What Really Went Wrong With The US Military's Syria "Train And Equip" Program

Regular readers are no doubt familiar with The Pentagon’s ill-fated “train and assist” program for properly “vetted” Syrian rebels. 

The program was announced to quite a bit of fanfare - and quite a bit of ridicule due to the burgeoning debate over what counts as a “moderate” fighter - back in May and the idea was to field a group of fighters 5,400 strong by the end of the calendar year. In all, the effort was set to cost US taxpayers some $500 million. 

It’s not clear why anyone thought that the “new” strategy would be any more successful than previous efforts to funnel arms, money, and training to anti-Assad elements in Syria, but apparently, Washington was confident that this time around, America was going to get it “right.” 

Well, things quickly went awry and before you knew it, the vast majority of the fighters who participated in the program had either defected, been killed or kidnapped, or simply wandered off into the desert never to be heard from again. In September, US Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin told Congress that only “four or five” of the troops the US “trained and equipped” were still fighting. “Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a joke. This is just a total failure,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said.

Now, we’re beginning to get a bit of color on what exactly went wrong. According to a new piece by McClatchy, disagreements between the fighters and their trainers along with lackluster pay and a kidnapping by al-Nusra just a week into the group’s deployment doomed the project from the outset. 

Upon graduation, the first 54 fighters traveled from Turkey and Jordan back into Syria and ... promptly went on vacation. “Most had been in near-total isolation during their two months of training in Turkey and Jordan, and they wanted to see their families, many of whom had been under heavy government bombardment,” McClatchy says, adding that because “it was Ramadan, they voted to take a two-week break.” 

Almost immediately after they returned to base, al-Nusra kidnapped the commander of the unit in which they were embedded - the infamous “Division 30.” Two days later, al-Nusra kidnapped 10 of the trainees. Here’s McClatchy

On July 29, a day after U.S. aircraft had attacked an outpost of the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra seized Col. Nedim Hassan – the commander of Division 30, the rebel unit in which the trainees were to be embedded – along with seven of his men.

 

Then on July 31, Nusra attacked the headquarters of the division in a battle that ended with U.S. airstrikes and ground intervention by Kurdish militias. As many as 50 Nusra members died in the fighting, according to some reports, but Nusra managed to seize 10 graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program.

The piece goes on to detail an apparent disagreement between the fighters and their American trainers. The group’s leader - a former Syrian army commander named Amin Ibrahim - claims the recruits became frustrated with trainers’ insistence on worrying about ISIS first and Assad second. “Every day I had a meeting with them,” Ibrahim says. “We are Syrians. Our problem is with the regime. Help us to get rid of the regime,” he claims to have told his US trainers who allegedly responded by saying that the recruits “should not shoot a bullet against the regime.” 

“The Turks were always on our side,” he adds.

Who knows why the US trainers were hell bent on compelling the recruits to ignore regime forces and focus on ISIS - perhaps by that point The Pentagon was actually beginning to focus on routing the Frankenstein monster the CIA helped to create some three years earlier or perhaps the US just needed to be able to say that at least some taxpayer money was going to people whose mission it was to fight ISIS - but it certainly makes sense that the Turks weren’t on board with a plan that involved shooting more bullets at Sunni extremists than at SAA forces.

Officials in the office of the Turkish prime minister and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A Turkish security official who spoke only anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak for publication did not comment specifically on the allegation of tension between Turkish and American trainers but he made clear that Turkish officials were skeptical of the program. “The Americans live in a fictive world,” he said.

In any event, morale was so low, the recruits apparently wanted to quit. “They hated the program,” Ibrahim said. “Every day we told them, ‘We want to go home.’ ”

The narrative gets a bit convoluted from there, with Col. Mohammad Daher, Division 30’s chief of staff, saying that the YPG were regarded with suspicion by the recruits and other Syrian rebels who suspected the Kurds of working with the Syrian government and of being favored by the US government, but the punchline comes later when McClatchy recounts a dispute between the Colonel and Washington over who was going to pay for the recruits' two week "vacation":

The last straw was the amount of food the Americans provided – 200 pounds of rice and 200 pounds of kidney beans, enough for each of the course graduates for a week or two, but not for their families, who are in dire financial straits. That’s when the group voted to take two weeks off and go home.

 

“That was a mistake,” said Daher. Ibrahim concurred. “It was not a good idea. But they’d been disconnected from the world. They asked, and we agreed. We are in a revolution, not standard military life. If you say no, they’ll just go anyway.”

 

At that point, the question was who would pay for the transport. Although each had earned $225 a month for the two months of training, none had money for expenses.

 

So Ibrahim paid for 13 of his men to go to Hama. It cost $175, “two-thirds of my salary,” he said. The Americans wouldn’t reimburse him.

 

“They said they didn’t ask me to send the men to Hama,” he said.

So to summarize, US taxpayers shelled out $383 million (that's how much of the earmarked $500 million was actually spent) for the US to arm and train fighters whose mission was to go and fight other fighters whom the US also armed and trained with taxpayer dollars and while Washington was willing to spend $325 million on weapons, trucks, and other supplies, it seemingly never occurred to anyone that in order for the plan to work, the fighters would need to have enough food to eat and enough money to take care of their families.

What they got for their commitment to fight the most bloodthirsty group of jihadists the world has ever known: a bag of rice, a bag of kidney beans, and $225/month.

We close with America's pledge to the recruits as recounted by one fighter who spoke on the condition of anonymity:

“You are the first group. We will not give up on you, whatever happens."