The Obama administration’s effort to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels to serve as the boots on the ground against Islamic State militants has been branded a total failure following the disclosure that after nearly $42 million spent, only four or five remain in the fight.
But that doesn’t mean Capitol Hill lawmakers, who last year allocated $500 million for the effort, aren’t ready to pull the plug on the program.
Nor do they think the U.S. should get out of the business of exporting American military know-how.
“Syria’s a mess and nobody should pretend that this will solve Syria, it won’t,” said House Armed Services Committee chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX), a longtime proponent of tapping U.S. military forces to help instruct other militaries around the globe.
Rather than scrap the Syrian effort he wants his panel, which was instrumental in giving the Defense Department the authority to launch the program, to hold hearings this fall to examine where previous, similar U.S. efforts have worked (in Columbia) and not (in Mali) and why.
“If you look around the world, we’re going to have to do lots of training and equipping and assisting. Some things have worked pretty well, some things have not and we need to understand that because we’re going to do a lot more of it,” Thornberry said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) struck a similar note. “Just because they failed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” he said right before labeling the Syria effort “an abject failure.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Lloyd Austin managed to lower the bar for the rebel effort when he told McCain’s panel that out of an initial batch of 54 graduates only a handful remained.
“It’s a small number ... we’re talking four or five,” he said, admitting there was zero chance the Pentagon would meet its original goal of 5,000 recruits a year.
“It is taking a bit longer to get things done, but it must be this way if we are to achieve lasting and positive effects,” Austin said.
To that end, DOD has not halted the thus far completely ineffectual effort. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth, testifying alongside Austin, told lawmakers around 100 more rebels are in training today.
The Pentagon is conducting a soup-to-nuts assessment of the program, a major component of President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy. While no timeline has been given for when the internal review might end, lawmakers believe that after Austin’s testimony, the department is painfully aware of their skepticism.
“It’s certainly time to reevaluate what we’re doing,” said Sen. Jack Reed (RI), the Armed Services panel’s top Democrat. “One of the realities that everyone mentions is that there has to be some indigenous force on the ground … I think we have to exhaust that option before anything else.”
Yet the former Army Ranger believes the U.S. shouldn’t “abandon this model.”
Reed noted he recently visited Ukraine, where U.S. forces are instructing that country’s military following Russia’s seizure of the Crimea last year and the ongoing separatist unrest in the east.
“In fact, our paratroopers are learning from them,” he said.
McCain chalked the Syrian program’s futility up to the “incredible ineptitude of this administration.”
He chided the Pentagon for making recruits swear an oath that they would fight ISIS, not the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of his citizens during a nearly five-year civil war.
“It’s bizarre,” McCain said before making his oft-repeated argument that the administration should bring back retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus and others who contributed to the “Surge,” the troop strategy then-President George W. Bush used in Iraq in 2007.
“It’s been done many times. Many, many times. It’s not that hard,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said DOD leaders “now know we’re looking carefully” at the Syrian rebel program “so they’re going to have some answers in the next few months, certainly before the next fiscal year.”
But, she added, “It would be naïve and wrong to rule out any efforts to help countries rise up against extremists that are killing people in their country and threatening our country.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, ‘This will never work.’ I think it’s a matter of saying, ‘We’ve got a problem with this particular train and equip mission,’” according to McCaskill.
She added it may be time for Pentagon officials to “have a gut-check moment” and admit “it’s not working.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) confessed he was “stunned” by Austin’s admission and that it crystallized the program, so central to the administration’s plan to defeat and degrade ISIS, “is a failure worse than can be imagined.”
“This can’t go on,” he said.