U.S. pulls plug on Syria rebel training effort; will focus on weapons supply

U.S. Defense Secretary Carter addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 8, 2015. REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR

Rebel fighters demonstrate their skills during a military display as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria

Rebel fighters demonstrate their skills during a military display as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria July 11, 2015. REUTERS/BASSAM KHABIEH

The United States will largely abandon its failed efforts to train moderate Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State, and instead provide arms and equipment directly to rebel leaders and their units on the battlefield, the Obama administration said on Friday.

The U.S. announcement marked the effective end to a short-lived $580 million program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria, after its disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.

The Pentagon said it would shift its focus away from training to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a U.S. vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.

The strategy switch comes as the Obama administration grapples with a dramatic change in the landscape in Syria’s four-year-old civil war, brought about by Russia’s military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s intervention has cast doubt on Obama’s strategy there and raised questions about U.S. influence in the region.

Washington’s announcement came as Islamic State fighters seized villages close to the northern city of Aleppo from rival insurgents, according to a monitoring group, despite an intensified Russian campaign.

Moscow is mounting air strikes and missile attacks that it says are aimed both at supporting its longtime ally Assad and combating Islamic State. Washington says Russian air strikes in Syria are targeted primarily not at Islamic State but at other rebel groups, including those that have received U.S. support.

Obama has previously questioned the notion that arming rebels would change the course of Syria’s war. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2014, he said the idea that arming the moderate Syrian opposition would make a big difference on the battlefield had “always been a fantasy.”

By vetting only rebel commanders, the new U.S. policy could raise the risk that American-supplied arms could fall into the hands of individual fighters who are anti-Western.

Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian official, said however that the United States had “pretty high confidence” in the Syrian rebels it would supply, and that the equipment would not include “higher end” arms such as anti-tank rockets and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets.

The Pentagon will provide “basic kinds of equipment” to leaders of the groups, Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters on a White House conference call.

The Syrian rebel groups that have recently won favor with Washington include Sunni Arabs and Kurds as well as Syrian Christians, U.S. officials have said.

Wormuth defended the Pentagon program launched in May that trained only 60 fighters, falling far short of the original goal of 5,400 and so working out at a cost so far of nearly $10 million per trained fighter.

“I don’t think at all this was a case of poor execution,” Wormuth said. “It was inherently a very, very complex mission,”

Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, said the new approach showed there had been “deficiencies” in the train-and-equip program that had to be addressed.

When it was launched, the program was seen as a test of Obama’s strategy of having local partners combat Islamic State militants and keeping U.S. troops off the front lines. But the program was troubled from the start, with some of the first class of fighters coming under attack from al Qaeda’s Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut.

The Pentagon confirmed last month that a group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had handed over ammunition and equipment to Nusra Front, purportedly in exchange for safe passage.


The administration has acknowledged that its efforts to attract recruits have struggled because the program was solely authorized to fight Islamic State, rather than Assad.

“No one in Syria is going to just fight ISIL … it’s doomed to fail with these restrictions,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on MSNBC, using an acronym for Islamic State. Graham has been a leading critic of the Syria policy of Obama, a Democrat.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that the plan was to supply rebel groups so that they could “make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL.”

The United States would also provide air support to rebels as they battle Islamic State, Cook said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in the statement he believed the changes would “over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria.”

U.S. support would now focus on weapons, communications gear and ammunition, another Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding the re-envisioned program would start in “days.” The official declined to say how many Syrian rebel leaders would be trained.

Another U.S. official said the new weapons supplies could eventually be channeled through vetted commanders to thousands of fighters, but declined to be more specific about the numbers.

The Pentagon did not name which groups would receive support.

Reuters reported last week that the Obama administration was considering extending support to thousands of Syrian rebel fighters, including along a stretch of the Turkey-Syria border, as part of the revamped approach to Syria.

The United States would also support members of the Syrian Arab Coalition, under that plan.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to London, Carter said the new U.S. effort would seek to enable Syrian rebels in much the way the United States had helped Kurdish forces to successfully battle Islamic State in Syria.

After Islamic State’s brutal offensive through northern Iraq in June 2014, Obama asked Congress for an initial $500 million to “train and equip” Syria’s opposition fighters, whom he later described as “the best counterweight” to Islamic State militants and a key pillar in his campaign to defeat them.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Idrees Ali, Matt Spetalnick and Warren Strobel.; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Frances Kerry)

In: reuters

Russian Troops Are in Syria, and We Have the Selfies to Prove It

Image: foreignpolicy

Image: foreignpolicy

Standing against the backdrop of Istanbul’s iconic Bosphorus bridge, a young man in combat fatigues poses for a photo holding up a colorful sign that says “I love you” in Russian. He’s not a tourist, though. The man’s name is Maxim Mazhnikov; he’s a member of Russia’s 810th marine brigade; and he posted the photo to social media to document his journey to war-torn Syria.

