Obama’s Effort to Train Syrian Rebels to Fight ISIS Won’t Work
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Effort to Train Syrian Rebels to Fight ISIS Won’t Work

President Obama on Tuesday told coalition military officials from around the world that they’ve had some “important successes” against ISIS, though they face a long-term campaign with many ups and downs.

There are 60 countries in all taking part in in the U.S.-led efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS terrorists who have overrun large sections of northern Iraq and Syria since last summer. So far, the campaign has been very much a mixed bag, “with the Islamic State losing control of territory in some places while making gains in other,” reported The Washington Post.

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The campaign will have “periods of progress and setbacks,” Obama said during Tuesday’s meeting of top military officials from the U.S. and 21 other countries during a strategy session at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Yet a couple of new reports from The New York Times suggests that Obama’s overall strategy for ultimately toppling the Islamic jihadist organization may be highly flawed – and that the U.S. may face even more formidable challenges from ISIS than it thought:

  • First, an internal CIA study strongly suggests the president’s plan to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS likely will not work and is just the latest of many failed efforts by the U.S. to arm and train foreign forces to combat American enemies. The report, which is still classified, was commissioned in 2012 and 2013, when the Obama administration was deliberating about whether to intervene in the Syrian civil war against President Bashar al-Assad.  

    The CIA study, presented in the White House Situation Room, documented a sorry rate of success in these tactics throughout the CIA’s “67-year history – from Angola to Nicaragua to Cuba,” said The Times. Arguably the biggest fiasco was the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba ordered by President John F. Kennedy, in which CIA-trained Cuban guerrillas mounted a doomed invasion to fight Fidel Castro’s forces. And President Ronald Reagan suffered a major humiliation in the 1980s when the CIA tried and failed to topple Nicaragua’s Sandinista government by secretly supporting the contra rebels.

    After nixing airstrikes on the Assad regime, Obama in April 2013 authorized the CIA to begin a program to arm and train moderate rebels at a base in Jordan. Obama recently decided to expand that mission with a much larger base in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to fight ISIS in Syria.

    Obama has been adamant about not deploying U.S. ground troops to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS – so-called “boots on the ground” -- and insists it’s up to the Iraqi Army and moderate Syrian rebels to take on that onerous assignment. But the study found that the CIA was “even less effective when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground,” said The Times. The only exception was “when the CIA helped arm and train mujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s.”

Related: How the U.S. Allowed ISIS to Form a Terrorist Army

  • Second, ISIS currently controls large areas of Iraq that are strewn with highly dangerous chemical weapons left over from the regime of Saddam Hussein, said The New York Times. President George W. Bush and Congress went to war in Iraq in 2003 declaring the U.S. must destroy active weapons of mass destruction. Though U.S. troops never found those weapons, they gradually stumbled across – and physically suffered from – the remnants of long-abandoned chemical weapons programs that had been built in collaboration with the West.

    During the long U.S. occupation of Iraq, American troops began finding highly eroded chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs, according to The Times. “Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.” Some soldiers and Marines were exposed to sarin gas and a mustard agent and suffered serious burns and eye and respiratory injuries.

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Many of the chemical weapons incidents occurred around the ruins of the Muthanna State Establishment near Baghdad, the heart of the Iraqi chemical agent production in the 1980s. Since June, that compound has been under ISIS control. “These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found,” said The Times.

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