Half a billion dollars of US spending evaporated in Syria

There’s one important fact to know in light of recent headlines about Russia’s Air Force bombing US-trained fighters in Syria, which I have pulled from the news from about two weeks ago…


Only four or five U.S-trained Syrian fighters remain on the battlefield against ISIS militants, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East acknowledged Wednesday in the face of withering criticism from senators who dismissed the training program as a “total failure” and demanded a change of strategy.

Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. is looking at better ways to deploy the Syrian forces, but he agreed that the U.S. will not reach its goal of training 5,000 in the near term.

Wall Street Journal:

If the Pentagon shifts course to focus on training small numbers of fighters, it would represent a reversal. The military has criticized the Central Intelligence Agency’s lackluster covert effort to train Syrian rebels as ineffective because it produced too few fighters.

When the Obama administration shifted the main training program to the Pentagon, the military sought to train 5,000 Syrian rebels by year’s end. But the program has been slow to get off the ground and the first group of 54 fighters to enter Syria this summer was quickly routed by rival fighters.

There’s a second important fact. Here’s the Wall Street Journal on the cost of the failed program:

Under one proposal being crafted at the Pentagon, the $500 million train-and-equip program—a core component of the U.S. Syria strategy—would be supplanted by a more modest effort focused on creating specially trained militants empowered to call in U.S. airstrikes, defense officials said.

But at least we had wasted it *before* the Russians bombed the last few guys. Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front took care of that.

US-backed Syrian rebels make great al Qaeda partners


– In November 2014, the CIA-trained and armed Harakat Hazm fighters in Syria got into a confrontation with Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in the Syrian Civil War, and basically fled the battlefield, abandoning their U.S.-supplied anti-tank weapons to the extremists.
– By late December 2014, Nusra Front had taken effective control of all major insurgent operations not aligned with ISIS. All “moderate” and “pro-Western” forces essentially joined forces with Syrian al Qaeda or were cut loose from the action.

Latest Development

McClatchy: “U.S.-backed rebels team with Islamists to capture Syrian city”

Rebels, including members of U.S.-backed groups and al Qaida’s Nusra Front, captured the strategic town of Jisr al Shughur in northwest Syria on Saturday, the second major setback for the government of President Bashar Assad in Idlib province in a month.
The latest rebel victory came surprisingly quickly, apparently aided by U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. Islamist groups announced the battle only Wednesday.
Videos posted on social media showed that U.S.-supplied TOW missiles played a critical role, destroying dozens of government tanks and vehicles. The opposition run Masar News Network reported that rebel forces captured dozens of regime troops as well as three tanks and three other armored vehicles.
The U.S. in recent months has severed relationships with some moderate rebel groups that had surrendered weapons to Nusra.

Video posted on social media Saturday showed fighters from two major groups that still receive U.S. support, Division 13 and the Sukur al Ghab Brigades, participating in the fighting, including firing TOWs.


Bill’s Inner Monologue

“Teamwork!” he cried, sarcastically, as he thought about how great it is to be a taxpaying adult in the U.S. and to have the ‘opportunity’ to covertly fund heavy arms for extremist groups in Southwest Asia, just like his parents got to do in the 1980s. “These are definitely not policy actions that will ripple back negatively later in my lifetime,” he added, cynically predicting the opposite of his words.

Maybe we can finally drop the pretenses that there’s a serious, non-extremist, independent opposition force of any military significance in Syria…

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Will the U.S. become the Syrian rebels’ air force?

United Press International, on the United States’ latest terrible idea for the Syrian war:

The U.S. will provide Toyota Hi-Lux pickup trucks to some Syrian rebels that will be equipped with machine guns, GPS devices and radios. The rebels can use the radios to call in airstrikes carried out by American B-1B bombers, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Mortars and more sophisticated anti-tank weapons may be provided as well.

Oh boy, this should work out great, based on our track record of arming the CIA’s private rebel army in Syria, Harakat Hazm, whose easy battlefield defeat resulted in Nusra Front (Syrian al Qaeda) getting anti-tank weapons.

Except this time it’s an even greater move, because now some of these incompetent rebels will be able to call in American airstrikes on god-knows-what, probably triggering an accidental war with Bashar al-Assad or some dramatic escalation.

I’m glad that coordinated air support helped save Kobani, but that’s just not the same situation as this proposal at all. Most worryingly, the people cheering the loudest for this idea are explicitly, openly hoping this will cause the United States to hit Syrian Armed Forces targets. These neo-cons want the United States to go to war in Syria. To quote The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, directly, on this:

Kimberly Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, said providing air support for the rebels is critical. But, she said, if the Obama administration doesn’t target the regime’s forces as well, it will inadvertently empower other extremists in Syria.

To re-state: Those favoring coordinated air support want the U.S. to attack the Syrian government directly.

