On June 26, the White House proposed a significant program to train and equip vetted Syrian rebel forces. The United States has previously engaged with select rebel groups in Syria, namely, through a covert CIA-led arming and training program, but the $500 million requested for a new series of measures represents a marked increase in U.S. support for the rebels. Still, the proposed aid will face delays and may not come into effect until next year.
The United States reviewed a number of moderate Syrian rebel groups, the bulk of which were affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, to gauge whether partnering with reliable forces in Syria was viable. Vetting possible allies is critical because some groups are significantly more extremist than others. The overall intent and goals of a militant faction must also be considered because training and weapons will endure beyond the current Syrian conflict and will improve a group's capability for the long term. The Syrian Revolutionary Front's offensive against Islamic State militants proved that the group, along with other similarly minded formations such as Harakat Hazm and an assorted coalition of rebel forces in Daraa, are willing and able to fight against extremist forces such as the Islamic State.
Testing the Waters
In the aftermath of the early 2014 offensive that drove Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants from western Syria, Washington was encouraged enough to step up pilot programs designed to test the reliability of select rebel groups, providing them with advanced TOW anti-tank guided missiles and monitoring their use. The United States also worked with its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan to ramp up the training of Syrian rebels in Amman and Qatar in weekslong intensive courses.
U.S. officials considered the pilot program a success, stating that they acquired a deep understanding of which rebel groups were worth supporting. Any U.S. aid to rebel formations in Syria, however, comes with risk. The nature of the conflict, with its constantly shifting alliances of convenience, creates inherent problems, as does an extensive arms black market that facilitates the trade of weapons between loyalist forces and the rebels. There is also the real possibility of arms being acquired as battlefield loot by unsavory groups. Such a large influx of weapons virtually assures that some will ultimately fall into the wrong hands.
Despite encouraging results from the pilot programs, the United States must factor in illicit activity and will therefore only supply and coordinate with its allies directly, delivering weapons that are deemed of an acceptable risk should they fall into undesirable hands. This decision will very likely remain unchanged. For example, there is an acceptable risk when supplying small arms and weapons like anti-tank guided missiles but not necessarily with weapons like man-portable air defense systems. Extremist groups in Syria and Iraq already possess an anti-armor capability, and although a TOW is more advanced than a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or recoilless rifle, it does not represent a significant escalation in capability. Anti-air systems, however, have a much broader utility beyond the field of civil war. To a potential terrorist, a missile system that will down a helicopter or a fighter jet is more than capable of targeting a slow-moving civilian airliner.
As the rebels themselves often state, aid from the United States and even the Gulf Cooperation Council is not at a level that will fundamentally alter the underlying balance of power in Syria. Foreign aid to the Syrian opposition has been enough to help keep the rebels in the fight but not enough to overthrow the entrenched regime. Al Assad's regime continues to receive significantly more foreign aid (from Iran, Hezbollah, Shiite foreign fighters and Russia, among others) than the rebels.
The announced $500 million aid boost, unless accompanied by a simultaneous and massive increase in Gulf Cooperation Council aid, will likely translate into marginal operational gains for the rebels. A TOW 2 missile costs approximately $60,000, so in theory $500 million could deliver more than 8,000 TOW missiles (not accounting for the cost of reusable launch posts). In actuality, the aid money will likely be used to fund training, weaponry and other less flashy but equally important supplies such as communication devices, body armor, rations, medical kits and so on.
It is no coincidence that the amount of aid will be enough to pressure the regime but not enough to topple it. The United States has been clear about its intention to support the rebels in an effort to coerce the al Assad regime back to the negotiating table, with the ultimate aim being a power-sharing deal that integrates Sunnis into the government and gives Washington at least some semblance of a resolution to the civil war. Currently, with forces loyal to al Assad making considerable gains during the last year and with continued support from foreign allies, the regime is not motivated to cease pursuit of a military strategy against the rebels as its preferred method of dealing with the crisis.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have stated that increased support for the moderate rebel forces would help them push back against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. Assuming that Washington will deliver enhanced aid to the same factions previously vetted and supplied weapons through the pilot programs, the moderate Syrian rebel factions are not in a position to seriously threaten Islamic State elements unless a significant alteration occurs in the control and administration within Syria. Part of the problem lies in the fact that, having chased the Islamic State from western Aleppo, the moderate Syrian rebel groups, such as the Syrian Revolutionary Front, are facing off against better-equipped loyalist forces. In the east the Islamic State continues to clash with the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, neither of which are being supported by the United States.
Current U.S. aid to the moderate rebel factions in Syria is not a panacea, but it does serve multiple functions. The aid placates Washington's Sunni allies, which are increasingly alarmed at the U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Whether Washington is talking to Tehran about its nuclear program or the situation in Iraq, the dialogue intensifies pressure on the al Assad regime to come to the negotiating table, and it helps moderate factions ward off Islamic State penetration of western Syria. The aid, while significant, will not by itself serve to topple the regime, nor will it severely affect the Islamic State's ability to conduct operations in eastern Syria or Iraq.