On Friday, we checked in on the Pentagon’s ongoing effort to recruit, vet, and train ambitious "freedom fighters" to join the battle against ISIS in Syria.
It goes without saying that covert US efforts to aid the multifarious groups vying for control of the country have met with disastrous consequences so far, but if there’s anything Washington is particularly adept at, it’s making bad foreign policy outcomes worse, which is why we weren’t at all surprised to learn that the commander of the Pentagon's new Syrian "force" was captured, along with his deputy, by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra last week near the border with Turkey.
The NY Times called the kidnapping "perhaps [the] most embarrassing setback yet," for Washington’s ragtag contingent of volunteer militiamen and indeed, the fact that the Pentagon had hoped to field a "force" of 3,000 men by the end of the year but has so far only managed to train 54 speaks to the futility of the entire effort.
Or perhaps not. It all depends on what the real aim behind the program was in the first place. If the goal was to field a fierce band of well-trained warriors to rout Islamic State, then things aren’t going so well. If, however, the idea was simply to give the US an excuse to get directly involved in facilitating the swift demise of Bashar al-Assad now that his forces have been largely decimated by a three-front war, well it’s mission accomplished, because as WSJ reports, President Obama has now authorized US airstrikes against Assad’s army in the event they interfere with America’s very serious 50 solider effort to combat ISIS. Here’s more:
President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. officials said the decision ended a monthslong debate over the role the American military should play in supporting its few allies on the battlefield in Syria. Administration officials had been deeply concerned that defending the Pentagon-backed force could inadvertently open the first open conflict with the Assad government, which has denounced the U.S. program.
Though the new rules allow Pentagon strikes to defend the U.S.-allied force against any regime attacks, U.S. military officials played down the chances of a direct confrontation, at least in the near term. The newly trained force has committed to fighting Islamic State, not the regime, and won’t be fielded in areas the regime controls. U.S. officials say they believe the regime won’t challenge the new force.
Officials said another impetus for the decision was the recent insertion of the first group of Pentagon-trained fighters into northern Syria, where last week they were ambushed by al Qaeda-linked fighters.
The Pentagon has struggled to recruit and vet rebels for the new train-and-equip program which it launched last year, in part because the U.S. is asking them to fight Islamic State instead of the Assad regime. Most rebels see the government as their main enemy. U.S. military officials say fewer than 60 rebels have completed the Pentagon training program and re-entered the fight so far, casting doubt on the effort.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has acknowledged the recruitment problems, but he has said the effort is essential to the administration’s strategy to turn the tide against Islamic State.
While the new rules don’t explicitly name the Assad regime, officials said the guidelines will allow the Pentagon to defend the new force against any attackers, including the regime and the Nusra Front, Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate.
"For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them," said a senior military official. "We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people."
Yes, the US isn’t looking for a fight with Assad, but now Washington is willing to concede that "engaging" the regime might be necessary should it inexplicably decide to attack a group of US-trained fighters who are ostensibly battling the same group that the regime is fighting.
Of course Assad might be forgiven for being a bit confused as to exactly what’s going on because after all, the CIA is conducting a parallel program explicitly designed to facilitate his ouster. Here’s WSJ again:
The U.S. hasn’t yet used air power to help defend the new force against the regime, and military officials made clear they hoped that day would never come because of the risk it could lead to a direct conflict between the U.S. and the Assad government, which is backed by Russia and Iran.
Last year, the Nusra Front attacked rebel groups linked to a separate train-and-equip program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. The assault pushed the CIA-backed rebels out of northern Syria.
In response, the spy agency has shifted its support to rebel units in the south. In contrast to the Pentagon program, the CIA program has been focused on fighting the Assad regime.
Obviously, this looks like a rather transparent effort to make it effectively impossible for Assad to avoid open conflict with the US. Recall that in June, when Obama was criticized for having no clear plan to combat ISIS, we suggested that in reality, the plan may be simply to wait until the Assad regime was on the ropes and then storm in to "liberate" the country from its "terror-linked" conquerors.
Of course that effort will need plenty of PR sparkle to ensure the American public gets behind the whole "boots on the ground" idea which the administration has so far pledged isn't on the table, so being able to say that the Assad regime is actively interfering with the fight against ISIS would serve as a nice cover story and indeed, don't be surprised when the reports start to trickle in that airstrikes on regime forces were necessary to "defend" Pentagon-linked freedom fighters.
Once again, ISIS is but a distraction here. The goal from the start was to destabilize the Assad government and ultimately to bring about regime change in order to facilitate the geopolitical and economic agenda of the US and its regional allies. Islamic State was and is simply a cover story. What's particularly unnerving is the degree to which the group is now being used by Turkey as an excuse to exterminate Ankara's political rivals. In other words, ISIS is no longer just a red herring for the willful usurpation of Assad - it now appears as though NATO members have been given free reign to capitalize politically and economically on the world's detestation of Islamic State.