ISTANBUL — The program to train and equip the "moderate opposition" in Syria, as long planned by the United States alongside Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ended in utter failure. What led to this global diplomatic fiasco that has left the future of Syria looking so grim?
The chain of problems began with the most basic difficulty of finding such "moderates" in Syria eager to be trained for war. Add to that the fact that the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, known as the al-Nusra Front, made a showdown with moderate forces a priority of its strategy, ultimately leading to the secular rebels turning their weapons over to the Islamists. Even those moderates who were trained and equipped by international forces criticized the strategy, stating that they did not want to fight al-Nusra, but rather the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It was back in June 2014 when U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for a budget of $500 million to train and equip militia forces to combat the even more powerful Islamist forces of ISIS. Obama asked Congress in September 2014 for additional authority and resources to train and equip the fighters.
The program, however, was met with criticism due to the uncertainty of how the "moderates" would be chosen. Questions remained, such as whether the trained men would work with al-Qaeda or other jihadist groups after returning to Syria. Turkey and the Gulf states made it clear they wanted the "moderates" to focus their fight against Assad's regime, while the U.S. never commented on that issue.
Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith announced in January that 400 trainers would be placed in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of the program. Turkey and the U.S. declared on Feb. 19 that they had, "in principle," come to terms on the train and equip mission.
A 15,000 strong "moderate army" was supposed to be created over the coming three years, with plans for 5,400 graduates from the program this year, including 2,000 trained in Turkey. But only once the program has actually started in May, was it clear that the scale of the ambitions were impossible to obtain. The U.S. news website Daily Beast reported back in May that up to 1,000 volunteers would be leaving the program because of restrictions that they only fight against ISIS, and not target Assad forces. Then in June, the Associated Press, reported only 1,500 out of the 6,000 volunteers had been accepted and all but just a few dozen were later removed from the program for not matching qualifications.
Propaganda photo of ISIS fighters in Syria — Photo: Ho/Planet Pix/ZUMA
Criticisms peaked when U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on July 7 that only 60 Syrian militia were in training. Carter"s explanation for the remarkably low number was that they had very high standards on the recruits, which fed the claims that finding "moderates" in Syria was no easy task.
Real trouble started when the first group, the 30th Division, entered Syria on July 12. Soon after, al-Nusra abducted 18 members of the division, including Turkmen commander Colonel Nadim al-Hassan and his lieutenant. Al-Nusra confiscated their weapons and vehicles. Al-Nusra later assaulted the group a second time; killing five, wounding 16, and abducting eight others. The Telegraph reported that the "moderates" did not want to fight “brother” al-Nusra forces, but rather focus on not only ISIS, but also Assad and his proxies.
More trouble has since followed, with reports that the second group entering Syria had defected and handed their weapons to Syrian authorities. This claim was officially denied but photographs appeared on social media featuring rebels with American-made weapons.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, insists that the program is not over, even if the past months and weeks make the future of train-and-equip-the-moderates as bleak as Syria itself.