On Jan. 15, the Pentagon confirmed that it will send 400 U.S. military trainers and hundreds of support personnel to the Middle East to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Initially deigned as a covert program managed by the Central Intelligence Agency, it is part of the Pentagon’s larger plan to train 5,000 vetted “moderate” fighters over the next two years.
Training and equipping foreign forces has sometimes served as a useful operational tool for achieving U.S. foreign-policy objectives. However, without commensurate diplomatic and political efforts, the achievement of vital policy objectives via this route is bound to fall short.
Iraq provides a telltale example. Retired Gen. John Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy charged with building a coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has said that the job of “standing up” a new and improved Iraqi army will take three years. His task is not easy.
“The most difficult thing is to restructure and build the army while you are in a state of war,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told Reuters on Jan. 11. “Our aim is to create a balance between both, restructuring the army in a way that will not impact the fighting.”
No one, including the Sunni fighters battling the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, has much reason to take the U.S. timetables seriously. About half of Iraq’s divisions simply melted away in the early days of the fighting against ISIL last summer. The collapse of Iraqi security forces permitted ISIL to capture and rule an area the size of Great Britain, a prize that will not be surrendered easily, if at all.
Iraq’s defunct army was “made in America” and praised as an able defender of the new Iraq by a chorus of experts and politicians. Washington lavished tens of billions to rebuild military institutions destroyed and disbanded during its decadelong occupation. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops continued to train and advise the fledgling Iraqi army until the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011.
The legacy of the U.S. training mission in Iraq is a woeful tale of exaggerated expectations, costly disappointments and mutual recrimination. Washington’s outsize claims about the success of the training efforts begun in the wake of the calamitous decision to disband Iraq’s military and cashier its officers after the U.S. invasion in 2003 were defined by wishful thinking that rarely bore any relation to the facts on the ground. As such, any suggestion about the Iraqi security institutions ability to reconstitute itself and take on ISIL should be taken with a good measure of skepticism.
“The once enormous Iraqi army, at one time seen as having the ability to change the balance of power on the eastern front against Israel, has ceased to exist,” Yaacov Aimidror, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Jerusalem Post recently. The Iraqi army remains a shell, unable to defend the country against domestic and foreign enemies. It relies on Western airstrikes, local Shia and Kurdish militias and foreign advisers from Tehran and Washington to prevent further loss of territory.
Despite this record of failure, Washington wishes to pursue a similar strategy in Syria, premised on compelling Assad to change his calculations by arming opposition fighters. The plan (PDF), according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service: “to provide overt assistance, including training, equipment, supplies and sustainment, to vetted members of the Syrian opposition and other vetted Syrians for select purposes.”
This proposal is even more problematic than the Iraq training program. Unlike Iraq, the mission in Syria is focused on providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to a nonstate actor that lacks a coherent political address. As such, the strategic objective of this effort remains the defeat of ISIL rather than a regime change in Damascus — a goal not necessarily shared by the erstwhile recipients of U.S. money and equipment.
The report identified “the Islamic State organization rather than the Syrian government as the entity from which Syrians should be protected.” Christopher M. Blanchard and Amy Belasco, the report’s authors, went on to write, “Assistance may support the defense of territory under opposition control, but assistance to support offensive operations by U.S.-trained forces [against the Assad regime] would not be explicitly authorized.”
Instead of battling Damascus, Allen is primarily concerned with stemming ISIL’s advance in the region. Training and equipping Syrian rebels does not aim at defeating Assad but in enhancing the opposition’s ability to strike a deal with him, an idea that makes more sense on paper than it does in the real world. The U.S. acknowledges there will not be a military solution in Syria.
“What we would like to see is for the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and the forces that we will ultimately generate, train and equip to become the credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognize,” Allen told Asharq al-Awsat. “We have to create so much credibility within the moderate Syrian opposition at a political level ... that they earn their spot at the table when the time comes for the political solution … but the intent is not to create a field force to liberate Damascus — that is not the intent.” The latter objective is one that the Obama administration long ago concluded was a “fantasy.”
Allen is right. Liberating Damascus is an unachievable objective. But training and equipping is no antidote for the fundamental shortcomings in political leadership and the lack of political will to invest in crafting lasting diplomatic achievements. At best, the train-and-equip missions underway in Iraq and Syria can supplement and assist the advantages of strong political institutions. But they cannot under any circumstances substitute for them.