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Without any formal announcement from Washington, the United States became further militarily committed to the civil war in Syria last week. It was reported that the first wave of a few dozen U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had crossed the Jordanian border into Syria on July 12. They were reportedly instructed to integrate themselves into other rebel units in order to increase the opposition forces’ overall combat effectiveness. Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson, wrote that rebels are expected to “coordinate with other moderate opposition forces to build trust between organizations that are countering ISIL.”
This consequential development is one of the many barely noticed examples of mission creep that have unfolded since the fight against the self-declared Islamic State began last summer. However, this latest step is unique in that it has occurred without the Obama administration offering any clarification of important questions posed by Congressional overseers over the past ten months. Unless there is a secret plan that adequately answers these questions, the Syria train-and-equip program is one of the more poorly conceived and implausible foreign policy schemes in modern history.
Since last September, military officials in the Middle East have been meeting with exiled rebel leaders and canvassing former fighters in refugee camps to assemble this force. Given the poor U.S. record of developing “moderate” proxy forces that will neither harm civilians nor eventually turn against U.S. interests, the vetting of the rebels included psychological evaluations and biometric screenings. While there are tens of thousands of rebels willing to receive training and equipment to go after the Assad regime, few are willing to fight the Islamic State. The initial plans were to train 5,400 over the first year and between 5,000 and 5,500 each consecutive year to reach 15,000. Given this ambitious agenda, senators were stunned two weeks ago when Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged, “As of July 3, we are currently training about 60 fighters,” at a reported cost of $36 million so far.
The apparent plans for the U.S.-backed rebels in Syria are murky and implausible. Former Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby described the three things the trained rebels will do in Syria: “One…to defend their own communities and their own citizens and go back to their own towns and cities and help defend their neighbors. Two, to eventually go on the offensive against ISIL inside Syria. And three, to help work with political opposition leaders towards a political solution in Syria.” The implicit threat offered both privately and publicly by Pentagon officials is that if the trained rebels do not follow this prioritized list of requirements, they will lose U.S. military support and equipment.
Given that they are explicitly backed by the United States, and have been publicly identified by local journalists, these rebels will be an especially attractive target for attacks by the Islamic State, the Syrian military, and other rebel forces. As Carter pledged last week, “We have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field.” What exactly is the extent of U.S. support beyond “some obligations”? This question has gone unanswered since the plan to train and arm Syrian rebels emerged, but it is increasingly pressing now that they are on the ground in Syria.
On September 16, 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. support to Syrian rebels was under debate: “We haven’t really done anything but come up with a concept.” Five months later, on February 24, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry said the same thing: “The authorization is such that defending those who are engaged in the fight of ISIL, it seems to me, is an important part of defeating ISIL. But that’s a debate as to how that’s implemented that is taking place in the administration.” Carter’s recent remarks were no different: “We have an obligation….We’re going to have to decide exactly under what conditions and what way we’ll make that tactical decision when we introduce them.”
Either the White House has not decided what degree of support the United States will provide, or it has simply refused to state this publicly for over ten months. Given that the United States has made such a consequential overt commitment to these rebels, this should be made plain for Congress and the American public immediately. More troubling, Carter admitted that the United States has not even told the rebels what support they would receive once they were in Syria; presumably, they are finding this out the hard way now.
One can imagine many situations where the United States would be forced to deepen its involvement in Syria’s civil war on behalf of these initial sixty rebels. For example, will the United States provide close air support if the rebels attack Syrian forces instead of the Islamic State? Will it withhold close air support when aggressors against the rebels are not the Islamic State, but rather the Syrian army, government-sponsored militias, or other rebel forces? Will it provide increasingly advanced weapons if the rebels claim they need them in order to maintain momentum (rest assured, they will request them)? Also, given that U.S.-vetted rebels are fighting alongside non-vetted rebels, will the United States provide guns and ammunition to the former, but not the latter? And what if they share? Moreover, if the rebels are facing defeat or capture like the Cuban exiles in 1961, will President Obama authorize a high-risk, helicopter-borne special operations force to extract them from Syria?
Finally, it is unknown if this arrangement is even legal under U.S. law. Back in March, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey if the military had the existing legal authority to provide air cover to Syrian rebels. Dempsey deferred to “those with that expertise.” Then again last week, Carter was asked the same thing and replied, “I am not sure about the legalities of it, Senator, to be quite honest.” That was only thirteen days ago. There has been no follow-up statement that clarifies what is the legal basis for the United States to provide air support for these rebels under any of the scenarios described above. Sadly, nobody on Capitol Hill has publicly declared that they have any problem with this.
Now that the first U.S.-backed Syrian rebels have been deployed, resolving the issue of what support the U.S. military will provide and under what legal basis is crucial as they will be vastly outmanned and outgunned by the Syrian military (178,000 forces) and Islamic State (20,000 and 31,500 fighters). Though virtually nobody in Washington appears to care about this latest instance of mission creep, the White House still should provide answers to these critical questions.