assessments

In Syria, the U.S. Gives Up On Its Rebel Force

4 MINS READOct 2, 2015 | 09:01 GMT
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter walks away after speaking to the media at the Pentagon Sept. 30.
Summary

The United States has suspended its $500-million program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces known as the New Syrian Forces, or NSF. Washington was relying on the risky program to create a rebel army that could counter the Islamic State and directly respond to U.S. interests in Syria. However, already on shaky footing after Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the first batch of NSF fighters July 30, the NSF program received another devastating blow when one of its commanders handed over U.S.-supplied weapons, vehicles, and equipment to Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage. By abandoning the program, Washington risks losing its ability to influence events on the ground in Syria.

The United States is not the only country impacted by the decision to cancel the program. The initiative had fostered considerable coordination among Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This collaboration will be hard hit as the countries involved revert to focusing primarily on their respective rebel proxies in Syria, leaving Washington with less of an ability to temper the involvement of its regional partners. Turkey and the GCC will likely continue to counterbalance Russia's assistance to the Syrian government by providing increased weaponry, equipment and other forms of assistance to their preferred rebel groups — many of which the United States is unwilling to work with or see strengthened. Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir criticized Russia's backing of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and said that Riyadh is still considering a military intervention to force a regime change in Damascus. 

Turkey remains steadfast in its goal of establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria and is actively courting European countries for support. But so long as Russia continues to insist that any foreign intervention in Syria be coordinated with Damascus, a no-fly zone without U.S. support is unlikely. Despite Turkey's hostility toward Syria, Ankara is loath to move forward with the project alone, especially if it means challenging Russia. Nevertheless, given increased domestic political pressure and concern over developments in the Syrian conflict, Turkey may still push ahead with attempts to carve out a so-called buffer zone in northern Aleppo province, even if this does not amount to an outright no-fly zone.

Washington's Options

Rapid changes in Syria will force the United States to rely, at least in the short term, on successful measures already in place. The first measure is the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, which gives the coalition considerable leverage throughout the region. Turkey, for instance, will continue to push the United States to strike Islamic State elements in northern Aleppo, thereby assisting Ankara's rebel proxies and covering Turkey against the Russians. And, as long as the Islamic State poses a threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council, any efforts by the bloc to oppose it would be seriously undermined without U.S. air power. 

Second, the United States may also enhance its relationship with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (also known as the YPG) and their Free Syrian Army allies, potentially creating an opportunity to challenge the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital. The greatest obstacle to coordinating with the People's Protection Units, however, is Turkish opposition. Washington will have to tread carefully as it supports the Kurds to avoid seriously damaging its relationship with Ankara.

Finally, though the U.S. military's attempt to train the New Syrian Forces appears to have failed, it is important to remember that the United States still maintains a CIA-led initiative to train and equip Free Syrian Army rebels fighting al Assad. Though it is a less ambitious program than the one involving the NSF, and though the United States has less influence over these rebels, the CIA operation has had considerable success generating pressure on al Assad's forces. This program, with its large supply of TOW anti-tank guided munitions, is a key tool the United States can use to pressure the al Assad government and even discourage a more active Russian ground deployment in Syria. However, unlike the NSF initiative, the CIA program does not address the Islamic State problem.

What's Been Lost

None of its existing measures will enable the United States to achieve what it hoped to gain through the New Syrian Forces: influence over events in Syria and a viable opponent to the Islamic State. As it is, Washington finds its options in Syria even more constrained than before the NSF program started. The Russians have moved into Syria, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states are now less keen to follow a U.S. lead, and the Syrian rebels are less trusting of Washington's ability and motivations.

For now, the United States will be forced to react to unfolding events as it forms a new overarching strategy for Syria. Russia will drive events with its support of al Assad, and Washington will scramble to adjust to Russian moves even as it works with Moscow to deconflict its air campaign. Longer term, the United States sees a negotiated settlement to the conflict as its best option. But because of the myriad competing interests, an understanding between regional and global powers on Syria is still far off — and that assumes Syrian rebel groups would even accept such an agreement.

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