A Risky U.S. Proxy Battle Against Islamic State

9 MINS READFeb 26, 2015 | 10:09 GMT
Rebel Jaish al-Islam fighters during a training session in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus on Jan. 11.
Rebel Jaish al-Islam fighters during a training session in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus on Jan. 11.
(ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and Turkey signed a deal Feb. 19 to train and equip a new force of Syrian rebels as part of a broader plan to develop ground forces in Syria necessary to defeat the Islamic State. The United States worked closely with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to develop the plan and recently included Qatar as a core member of the training program. Initial training camps will be set up in Turkey and Jordan, followed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In the absence of U.S. troops in Syria or a viable partner among the rebels, the United States has decided to create its own ground force. As with all U.S. options in Syria, however, the move carries significant risks.

The U.S. plan envisions the eventual deployment of around 1,000 U.S. troops under the leadership of U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata into the region. This force would include several hundred trainers who will cooperate with counterparts in the intelligence and military services of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. Together, they will train the new Syrian rebel force in basic military tactics, firearms, communications and command and control. The United States also announced Feb. 18 that 1,200 Syrian rebels from moderate factions have already been screened and vetted for the program. The United States expects, however, to recruit the bulk of forces from the Syrian refugee population in Turkey and Jordan.

Training is set to begin this spring, with approximately 5,000 fighters trained each year. Turkey will train around 2,000 of these. A Wall Street Journal report Feb. 17 indicated that the United States also plans to provide the rebels trained under the program with additional firepower through specially equipped pickup trucks that they could use to call in U.S. airstrikes. The new training program will be one of the largest U.S. commitments in Syria to date, but there is a possibility that it could founder or backfire.

Past Rebel Support

This is not the first time that the United States has involved itself in the training of Syrian rebels. The United States and its regional allies have carried out smaller train and equip programs through the CIA. The results, however, have not lived up to expectations. The rise of Islamist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra in particular has made it extremely difficult for the United States to support the so-called moderate Syrian rebel forces. The United States has asked the rebels it supports to demonstrate that they have clearly broken with Jabhat al-Nusra to focus on fighting the Islamic State. But the moderate rebel factions find themselves eclipsed by the firepower of Bashar al Assad's forces and their only viable ally — one that has played a critical role in numerous battles — is Jabhat al-Nusra.

Moderate rebel factions that the United States has supported with weapons in the past claim that weapons shipments have been infrequent as well as inadequate and have not made their forces substantially stronger. What the weapons assistance has done, however, is caused other, more extreme rebel factions to brand moderates as U.S. collaborators and, by extension, collaborators with the al Assad government. The fact that the United States has avoided targeting al Assad's forces but has gone after Jabhat al-Nusra fighters as recently as Feb. 19 bolsters this claim, enhancing the vulnerability of moderate factions. Consequently, numerous powerful Islamist rebel militant groups close to both the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, such as Ahrar al-Sham, have adopted Jabhat al-Nusra's view that Washington is as much an enemy as Damascus.

U.S.-equipped moderate rebel forces, particularly in northern Syria, have been unable to fend off attacks from Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. Notable among these are the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm. Fighters from Harakat Hazm and a number of other U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army groups have surrendered, disbanded, or even defected to Jabhat al-Nusra over the past few months. In the face of Jabhat al-Nusra's wrath, Harakat Hazm's core forces have had to seek protection from Jabhat al-Shamiya, a recently formed rebel coalition based in Aleppo province. Harakat Hazm has claimed, for instance, that its fighters had no choice given the disproportionate strength of Jabhat al-Nusra, but these events have understandably made Washington even more hesitant to increase support for the moderate rebels in Syria's north.

In southern Syria, however, the situation is considerably different. Here the Free Syrian Army units of the Southern Front have been far more effective in marshaling and organizing their forces. These units have benefited from increased support and direction from an operations command center in Jordan, in which the United States plays a key role. The continued support of the United States and U.S. allies has been a significant factor in the Southern Front's numerous victories over the past year. In spite of this success — and in spite of frequent official denials — even the Southern Front often works closely with Jabhat al-Nusra units. Jabhat al-Nusra forces, though outnumbered by the 30,000 Free Syrian Army fighters in the south, have proved useful in rebel offensives, often acting as shock troops spearheading attacks on strongly defended loyalist positions.

