Obama’s Syrian Rebel Force Goes AWOL and MIA

AP Photo/Virginie Nguyen Huang
AP Photo/Virginie Nguyen Huang

As mentioned last week, President Obama’s desultory attempt to influence the bloody chaos in Syria with a mere handful of U.S.-trained and equipped Syrian rebels brought contempt and stunned disbelief from across the Arab world.

Those grim tidings were punctuated with late-afternoon news that the so-called “New Syrian Force,” already rocked by al-Qaeda attacks that left a sizable portion of the unit prisoners of the terror gang, had completely disintegrated.

ABC News reports further on what would appear to be the melancholy end of the New Syrian Force, as a new attack from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front scattered the survivors:

Many of the Syrian rebels trained by the United States to fight ISIS are unaccounted for in the northern part of the country and some have been found in Turkey, a U.S. official said Thursday.

News about the uncertainty of their whereabouts came a week after the rebels were attacked by 50 fighters from the rival al-Nusra Front, a rebel group affiliated with al Qaeda. At least one of the U.S.-trained rebels was killed and others were wounded before the attack was repelled by U.S. airstrikes.

The Pentagon said earlier this week that President Obama had authorized airstrikes to defend the rebels, even from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. must rely on the 54 rebels, known as the New Syrian Forces, to report their movements since they fall under the U.S. chain of command, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said earlier Thursday. He said they have the means to communicate with the U.S. military, but that it didn’t mean they provided regular updates about their positions.

Davis added that tracking them was made difficult by current combat conditions in northern Syria.

The U.S. spent $42 million training the Syrian rebels, and we didn’t even know where they were deployed. They apparently got chased across Syria by one al-Qaeda attack after the next until some of them gave up and ran for the Turkish border.

The stench of confusion and failure hangs heavy over this entire endeavor, beginning with the sheer lunacy of sending such a small unit into harm’s way. The Pentagon spokesman insisted the training program, budgeted for a total of $500 million, is still operational, some 1500 carefully-vetted volunteers are standing by, and the next group of successful trainees will become trainers to bring the rest up to speed.

Why didn’t the first group of graduates become trainers, instead of being throw to the wolves on one of the world’s most chaotic battlefields, into a region where it was known combat conditions would make them difficult to track or support? Why not keep all troops on standby until a force large enough to make a difference, or at least defend itself effectively, could be deployed?

The obvious answer is that nobody really saw this coming. They thought al-Qaeda and its allies, and the Syrian regime, would leave this force alone, because it was loudly stated that their primary mission would be fighting ISIS. Instead of serving as a useful propaganda vehicle, the gambit turned into a rout that will make it harder than ever for the U.S. to exert meaningful influence.

Meanwhile, the Kurds—the only militarily effective U.S. allies in the area—can only dream of what they might have accomplished with $500 million in U.S. equipment and training, assuming their dreams are not interrupted by the whistle of incoming Turkish bombs.