- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2015

With President Obama’s Syria policy under new scrutiny as Russia takes a lead role in the conflict, administration officials said Friday that they will now scrap the Pentagon’s still-born program for training a “moderate” Syrian opposition rebel force — an effort that has cost millions over the past year but produced only a handful of combat-ready fighters.

Officials say the administration’s policy is being readjusted to focus instead on equipping, arming and supporting already-established Kurdish and Arab rebel groups in the ground war against the Islamic State, the extremist outfit also known as ISIS and ISIL that continues to control a vast swath of territory spanning the Syria and Iraq border.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sought to frame the policy shift in a positive light, saying in a statement that “changes we are instituting today will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria and ultimately help our campaign achieve a lasting defeat of ISIL.”

But the decision to abandon the rebel training program, which has for the past two years been a central tenet of the administration’s strategy against ISIL, suggests disarray in the White House’s overall posture toward the war in Syria that has killed at least 250,000 people and spawned a refugee crisis from the Mideast to Western Europe.

Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the new approach, said some $500 million that Congress authorized last year for the Pentagon to grow its moderate rebel vetting and training program will now be spent on equipping select rebel groups inside Syria, with limited training activity.

But details about the exact funding levels and types of weapons, as well as which specific groups will receive them remain vague.

The CIA runs a separate, covert program that began in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad. U.S. officials say that effort is having more success with its goals than the one run by the military, which only trained militants willing to promise to take on the Islamic State exclusively.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the new approach is aimed at improving U.S. support for partners on the ground in Syria. He did not spell out details but said Mr. Carter had directed that “equipment packages and weapons” be provided to “a select group of vetted leaders and their units.”

The aim, Mr. Cook said, is to work with these unspecified units “so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” using an acronym for the Islamic State.

The Associated Press reported that under the new approach, the U.S. would provide small arms and ammunition, as well as communications gear and limited training of rebel leaders, to enable established rebel groups to coordinate U.S. airstrikes in support of their ground operation.

Kurdish militias that the U.S. and its allies have been training and arming in both Syria and Iraq are expected to be primary beneficiaries of the policy shift.

While that could cause a rift between Washington and Turkey, which has targeted some Kurdish fighting groups with its own airstrikes in the region during recent months, Mr. Carter asserted that the U.S. support for Kurds in northern Syria is “an example of an effective” approach.

“That’s exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward,” the defense secretary said at a news conference in London.

He called it a “more strategic approach” than what the U.S. has been doing from the beginning. “We have been looking for now several weeks at ways to improve that program,” Mr. Carter said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the early efforts in that regard.”

Instead of fighting the Islamic State in small units, the U.S.-trained rebels would be attached to larger existing Kurdish and Arab forces. They would be equipped with U.S. communications gear and trained to provide intelligence and to designate ISIL targets for airstrikes in coordination with U.S. troops outside of Syria, the officials said.

News of the policy shift came as Russia continued to ramp up its own military involvement in Syria’s war.

Russia has conducted airstrikes in Syria since late-September. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his goal is to target ISIL, Russian fighter jets have also hit other rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime — including groups that the U.S. has been trying to help arm and finance for the past three years.

The fate of the Assad regime, meanwhile, remains a bone of contention between Washington and Moscow. Obama administration officials have for years called for Mr. Assad’s ouster on grounds he has authorized the Syrian military to engage in genocide-like attacks — including assaults with chemical weapons — on innocent Syrians during the nation’s four-year, multi-front civil war.

But Mr. Putin appears increasingly determined to protect the Syrian leader.

Reuters reported that Syrian troops and allied militia backed by a fresh wave of Russian airstrikes and cruise missiles fired from warships attacked rebel forces on Thursday as the government extended an offensive to recapture territory in the west of the country.

The assault focused on western areas where rebel advances earlier this year had threatened the coastal region vital to Mr. Assad’s support base.

The Russian Defence Ministry said it fired missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea for a second day and had hit weapons factories, arms dumps, command centers and training camps.

U.S. officials said they believed four Russian cruise missiles bound for Syria had crashed en route in Iran. Russia’s Defence Ministry insisted the missiles had reached their targets in Syria.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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