x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

US policy on training Syrian rebels needs clarity

Even if the United States only wants to achieve a stalemate in the civil war, it must provide more training for moderate rebels.

If there is any one sentence that sums up America’s reaction to the Syrian civil war, it comes from the chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers. “The situation in Syria,” he told The Washington Post last week, “is changing faster than the administration can keep up.”

That has been true since the very beginning of the Syrian crisis. The United States has been slow to act, slow to deliver on promises and consistently outmanoeuvred by other political actors, from the Assad regime, to Hizbollah, to Iran and, most recently and badly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

As the Syrian conflict morphed, first from peaceful protests, to defending civilians against retribution, to, finally, an all-out civil war, the United States has watched, uncertain who to back. That created the current situation where Islamist brigades have the clear upper-hand: better training, more money and better discipline. No wonder, then, that even “moderates” from the Free Syrian Army are joining them.

Yet now we learn from The Washington Post that the US has not even helped those it considers “moderates”, the one group it has most consistently supported. The Post reported that the CIA is planning to expand its – which is clandestine but already widely known – operation to train opposition fighters in Jordan. But the most astonishing revelation is that even if the programme is ramped up, only a few hundred fighters per month will be trained.

This raises questions about the support that the US has offered those fighting to save Syrians from the Assad regime. The regime has thrown everything it can at civilians and opposition fighters – tanks, helicopter gunships, mortar shells, chemical weapons – and yet the US believes an appropriate response is a handful of fighters trained to, as the Post pointed out, reload a magazine.

A change in the modus operandi would seem prudent. Even if the US only wishes to produce a stalemate, rather than a victory for the rebels, more trained fighters are needed. It is not the definitive answer – there will ultimately need to be an acceptable political settlement – but it is part of the jigsaw.

Without more support, Syria’s fighters will be at the mercy of the Assad regime and the better-armed Islamists. That is not a scenario Washington wants to see, but it will need to do more to prevent it occurring.