The Obama administration’s Syria policy has been panned by both members of Congress and U.S. allies. Recently, the man who was Obama's top diplomat for the crisis joined in.
In an interview with PBS’s “Newshour,” Robert Ford said he resigned as ambassador to Syria in February because he could no longer defend the U.S.’s ineffective approach in Syria, where Assad’s regime has gained ground over the past year as the rebels have taken to fighting amongst themselves. The U.S. has failed to adequately help the country’s moderate rebels in battles with both Assad and Islamist extremists, he said.
“We’ve consistently been behind the curve, events on the ground have been moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner.
Ford may yet get his wish for greater U.S. involvement in Syria. In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy May 29, Obama pledged to “ramp up” support for the Syrian opposition that best embodies a moderate alternative to hard-line Islamist rebels or “a brutal dictator.” He also called for Congress to authorize $5 billion in new counterterrorism funds to support U.S. allies in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.
Whether the "ramp up" will have an impact on a civil war in which Assad’s forces are resurgent is unclear. Two different U.S. programs to train, equip and arm moderate Syrian rebels have become public through news reports.
In 2013, the Washington Post reported on CIA efforts to train Syrian rebels in Jordan. In May, PBS’s “Frontline” followed members of the Free Syrian Army as they are taken to Qatar to be armed and trained through a secret U.S. program.
In both cases, rebels selected for training are vetted by U.S. operatives. They are questioned for hours about their lives before the war, their involvement with opposition forces and their personal beliefs.
In both the Qatar and Jordan programs the numbers of soldiers being trained is relatively small. The CIA program in Jordan trains fewer than 1,000 soldiers each year, and the covert operation in Qatar admits around 85 recruits every few weeks.
Additionally, fighters are receiving mainly small arms training – which puts them at a disadvantage when facing aerial attacks from the Syrian military. This year, reports of Assad forces dropping barrel bombs — explosives packed with shrapnel and rolled out of aircraft — on civilians living in rebel-held areas have increased dramatically. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that nearly 2,000 people have died as a result of barrel bombs in the northern city of Aleppo in 2014 alone.
Recently, select fighters have begun receiving anti-tank missiles, but fighters in the “Frontline” documentary told of their disappointment at not being armed with anti-aircraft missiles.
In addition, Obama’s $5 billion request to Congress may be too little, too late to have a significant impact, according to Frederic C. Hof, an adviser to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Hof writes that Obama’s proposal to negotiate with Congress and international allies lacks a sense of urgency—given that the president can increase aid to the rebels on his own. Can it be possible, he writes, “well over two years into the thorough militarization of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration lacks the requisite knowledge about pertinent legal authorities that would govern a Department of Defense role in arming, training, and equipping selected elements of the Syrian opposition?”
Hof argues that the administration has two options: commit sufficient resources to arm and train the Syrian rebels in a way that allows them to defend against government air strikes, or concede victory by Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers.
Obama’s current plan may be a recipe for further stalemate in a conflict that has already cost 100,000 lives and displaced millions, some analysts say.
“There is no urgency, there is no clarity as to whether or not that kind of support will intensify or not,” says Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, in an interview with Global Journalist. “And in going to Congress, there’s always the chance they won’t approve any help.”
Indeed polls indicate there is little public support for a greater U.S. role in the conflict. And the Obama administration has been reluctant to provide the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles for fear that they could fall into the hands of Islamists who might use them to strike at U.S. aircraft or other targets.
Still, the costs of providing too little support may be higher. If the rebels are unable to make gains on the battlefield, it will be difficult to force Assad and his Iranian supporters to make diplomatic concessions. “It’s unlikely that they will give [the rebels] the kind of weapons they need to really make a difference on the ground,” says Hilal. “So if they aren’t actually able to make a difference, then they are just protracting this war of attrition.”