Eleven months after President Obama announced plans to arm opposition fighters to confront Islamic State militants in war-torn Syria, the $500-million program to train a proxy force has yet to begin, raising questions about its viability and effectiveness.
The lack of a reliable partner on the ground has restricted the U.S. ability to gather intelligence and to target airstrikes against Islamic State leaders in Syria. The Sunni Muslim extremist group continues to lure recruits, raise money and maintain strongholds despite the U.S.-led bombing effort that began in September.
Adding to the challenge, the four countries where the military training will take place — Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — sharply disagree with Washington on what the proposed proxy force should do. They want it to focus first on ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the White House wants the fighters to target Islamic State.
The slow rollout and the competing objectives have caused friction between the U.S. and several key allies, and frustration for those in Syria who had hoped Obama’s plan would lead to more immediate U.S. assistance.
“It seemed like a good initiative, but nothing has come out of it,” Naseer Hariri, an officer for the Free Syrian Army’s First Phalanx, a U.S.-backed faction, said by phone from Amman, the Jordanian capital. “We have seen absolutely nothing on the ground.”
Partly as a result, several Persian Gulf powers and Turkey have begun arming the Army of Conquest, an umbrella opposition group that reportedly includes an Al Qaeda affiliate and other Islamist groups as well as “moderate” fighters. The Arab-backed force has dealt tactical setbacks to Assad’s troops in northwestern Syria in recent weeks, putting pressure on his government.
So far this year, U.S. officials have vetted and cleared more than 400 Syrians to receive training and light arms, and a six-week course was expected to start two months ago in Turkey. But members of the first group were unable to leave their village after it was attacked, according to a senior U.S. military official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The setbacks in Syria, the birthplace of Islamic State, have raised doubts among many in Congress about whether the administration is on track to achieve its goal of degrading and ultimately defeating the extremists.
Senior Pentagon officials say training a surrogate force was never the linchpin of U.S. strategy given the chaos and growing radicalization of Syria’s four-year civil war. The ferocious conflict has pitted dozens of armed factions against the government in Damascus, and fighters’ loyalties sometimes shift with the front lines.
“No one in the military is under the illusion that training the Syrians will be a game changer,” said the senior U.S. military official. “It’s just a part of our overall plan.”
The White House has said its first priority, before turning to Syria, is pushing Islamic State militants out of cities and towns in Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition has trained nearly 6,500 Iraqi troops, and an additional 4,500 are taking courses, according to the Pentagon.
Coalition aircraft have launched 2,200 bombing runs in Iraq, compared with 1,400 airstrikes in Syria, so far.
Operations against Islamic State around the globe were the main focus when more than 300 military representatives from 39 nations gathered last week at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where U.S. Central Command is based.
Islamic State recently sent a small number of fighters to Libya in an apparent effort to expand its self-declared Islamic caliphate, according to U.S. officials. Numerous other terrorist groups have garnered publicity by pledging allegiance to Islamic State, or carrying out attacks in its name, but it’s unclear whether they have any operational ties.
Critics say the delay in building a U.S.-backed Syrian opposition force, which Obama first announced last June, continues to hobble the broader effort. The White House insists it is seeking a political solution in Syria, and officials warn that pouring arms into the war only increases the risk the weapons will end up in the hands of Al Qaeda or Islamic State forces there.
They also say the ebb and flow of the war is difficult to predict. Some “moderate” groups initially picked for U.S. support have been wiped out or eclipsed by more extremist groups. The Pentagon was caught off-guard when the first approved trainees couldn’t even leave their village to attend the course.
“When we realized they couldn’t be pulled out, we moved on,” the senior U.S. military official said. “It’s concerning because it’s the sort of thing that could happen again.”
Obama asked Congress to fund a Syrian force after Islamic State fighters had surged into neighboring Iraq and had begun seizing major cities.
He approved airstrikes in Iraq in August, initially for humanitarian purposes, and later to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces as they fought to retake territory. When he expanded the bombing into Syria in September, finding a U.S. ally on the ground took on a new immediacy.
Congress approved the $500 million in October, and the Pentagon said it intends to train 5,400 rebels a year for the next three years. But lawmakers from both parties are now skeptical that the schedule is realistic given the complexities of the multi-sided war in Syria, and the internecine politics in the region.
“There’s a real concern on whether this can be successful,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The vetting process has drawn special criticism. Officials with the program, run from U.S. Central Command in Florida, are supposed to screen each applicant’s background against U.S. and allies’ law enforcement and intelligence databases. The goal is to weed out anyone with ties to terrorist groups or to Shiite Muslim militias backed by Assad or Iran.
“This is a glacial vetting process,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former special White House advisor for Syria who now is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington.
“Everything needs to be sped up in order to be effective,” Hof added. “That might mean having to accept more risk, but if you’re going to do something meaningful, the administration needs to expect to take some chances.”
Pentagon officials say they are going as quickly as possible in a difficult environment. “Rushing this program would be counterproductive,” said Sgt. Sheryl Lawry, spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command.
Hennigan reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman contributed to this report.