Experts fear US abandoning Syrian rebels

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The Obama administration is allowing moderate Syrian rebels, which the U.S. spent hundreds of millions training and equipping, to be slowly destroyed, experts warn.

The groups are targeted by Russian air strikes and new attacks from a Kurdish militia known as the YPG that's also backed by the U.S.

The attacks have led to criticism that the administration is standing by while its allies are killed. But the debate also highlights the confusing nature of the Syrian conflict, and the difficulties the Obama administration has faced in finding local forces on the ground in Syria. 

"You can use the cliche of choice — it's a deal with the devil or beggars can't be choosers," said Frederic C. Hof, who served as President Obama's special adviser for the transition in Syria.

The administration launched the CIA program to train and equip the rebels with hopes of building a moderate Sunni ground force in Syria that would pressure the regime of Bashar Assad to negotiate a political solution. Officials also believed that force could help enforce the peace under a new Syrian government.

Separately, the Pentagon began a $500-million effort to train moderate opposition rebels, but the program struggled to find recruits who would only target ISIS and not the Syrian regime and was effectively ended after the U.S. spent $384 million to field 145 fighters, which the Pentagon says are still active.

Officials say it's just not realistic to protect the rebels from the Russians or the Kurdish militia, which receives U.S. support including ammunition and airstrikes.

Officials and experts say the U.S. is choosing the Kurdish YPG militia over the rebels.

"By and large the only people who have been willing to fight ISIS on the ground in Eastern Syria is this Kurdish militia. But this militia has its own agenda. It has its own objective. Its objective is to establish a Kurdish autonomous zone, " said Hof, who is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The YPG is also working with the Russians and the regime against the rebels, a U.S. official said. The militia has even given Russian air forces the coordinates to a rebel headquarters in northern Syria, the official said.

State Department press secretary John Kirby, though, defended U.S. support for the Kurdish rebels earlier this week.

"They’ve been some of the most effective fighters against Daesh, and they have been supported by the air from the coalition," he told reporters on Thursday, using a derogatory Arabic name for ISIS.  

"And going forward, I would expect that that sort of support — where and when appropriate, as before — would continue," he added.

Syria experts and critics of the administration's policy blame the situation on the decision to go after ISIS while avoiding a military confrontation with Russia or the Syrian regime at all costs.

The administration also recently came under fire for notifying Russian air forces where U.S. special operators are operating in Syria.

Officials made the move to protect U.S. forces even as the administration has blasted the air campaign for shoring up Assad and vowed not to cooperate with Russia. They say that protection did not extend to the rebel forces.

"The U.S. has rather consistently undermined the very rebels it claims to be supporting," said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Undermined is probably putting it mildly."

"If you wanted to go a little bit further, you would say betrayed, and that's certainly how the mainstream Syrian rebels view it — as a betrayal from the U.S.," he added.

Critics call the policy short-sighted and say it'll make the situation in Syria worse in the long run.

First, they say it is ruining relations with NATO ally Turkey, since the YPG is closely linked to the PKK, a terrorist group inside that country. Turkey is blaming the PKK for a bombing that killed scores of civilians earlier this week.

Critics also say not standing up for the Syrian rebels sends a message to other allies that the U.S. cannot be trusted.

"A number of our allies feel they have been let down, particularly on Syria. And that's without even talking about how the Europeans are affected by this," Hamid said.

Experts also warn that there can be no long-term Syrian peace without a moderate opposition, opening the door to ISIS or something far worse.

On Friday, the United Nations's Syrian envoy announced that international peace talks between the regime and opposition groups are being delayed.

"As of now, all the administration has is the charisma and the power of persuasion of John KerryJohn Kerry5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin US pledges to do all it can to fight 'grave threat' of nuclear North Korea Armani, Batali among guests at White House state dinner MORE, trying to persuade people like [Russian President Vladmir] Putin, [Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and Bashar al-Assad to do the right thing," Hof said.

"The problem with all of this is, it's totally dependent on the good will and the sense of humanity of those three people," he added. "There's no one else, there's no leverage."

But the administration is defending its strategy, saying support for the Kurdish militia doesn't extend to its political goals.

"We’ve been clear that we don’t support some sort of semi-autonomous zone for Kurds there in Syria," Kirby said.

"The whole reason why the Secretary’s working so hard on a political process and a political solution to the Syrian civil war is so that Syria can emerge from this whole, unified, nonsectarian and a safe and secure environment for the Syrian people to come back to and to live in and to prosper in," he added.

Updated at 6:31 p.m. EST