Belmont Club

Go Back To Bulgaria

Historians writing the history of US involvement in the Syrian conflict may struggle to describe the role of Division 30, a group of Syrian rebels trained and vetted by American officers, to fight ISIS in the Middle East.  To begin with, they sound like a footnote, being a mere handful of men, not so much a “division” as their name implied, but only half again as big as a platoon.

The United States has only trained approximately 60 Syrian rebel fighters as of July 3, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, saying the number is “much smaller” than the administration hoped to train at this point.
“I said the number 60, and I can look out at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that that’s an awfully small number,” he said.

Carter’s admission highlights the increasing concern over the effectiveness of a program to train a local fighting force to combat ISIS in Syria.

The low numbers are blamed on a strict vetting process that includes ensuring the fighters are committed to combat ISIS, as opposed to the Assad regime, and passing a counter-intelligence screening.

Secondly they were wiped out within days of deployment. Vox, which is normally sympathetic to administration causes, cannot but note their cruel fate.  It headlines: “Obama’s failed plan to train the Syrian rebels, in one brutal timeline”.

President Obama’s big plan to train friendly Syrian rebels has had a really rough few days. The first 60 American-trained Syrian rebels, part of a group called Division 30, finally went onto the battlefield and almost immediately got attacked by al-Qaeda and suffered a humiliating defeat. According to the Guardian, al-Qaeda fighters killed five US-trained rebels, wounded 18, and kidnapped seven, including the unit’s commander. Half of the American-trained fighters were put out of commission within weeks of hitting the ground.

The Pentagon’s rebel training program, announced over a year ago, was supposed to be a key part of Obama’s strategy against ISIS. Clearly, it’s gone poorly. But to see just how poorly, it helps to look at this brief timeline of the Pentagon’s Syrian rebel training program. It’s not pretty ….

Perhaps worst of all, Division 30 was taken out by an enemy which the administration regarded as non-hostile. Ann Barnard and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times write that it “wasn’t supposed to happen like this”.  But it did.

While American military trainers had gone to great lengths to protect the initial group of trainees from attacks by Islamic State or Syrian Army forces, they did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.

The Nusra Front said in a statement on Friday that its aim was to eliminate Division 30 before it could gain a deeper foothold in Syria. The Nusra Front did much the same last year when it smashed the main groups that had been trained and equipped in a different American effort, one run covertly by the C.I.A.

They forgot to mention, “like it happened the last time.” Thomas Jocelyn of the Long War Journal adds that al-Qaeda has helped itself in the past to weapons taken from groups sent in by the Americans, implying that they have done so once again.

The Al Nusrah Front has consistently resisted the West’s meager attempts to build a reliable opposition force. Late last year, the Al Nusrah Front pushed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), which had reportedly received some support from the West, out of its strongholds in the Idlib province. The SRF’s demise helped pave the way for Al Nusrah and its allies in the Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) coalition to capture much of Idlib beginning in late March.

It is suspected that American-made weaponry, including anti-tank TOW missiles, fell into al Qaeda’s hands as a result of the battles against the SRF and Hazm. The weapons have been used during the jihadists’ successful assault on Idlib in March, as well as during other key confrontations with the Assad regime.

Yet in another sense Division 30, rather than being just a footnote, is the single pithiest summary of the administration’s policy in Syria.  If you understand Division 30, you will understand Obama’s approach to the Middle East.

Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast in an article headlined, “Pentagon Turns Its Anti-ISIS Rebels Into Cannon Fodder” gloomily asks: “is Washington really trying to train a rebel army in Syria? Or are they just marking fighters for death—and worse?”

The Pentagon’s plan to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS had already devolved into farce, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter informing Congress this month that a mere 54 had so far graduated from a program meant to produce 5,000 by the end of this year. But now the inevitable has happened: America’s new-minted counterterrorist proxies have been abducted by al Qaeda.

This latest setback to the train-and-equip program has only realized the quiet fears percolating throughout the Pentagon for months that the U.S. was essentially creating cannon fodder—rebels it was not prepared to defend in the likely event they needed defending.