What Mazhnikov will do when gets there remains a bit of a mystery, but he is one of many Russian troops from the same unit that have been tracked via social media as they make their way towards Syria. According to a report by Russian investigative journalist Ruslan Leviev, growing numbers of Russian troops over the last two months have been sent to a Russian naval maintenance facility in Tartus, in western Syria. The apparent Russian military build-up there is sending alarm bells ringing in Washington, where the Obama administration worries that Moscow may be stepping up its efforts to help Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad hold on to power.

Leviev’s research, which relies on posts by troops on Russia’s two biggest social networking sites, notes a shift in the types of troops being sent to Syria, from draftees to experienced career soldiers. Many of the posts have already been taken down, but Leviev managed to track down several troops from Russia’s 810th marine brigade and monitor their movement to Syria through the photos and status updates they posted online.

This photo, taken from VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, shows Mazhnikov, a career soldier, crossing the Bosporus bridge in Istanbul en route to Tartus and was posted on March 29, 2015. (Click to enlarge.)

29_mart (1)

Photos taken from Mazhnikov’s profile on Odnoklassniki, another popular Russian networking site, show him in Syria at the Russian naval facility. The following photos were posted on Aug. 22, 2015.


Leviev also found Anatoly Golota, another member of the 810th brigade on VKontakte, whose status says “Off to Syria”.


Videos uploaded to the Internet in recent weeks have also sparked concerns that Russian forces are engaged in actual combat inside Syria. On Aug. 24, the Oryx blog, which monitors military developments in the Middle East and North Africa, pointed to combat footage filmed and posted by the media wing of Syria’s National Defence Force that showed a Russian-made BTR-82A armored vehicle near Latakia, in western Syria, with a color scheme used by Russian military units and not previously exported to Syria. As the armored vehicle is shooting in the video, orders can be heard in what appears to be Russian, raising speculation that troops sent by Moscow are taking part in fighting on the ground. Beyond the footage, however, there is little proof that Russian forces are engaged in Syria beyond their maintenance and advisory roles.

“The participation of [the] Russian fleet, special operation forces or aviation [forces] are all possible, but in very limited scale,” Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at the London-based Chatham House and a non-resident scholar at Carnegie Moscow Center, told Foreign Policy. “Putin will not send the army.”

Still, the influx of Russian troops, even if confined to Tartus, is indicative of the changing battlefield dynamics in Syria.

Since the war in Syria began, the Kremlin has been a key backer of the Assad regime, supporting Damascus economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Moscow was instrumental in helping to negotiate the deal in 2013 under which Assad gave up its chemical weapons in exchange for the U.S. rescinding plans to bomb his regime in response to his gassing of his own people. The Kremlin has been supplying weapons to the Syrian government throughout the ongoing war, and Russia has also played a role in training the Syrian military, with Russia’s former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov admitting in 2012 that Russia had “military and technical advisers” in Syria. Moreover, in October 2014, Syrian opposition fighters overran a joint Syrian-Russian listening center that was believed to be used for espionage operations.

According to Anna Borschevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute and an expert on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Moscow is using the fight against the Islamic State to try to persuade the West to allow Assad to remain in power, something that Washington and its Gulf allies have said is a precondition for any successful peace talks. Should Assad abruptly fall, the Islamic State would likely benefit the most and could control even more territory in Syria.

“This is central to Putin’s proposal on how to fight ISIS,” Borschevskaya told FP.

Moscow put forward a peace plan for Syria that envisions enlisting Assad regime and Iran in the anti-Islamic State coalition, but rounds of negotiations with Washington and Riyadh have brought no visible results.

Amid the uncertainty of the Syrian government’s longevity in the country, signs are pointing towards an even greater Russian presence in Syria — and the influx of more experienced troops, like those from the 810th brigade, to Tartus could be part of that shift.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern in a phone call to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the weekend, saying that if the reports of a Russian military buildup were true, it could dramatically escalate the conflict. Kerry’s phone call came on the heels of a Sept. 4 New York Times report that Russia had sent a military advance team to Syria, as well prefabricated housing units to an airfield near Latakia where Russian humanitarian aid and military hardware have been unloaded.

Lavrov told Kerry it was premature to talk about Russia’s participation in military operations in Syria, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman told RIA Novosti on Monday. Still, Lavrov confirmed Moscow’s military commitment to the Assad regime, saying Russia “has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combating terrorism”.

Photo taken from Maxim Mazhnikov’s Odnoklassniki profile.

In: foreignpolicy