White House plan to help Syrian rebels stalls, and losses mount

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The White House proposed a plan two months ago for the Pentagon to train and equip vetted Syrian rebel forces in that nation’s civil war. But since then, there’s been lots of talk and not much action. 

Administration officials have agreed on the broad outline of a proposal, which would see several hundred U.S. troops train 2,300 to 2,500 vetted rebels outside of Syria over 18 months. The Syrians could then train more forces at home. 

But lawmakers in favor of the general idea were briefed last month and balked at how few rebels would be trained. They have insisted that the White House redraw the plan. The Syrian opposition has asked for 15,000 rebels to be trained initially. 

Since then, there has been no movement. The Pentagon does not yet know where the training would take place, who would conduct it or other basic details necessary to sell the plan to Congress. 

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In the meantime, the moderate rebels are being squeezed in their two-front war, suffering losses against Sunni extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad.  

The death toll from the three-year-old conflict continues to mount and has now topped 170,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

ISIS continues to gain strength in Syria and next-door neighbor Iraq, and Assad shows no sign of stepping down. The deadliest phase of the conflict occurred in early July, when more than 1,700 people were killed in just seven days of fighting. 

Some lawmakers argue that, by the time the plan gets off the ground, events could already have rendered it ineffective.  

“It’s probably too little, too late. The Free Syrian Army has been compromised — it’s a shell of its former self — but it’s better than doing nothing,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). 

The White House insists that work on the plan is continuing. 

“We are continuing to work with departments and agencies, and with our regional partners, to refine and update planning for the implementation of a train and equip program, should Congress authorize and fund this effort,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. 

Lawmakers say they are still waiting to hear details of the plan, but the Pentagon says it can't plan until it knows how much money Congress will approve. The administration asserts it is faced with a “chicken and egg” problem. 

The White House proposed its $500 million plan as part of the 2015 defense budget, which will not be approved until September at the earliest, and may have to wait until next year.  

Defense officials say it is impossible to plan before then, because the specifics will be determined by how much money they will have. 

For example, they say it is difficult to ask a country to host the training without knowing how much the United States can offer in exchange. 

So far, only Jordan has been approached, but has so far said no, likely due to the political sensitivities that would be stoked by openly taking sides in the Syrian conflict. No other countries have been approached yet, a defense official said on condition of anonymity. 

The lack of detail has also created a chilly atmosphere on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers from both parties saying they would not approve the plan until they see more specifics. 

Several lawmakers say the Pentagon’s “chicken and egg” claim is bogus. 

“I don’t buy the chicken and egg thing. The planning can be there. The planning is always possible without the funding,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate’s leading proponent of the plan. 

“Secondly, I think that if the decision was made to be more forthcoming with the support — train and equip for the vetted Syrian opposition — I think the money would be there, even though so much time has passed now that it’s maybe overtaken by other kinds of events,” he told The Hill last week, alluding to the advance of ISIS in Iraq. 

The United States is considering providing military assistance to Iraq in order to turn back the militant group’s progress there — something which could, in turn, weaken ISIS in Syria. 

“So that’s a moving part,” Levin said. 

A former Defense official said the Pentagon is waiting for direction from the White House, which is currently bogged down with crises in Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq. 

A U.S. official said there have always been serious concerns in the Pentagon and the White House over the plan. 

The Pentagon initially resisted taking on the train-and-equip mission from the CIA, the official said. But the CIA’s program was too limited, and only directed toward rebuffing ISIS, not toppling Assad.

President Obama’s advisers have deep reservations about the plan. They worry about weapons falling into the wrong hands, and about the United States becoming more deeply involved in another Middle East conflict.  

It would not be the first time the president balked over a military engagement on Syria. Last summer, Obama prepared to strike Assad after the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, but deferred the decision to Congress, and ultimately opted for a plan to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program. 

The American public has also grown weary of foreign military intervention, after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“I think it’s a game of hot potato,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “Everyone’s trying to hedge on responsibility.” 

There are also Democrats and Republicans in Congress who say the United States should not be involved in Syria's civil war. 

Even if there were a more detailed plan, it would not take effect until Congress passes 2015 defense policy and spending bills that grant the Pentagon the necessary authority and funding. 

Congress has a small window after it reconvenes in September to pass the bills.  

If that does not happen, the bills would likely not be considered until next year, after a new Congress has settled in.

"There is no logical and effective plan for the interim," said the U.S. official. 

Those who advocate intervention say it is not too late for the United States to avoid ceding the fight to ISIS or Assad. 

Leaders of the Syrian opposition, who have not seen a plan either, are planning to submit a proposal to the White House to show how they would exercise oversight for the train and equip program.  

"The United States must immediately seize the opportunity to defeat ISIS," said Oubai Shahbandar, strategic communications advisor to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. 

"It's not too late. The White House must move with the urgency the situation on the ground requires."  

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