- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2015

The Obama administration’s move to partner with Turkey to carve out a “safe zone” in northern Syria is drawing increasing criticism from national security insiders on both the left and right who see a gaping hole in the plan: There aren’t enough U.S.-friendly rebels on the ground to secure and hold the territory.

To hear administration officials tell it, the plan relies heavily on an army of “moderate Syrian opposition” fighters vetted by the CIA and trained by American special operations forces. With the backing of U.S. drones and fighter jets, these rebels would clear villages and towns of Islamic State militants along the Syrian side of Turkey’s border.

But despite spending more than $250 million over the past year to recruit and train those rebels at semi-clandestine bases that U.S. officials say have been set up in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the program has produced fewer than 100 viable fighters for the ground unit known as Division 30.

What’s worse, more than a dozen of the fighters — trained at roughly $3 million a head by some estimates — have been captured recently by hardened jihadis from the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that is just as active, if not more so, than the Islamic State in Syria.

Unless the rebel training program is fixed quickly and dramatically expanded, the whole idea of carving out a safe zone is destined to fail, according to regional analysts, some of whom have otherwise supported the Obama administration’s broader strategy for countering the Islamic State.

“Despite all these investments and the fact that people in Congress voted last year to authorize $500 million to train a reliable and capable partner than can hold territory that might be seized not only from [the Islamic State], but also from Jabhat al-Nusra, the force does not seem to exist,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, who focuses on the Middle East and terrorism.

PHOTOS: Obama's Syria 'safe zone' plan lacks moderate rebels needed to carry it out

“We shouldn’t pretend that this vague idea of a safe zone is actually going to take root and produce a tangible impact on the ground unless we have a clear action plan that answers the question of what will be the ground force that holds this territory once cleared,” Mr. Katulis said.

“I think there’s probably still a window to try to accelerate the training program,” he said, “but it needs a much more serious effort than we’ve seen in the last year. Otherwise, the pieces just don’t add up and we just need to go back to the drawing board of what our strategy is.”

Problems with the program are not lost on top administration officials. “We can plainly see that the number of fighters currently enrolled in the program is far smaller than we had anticipated,” retired Marine Gen. John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy overseeing the overall fight against the Islamic State, said during an event hosted by the Center for American Progress in July.

Military commanders, Gen. Allen said, are “looking for ways to streamline our train-and-equip program’s vetting process so that we can get more recruits into the training pipeline.”

Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, has a more visceral view. “The fact of the matter is we suck at training,” Mr. Rubin said.

“The idea of a ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria is like the carrier pigeon or the dodo bird or pick your extinct species — it existed once upon a time, but now it’s extinct,” he said.

“To claim that we’re going to rely on that as the backbone of our strategy is a fantasy, and it’s a dangerous one,” he said. “Who’s going to occupy this territory is the big question, and since it’s so far unanswered, we really don’t have a strategy. What we have is rhetoric in search of a strategy.”

Others contend that the training mission has been hamstrung by an Obama administration directive that the rebels must agree to fight only Islamic State militants and to avoid combat against military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The administration has said American fighter jets and drones may retaliate if Syrian military forces target the U.S.-trained opposition rebels, but officials have stopped short of authorizing any offensive action against the Syrian forces.

Such restraints have turned off potential rebel recruits, according to a policy brief issued in early August by the Center for New American Security. “Current U.S. policy requires oppositionists seeking training to target only the Islamic State and not the Assad regime,” the brief stated. “It is small wonder that the DOD program has trained just 60 potential fighters.”

The administration appears wedded to the requirement for two central reasons. First, there are fears that targeting the Syrian military could trigger a wider and direct conventional war with the Assad regime and its backers, including Russia and Iran. Second, there is legal confusion about the extent to which the U.S. military, or its proxy forces, can engage the Syrian military without formally declaring war against Syria, which, unlike the Islamic State or other terrorist outfits, is a recognized sovereign nation.

When pressed on such questions during recent days, Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner responded that “Syria is a very complex situation.”

“Whatever steps we took would be in close consultation with Congress,” said Mr. Toner, who noted that administration officials also are “obviously in close consultations with the U.N. Security Council.”

Mr. Rubin, meanwhile, argued that the absence of a U.S.-friendly ground force in northern Syria has been exacerbated during recent weeks by the administration’s strategic push to ramp up Turkey’s involvement in the campaign against the Islamic State.

Turkish forces entered into the fight late last month in a style that exposed contradictions and confusion at the heart of the administration’s strategy and raised questions about the extent to which the Washington may be abandoning Kurdish militants whom it previously relied on as the go-to ground forces against the Islamic State.

Ankara’s first move was to bomb not just Syrian territory controlled by the Islamic State, but also to pound positions held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK — an ultra leftist, Kurdish nationalist outfit that has waged an insurgency against Turkey for decades from bases in northern Iraq.

The U.S. has long listed the PKK as a terrorist organization. But with no other reliable fighters to confront the Islamic State on the ground, the Obama administration had engaged in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement with the Kurdish group because it proved so effective against the jihadi extremists.

Administration officials deny the presence of a quid pro quo with Ankara — one in which the U.S. has given Turkish forces the green light to pound the Kurdish militants in exchange for U.S. access to coveted military bases inside Turkey.

Mr. Rubin said he is confounded by the situation. “Not only are the Turks not doing much against [the Islamic State],” he said, “they’re going after the only group that’s been effective in fighting the Islamic State.”

More broadly, Mr. Katulis criticized the administration for struggling to articulate its strategy for carving out territory from the Islamic State in northern Syria. “They’ve said ‘safe zone,’ but they’ve defined it in many ways,” he said. “It’s not been clarified with any specificity, and that’s a very big problem.”

Further, Mr. Katulis said, “somebody’s got to be held accountable,” for why the program for training Syrian rebels has born so little fruit. “I hope Congress asks these questions,” he said.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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