- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2015

The Obama administration is distancing itself from one of the biggest failures in the war on terrorism: the collapse of its $590 million program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State’s terrorist army.

Defense Undersecretary for Policy Christine Wormuth blamed Congress for the way it wrote the legislation authorizing the program. She said the task was so daunting, “I don’t think at all this was a case of poor execution.”

A House Republican staffer said Monday that a senior White House official contacted the House Armed Services Committee in the summer of 2014 and requested the train-and-equipment program. The final legislative language was written with administration approval, the source said.

President Obama has distanced himself from the failed project. He said on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday night that from the start he did not think it would work, even though his aides a year ago asked Congress to fund the program and proposed the rules.

The administration announced the program’s end last week after only a smattering of a planned 8,000-plus Syrian rebel force actually took to the battlefield. A few of them turned over American equipment to al Qaeda, badly embarrassing the White House. The final opposition fighter count: four.

Obama officials said they are starting to identify existing opposition leaders worthy of receiving unspecified amounts of coalition weapons.

On Friday, Ms. Wormuth, the Pentagon’s top policymaker, partly blamed Congress for the program’s failure to recruit Syrian opposition fighters. Language in the final bill authorized the rebels to focus on attacking the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, and not the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“Fundamentally, I think one of the major challenges we have was that the authority we have from Congress is focused on counter-ISIL,” Ms. Wormuth told reporters in a conference call. “And that gave us a very high bar in terms of recruiting. Because obviously there are many, many individuals in Syria who want to fight the regime. We were focused on identifying individuals who wanted to fight ISIL. And that’s a pretty challenging recruiting mission.”

She also challenged critics who said the Defense Department did a poor job. “I don’t think at all this was a case of poor execution,” she said.

“The folks who have been involved in this program are professionals with decades of experience training indigenous forces,” Ms. Wormuth said about bringing Syrians out of the country to train and then returning them to fight.

“We were constantly learning lessons and doing everything we could to make the program be as successful as it could,” she said. “But it was inherently a very, very complex mission.”

The House Republican staffer, who asked not to be identified, presented this chronology: A senior administration official, after having visited the region, contacted the House Armed Services Committee about creating a program to train moderate Syrians outside the country and then inject them back into Syria. This source said the White House proposal employed language that had not been shown to the Defense Department, which would have to carry out the plan.

Committee Republicans deemed the program unworkable and negotiated amended language.

Congress geared it towards the authority that the White House requested,” the aide said. “The White House sent over the initial language that was un-executable that the Pentagon never saw until we gave it to them.”

A report from the Congressional Research Service seems to disagree with Ms. Wormuth’s interpretation of the law.

Last year, Mr. Obama proposed legislative language that would authorize the U.S.-trained Syrians to defend citizens “from attacks by the Syrian regime.”

During the legislative process, which involved administration input, Congress changed that open-ended authorization to: “Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition.”

The Congressional Research Service paper said that while the law rejected explicit authority to train rebels for defending civilians against the Assad regime, such authority “may be implied by the phrases referring to ‘securing territory’ and promoting conditions for a negotiated settlement to the wider conflict.”

On “60 Minutes,” CBS correspondent Steve Kroft pressed Mr. Obama in a series of questions about the failed Syrian project.

“Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” Mr. Obama said. “My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that, as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.”

After Mr. Kroft called the failure an “embarrassment,” Mr. Obama said, “Look, there’s no doubt that it did not work.”

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