Matt Purple / Rare – 2015-09-21 00:49:56
(September 18, 2015) — Despite two years of amassing evidence that the “moderate” fighters in Syria are anything but, that the rebellion has become indelibly defined by Islamic jihadism, that neither side in this nasty civil war is even remotely compatible with American values, the Obama administration has always clung to the idea that somewhere — somewhere — lies a gleaming army of idealists immune to Salafist thought and prepared to demolish both Bashar al Assad and ISIS.
Until now. After the revelation on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon’s $500 million program in Syria had only trained and armed “four or five” rebels, even the Obama administration is admitting defeat. The New York Times reports:
By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.
But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This is as pathetic a statement as you’re likely to hear from any commander-in-chief. It calls to mind his gaffe back in 2012: “Harry Truman said the buck stops with you.”
Hawks are trumpeting yet another failure by the White House on foreign policy, one they claim could have been avoided if only we’d gotten tougher in Syria sooner. But just because the president is wrong doesn’t mean they’re right. Let’s not forget that Obama did intervene in Syria, all the way back in 2013 when the CIA began covertly arming rebels.
This program, distinct from the Pentagon’s paltrier efforts, sent thousands of Syrian fighters into combat, despite warnings from our intelligence agencies that Islamists were flooding into Syria and constituted the most powerful anti-Assad bloc.
The results were predictable: moderate groups surrendering to jihadists and jihadists capturing American-made weapons, to the point that ISIS is now motoring around Syria in US-made Humvees with US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. Meanwhile, the democratic rebels have been largely marginalized, winnowing the Syrian Civil War down to a conflict between the Assad regime and Sunni Islamists.
Moderate brigades once believed to be capable by the United States have since surrendered to either al Nusra or the regime. Arming the Syrian rebels has been such a calamity that earlier this summer the House Intelligence Committee voted to slash the CIA’s program by 20 percent.
The Pentagon’s initiative was more judicious. It sought out rebels exclusively interested in fighting ISIS and contained a rigorous screening process to weed out Islamists. The problem was, due to the unfriendly dichotomy of the Syrian Civil War, almost no one met those criteria.
Rebels were interested primarily in fighting Assad and weren’t averse to jihadist groups the way their American handlers were. Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, said: “If you insist on working only with Syrians who won’t fight the Assad government, it’s very difficult to find able-bodied fighters.”
This is what happens when you insist on viewing a strange and remote sectarian war through the rosy Western lens of secularism and democracy. The Syrian peg is never going to fit into the American hole, no matter how many weapons shipments we hammer it with. Our only solutions are less grandiose: mediating negotiations, establishing safe zones, taking in refugees.
Neoconservatives take note: we tried your idea of arming the Syrian rebels and we did it two ways, one fast and loose, the other slow and steady. Both were failures.
Matt Purple is the Deputy Editor for Rare Politics. Follow him on Twitter @MattPurple
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