The raison d’être of all Syrian rebels, after all, is to overthrow at the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, not fight jihadists. And any inductees of the program were bound to have targets painted on their backs from all other comers in a complicated and gruesome four-year-old civil war with many attendant sideshow conflicts. Pro-Assad forces including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-built militias, Nusra, ISIS and even other independent rebels—all were bound to try to kill or capture Sunni Arab proxies of Washington.

“If you wanted to sabotage your strategy, this is a pretty good way to do it,” said one official advising on the process. “None of this is about achieving the objective. It is about going through the motions.”

“It is about going through the motions” and really doing nothing.  William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal says this has been the plan all along. At a public level president Obama was committed to fighting ISIS.  But McGurn believes that was just a cover story for pursuing a larger policy of detente and withdrawal in the region.

One year ago this month, newsman James Foley was forced to his knees somewhere in the desert hills of Syria and beheaded. Within a month, Barack Obama had vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, which had carried out and filmed the murder. Islamic State has since moved on to even more spectacular barbarities—throwing gay men to their death from tall buildings, burning prisoners alive, drowning other imprisoned men in cages—that barely get a mention.

Two Augusts earlier, President Obama had made a similar promise when he laid down a “red line” with Syria’s Bashar Assad over chemical weapons. President Obama’s threat notwithstanding, Mr. Assad would shortly turn these weapons on women and children. He remains in power still….

The truth is, Mr. Obama has largely succeeded in what he set out to do. His priority was never about winning in Afghanistan or standing up a strong government in Iraq or any of the other tough-sounding things he has thought he needed to say to make his foreign policy sound less dovish than it is. The reality is that the Obama foreign policy has been dominated by one overarching goal: getting America the heck out of Iraq and Afghanistan no matter what.

As for Division 30, they were all about optics, talking points, PR, spin, the news cycle and all the things the political class in Washington deems real.   That these things were purchased by the lives hopes and loyalty of people who can’t vote, but who can die is regrettable but that’s how it goes.  Division 30 should have hired a lawyer that could read the fine print, who could tell them when and under what circumstances they would be entitled to support from DC.  Michael Weiss continues:

According to The New York Times, Hassan, who defected from the Syrian Arab Army, had just this week complained about how exposed, underfunded and under-outfitted his men were. He hadn’t received night-vision goggles the Pentagon promised him, and was apparently out of funds to pay Division 30’s salaries. “He also said his fighters had received assurances that American warplanes would protect them if they were attacked by government forces, not just the Islamic State militants they were slated to fight,” the Times reported. Yet Hassan also received contradictory answers from U.S. officials who suggested that they were not authorized to engage the Assad regime. …

Should they be defended at the first point of their approval for the process or only after graduation? If so, in what form? Should they be offered close air support or the ability to call in airstrikes from the coalition against pro-Assad assets, much as Syrian Kurdish militias now can against ISIS ones?

“We have no idea,” the train-and-equip adviser said.

“It’s up to those guys across the [Potomac] river,” said another, a Pentagon official, pointing toward the White House.

As president Obama keeps reminding everyone, he’s the commander in chief.  The fate of Division 30 is up to him. Given that, every Syrian thinking of entrusting his life to the chief might legitimately ask himself, what kind of politician is he?  Will he keep his word?  The question recalls the dialog from the movie Casablanca where a woman asks Rick whether she should trust Vichy officialdom to get her to safety.

Annina: We come from Bulgaria. Oh, things are very bad there, Monsieur. The devil has the people by the throat. So, Jan and I we – we do not want our children to grow up in such a country.

Rick: (He rubs the center of his forehead with two fingers.) So you decided to go to America.

Annina: What kind of a man is Captain Renault?

Rick: Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so.

Annina: No, I mean – is he trustworthy? Is his word…?

The line of questioning is vaguely similar. But mostly what is memorable was Rick’s reply. “You want my advice kid? Go back to Bulgaria.” Yes, go back to Bulgaria. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

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