As the article notes, even if this somehow didn’t lead to U.S. entanglement in Syria itself, it would certainly derail all the progress with Iran — both in Iraq’s war with ISIS (and problems with factionalism) and directly on nuclear negotiations.

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

Syria’s war is not over, but the revolution definitely is

The Syrian Civil War may still have a long hard slog ahead of it, but the Syrian Revolution is definitely over and the “moderate fighters” are now commanded by the religious extremists (not “moderate civilian leaders”), according to new reporting by The New York Times:

In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups.

The recent Nusra Front victory at the besieged Syrian military base at Wadi al-Deif — which had held out against rebels for two years on the primary north-south artery in Western Syria — seemed to crystallize the entire situation in one place, according to the Times sources:

The fall of the army base at Wadi al-Deif, which straddles an important supply route in Idlib Province, proved the Nusra Front’s dominance, they said. Other insurgents had long besieged the base without victory. Nusra succeeded after seizing much of the province from Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two of several groups that until recently, American officials were calling the opposition’s new hope.

Back in November I noted a story about Nusra Front crushing the CIA-backed Harakat Hazm rebel group and stealing their weapons, which was believed to include some pretty heavy hardware. That seems to have played a role in the Nusra Front victory at Wadi al-Deif:

Those groups had received sophisticated American-made TOW antitank missiles, and their commanders expected to act as the ground force in the American-led campaign against ISIS. But lately they say the flow of American aid has dwindled as Washington’s strategy shifts to building a new force from scratch.

How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: antitank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory. That means that the American-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the United States government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders.

One commander of a group that received antitank missiles said that some F.S.A. fighters were forced to operate them in the battle on behalf of the Nusra Front, which had captured them from American-backed groups — a turn of events that he worried would lead the United States to cut off support.

Earlier this month I was also reading a whole bunch of articles about how miserable life under the Syrian rebels is (in stark contrast with how normal things have returned to under regime-held areas). Based on those reports, the rebels spend most of their time attacking each other, looting their own occupied zones down to the studs, profiteering from the populace, and generally causing mayhem and misery. In some communities, such as Douma, residents are openly staging protests against the rebel authorities and counting down the days until “liberation” by the government they once opposed.

Maybe I’m biased in favor of seeing what I want to see (because I’ve been opposed to intervention and as opposed to the rebels as the regime for 2.5 years now) or maybe I’m just reading slanted sources. But the more I keep reading about what’s going on in Western Syria, the more open I am to considering that the regime might actually be the real lesser-of-two-evils at this point, even if they didn’t start out that way.

Is the regime criminal and horrific? Yes absolutely. But probably not more so than the rebels, who at this point are the ones really dragging out the misery for civilians, through direct cruelty and indirectly by refusing to concede a severely lost cause. Did the regime wildly mishandle the first year-plus of the war, to everyone’s detriment and pain? Agreed. Is the regime viscously sectarian, as critics still maintain? Yes, but so are the opponents.
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Free Syrian Arms

A gem from a Washington Post report on CIA plans to scale up their existing “secret” project to vet, train, and arm a faction of vaguely pro-American Syrian rebels in the so-called (and largely ambivalent on America) “Free Syrian Army”:

The latest setbacks came this month, when CIA-backed factions were routed by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Syria. Fighters with militias including Harakat Hazm — one of the biggest recipients of U.S. arms — fled positions in towns across northern Syria, with many leaving their weapons to be scooped up by al-Nusra. […] The weapons distributed have been mostly light arms, although Harakat Hazm was among a select group of units to be given U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles.

Cool, cool, cool. Such amazing results for Harakat Hazm (Hazzm Movement) bodes well for the even slower, still-under-development Pentagon program to train rebel fighters.

They sound about as effective and reliable as the Iraqi Army and almost as much of an accidental U.S. arms conduit to Nusra Front as the Iraqi Army was to ISIS in Mosul. Hazzm must be the inept military counterpart to the spectacular incompetence and ridiculousness of the supposed “civilian leadership” of “the Syrian opposition.”

Another funny story: Nusra Front — which the Free Syrian Army, the purported parent organization to Hazzm, has repeatedly hailed as a valued ally in the fight against Bashar al-Assad — reportedly just signed a military cooperation pact with ISIS after a year of animosity and infighting. Battlefield cooperation has already begun. (Edit on November 19, 2014: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi argues that there is very little credible evidence of a serious agreement between Nusra Front and ISIS.)

You may also remember Nusra Front for their greatest hits including the kidnap and ransom of dozens of United Nations peacekeepers captured from Golan Heights. I’m super glad we probably just accidentally gave them anti-tank weapons. I’m sure they’ll find some nice tanks to use them on, and, to be fair, we probably wouldn’t have gotten much use out of them ourselves.

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 - Wikimedia)

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 – Wikimedia)