A New Effort

The United States cannot win its campaign against the Islamic State without ground forces, putting Washington in a difficult position. The political climate back home is against sending in U.S. ground troops. In Iraq, the United States can readily rely on local forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army, in spite of the shortcomings of these local forces. The rebel forces in Syria, however, have shown little desire to abandon their fight against Bashar al Assad in order to follow U.S. interests in taking down the Islamic State first. Even if the rebels could be persuaded, continued loyalist offensives on rebel strongholds would largely hamstring such efforts.

Syria's civil war is a contest of three forces, broadly defined as the rebels, the al Assad loyalists and the Islamic State. The United States hopes to bypass the fight between al Assad and the rebels in order to go directly after the Islamic State. One option to achieve this objective would be to increase support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). During the battle for Kobani the United States provided direct air support to YPG forces. The Kurdish population in Syria, however, is a distinct minority largely unable to project a presence beyond the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Syria. Furthermore, the United States must include Turkey in tackling the Islamic State in Syria by virtue of Turkey's geographic, logistical and military position. However, Turkey is adamantly against strengthening the YPG beyond the measures already taken, fearing such policies will reignite its own domestic Kurdish militant movement.

The U.S. training program aims to circumvent the pitfalls of bolstering existing players by adding a new — and hopefully more reliable — force into the mix. Unlike the disparate rebel forces already on the ground, the new force can be drawn from refugee populations in Turkey and Jordan, making it easier for U.S. civilian and military officials to vet, monitor and advise troops with the help of regional intelligence agencies. The United States also plans to act as the key logistical power behind the force and to pay fighter salaries, shaping the force's actions.

Old Program and Allies Remain

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies will continue supporting Syrian rebel forces already on the battlefield. The United States has limited its support for rebel factions in the north, but Turkey has stepped in to play an enhanced role. The Jabhat al-Shamiya coalition created in December incorporated three of Ankara's favored rebel factions — Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the Mujahideen Army and the al-Tawhid Brigade — allowing Turkey to garner significant leverage. Turkey also provides the northern rebel factions with important supply lines that run from Turkey to Aleppo province, enhancing its leverage in potential negotiations with its partners on the future direction of Syria. It also allows Ankara to pressure the al Assad government as part of wider moves against the Islamic State.

In the south, Jordan is an increasingly willing key player. With the Islamic State's immolation of the captured Jordanian pilot, Amman has expressed desire to commit more resources to the fight against the extremist group. With the backing of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Jordan is poised to support future allied strategies in Syria, especially given its strategic location. Indeed, the Jordanians have already been a significant factor in the success of the Southern Front rebels.

Risks and Limitations

Though the new training program is an attempt to avoid the complexities of supporting rebel factions, it still carries risks. Even at this early stage, Turkey is invoking the possibility that the new force could be used to target al Assad's forces. In spite of all the measures in place to direct the new group's efforts, there is no guarantee the United States could prevent it from eventually clashing with loyalist forces. Damascus has also said its forces will attack any foreign group that does not cooperate with the government, increasing the chance that the new force will have to contend with the same distraction as existing rebel groups.

Iran is also heavily invested in sustaining the al Assad regime. More direct U.S. interference in the Syrian conflict through this new force — especially if it clashes with loyalists — will threaten critical negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Iran has embedded Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units with Syrian loyalist forces, raising the risk of direct clashes with the new U.S.-backed rebel force. The most critical risk, however, is that a schism between the Iranians and the United States over Syria could spill over into what the U.S. considers the more important theater: Iraq. Iranian-backed Shiite militias could pose a threat to U.S. forces stationed there if the United States comes into direct conflict with Iran in Syria.

On top of these substantial risks there is no guarantee that the new force will succeed in defeating the Islamic State. Only 5,000 fighters are scheduled to be trained annually, limiting the force's size. The new rebel army can succeed only if it becomes a nucleus for other moderate Syrian groups and initiates a unified rebel effort in line with U.S. interests. With the many complications that could derail this process, this outcome is highly unlikely. However, in order to defeat the Islamic State, the United States needs a ground force. With no other acceptable options, Washington has chosen the least bad out of many terrible options.

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