Force. On the other hand, “the YPG is the most effective fighting force in Syria.”
According to one group, the YPG has so far reclaimed at least 11 villages from ISIS, including the Syrian city of Kobani, one of the biggest victories in the year-long campaign. And in June, the YPG regained control of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, cutting off a key ISIS conduit to weapons and supplies. Like the New Syrian Force, the YPG can call in coalition airstrikes as needed.
Along with hoping nascent Arab fighters can take on ISIS, the U.S. is now keen to work alongside as many as 50,000 proven Kurdish fighters.
For months, the U.S. struggled to find a trustworthy and reliable group of Syrians to train. With each passing month that the program, a onetime keystone of the U.S. war against ISIS, fell short, so did expectations, four administration and defense officials explained to The Daily Beast. Where U.S. officials had hoped to train 15,000-plus members of a Syrian force that would confront ISIS with U.S. air support, they instead settled for 54—who didn’t last a month on the battlefield.
Within weeks of moving on to the frontlines, and receiving airstrike support, the U.S. military conceded it lost track of the fighters in a matter of hours. They said they could not be held responsible for a force not under its command and control.
Privately, they were more blunt.
“This is not what we expected,” the second defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
“Fair to say people have been disappointed at how hard it is to get [the Syrian training program] going,” added a senior administration official. The U.S. military “has had to temper expectations.”
Pentagon officials have publicly hinted that the New Syrian Force has not delivered and they are diversifying who they pin their hopes on. In a briefing with reporters, Ryder called the New Syrian Force an “additive” one, among many tasked with defeating the terror group.
But Ryder and others refused to call training a new force a failed mission, drawing the ire of some within the U.S. military. Rather, they have said building such a force takes time.
The White House’s National Security Council said that while it is still committed to building “moderate Syrian opposition,” other forces are part of the strategy.
“Syrian opposition fighters, along with Syrian Kurdish and Turkomen fighters, and backed by coalition airpower, already have proven highly effective in countering ISIL in northeastern Syria, and we will continue to work with our regional partners and allies to achieve these objectives,” National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said in a statement, using the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS.
To fully embrace Kurdish force would complicate an already fragile strategy, two of the defense officials concluded. The Turks—who have been fighting Kurdish nationalist groups for decades and who only recently allowed U.S. strikes against ISIS to be launched from their bases—would not welcome an emboldened Kurdish force on its southern border. Neither would many of America’s Arab allies, who are also threatened by Kurdish sovereignty movements.
The New Syrian Force was conceived in the spring of 2014 when the U.S. sought a local ground force but had not seen the fighting prowess of existing militias, like the YPG. Indeed in September of that year President Obama conceded “we don’t have a strategy yet” in Syria.
But a strategy was emerging. The administration had asked for at least $500 million to create a 15,000-strong force over three years. About the time the president spoke, ISIS moved onto the Kurdish-dominated town of Kobani, and militias there, including the YPG, aggressively fought to save it.
By December, Congress approved the funding of a new Syrian force. One month later, in January of this year, Kobani fell out of ISIS hands. And with the help of nearly non-stop airstrikes near the city, Kobani has largely stayed that way.
In other words, just as funding appeared for the Syrian force, the U.S. found a reliable—and alternative—fighting partner. All the while, the U.S. kept eliminating hundreds of potential New Syrian Force recruits for either not having enough fighting experience or too murky of a background to be trusted. Still other fighters were disqualified when they refused to pledge to not go after Syrian President Bashir al-Assad; most rebels consider him to be a far bigger foe than ISIS.
The first public mention of the U.S. military move away from the New Syrian Army and toward the YPG came from Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, [July 7] when he talked about the need for “options.”
“We’re trying to form a network of partners, partners that we may not have conceived before, like the YPG, the Syrian Kurds in and around Kobani and over to the east bank of the Euphrates River,” Dempsey said.
At the same hearing Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said he was dubious that the U.S. could successfully train a foreign force, citing the 10-year effort in Iraq to build a national army there.
But yet, no one among Pentagon leaders has indicated a willingness to close the door on the New Syrian Force. Indeed, there is a second class of under 100, and according to Ryder a third class making its way through the vetting system.
But their failures are not enough to change the U.S. strategy or shun an already-approved $500 million program.
“The goal is to defend the homeland and not take a lead role,” the adviser concluded.