Lawmakers skeptical of restarting Syrian rebel program

Getty Images

A push to restart the Pentagon’s program to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is facing early opposition from Congress. 

Top military and Pentagon officials stressed this week that any reboot of the program would include changes aimed at avoiding the missteps that led to the program being shut down last year after the Pentagon acknowledged it had fallen far short of its goal to train 5,000 fighters. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Gen. Lloyd Austin, who as commander of U.S. Central Command is responsible for overseeing the fight against ISIS, told senators the new program would include shorter training and “focus on smaller numbers of people that we can train on specific skills.” 

Senators, however, are voicing deep concern that a second attempt by the Pentagon would amount to little more than misspent tax dollars or, at worst, would bolster ISIS by giving them easy access to U.S. equipment. 

Questions about the Pentagon potentially restarting the program were met with raised eyebrows and barely concealed grimaces from senators in both parties, and lawmakers were quick to note the military program's past failures. 

“I think the train and equip program was so fundamentally broken that it likely can’t be salvaged,” Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyThe Trail 2016: Trump works to widen his appeal Lawmakers amplify criticism of US support for Saudi bombing campaign Congress must take action to block weapon sales to Saudi Arabia MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill. “We, with an enormous amount of oversight and lots of U.S. personnel on the ground, still couldn’t stop the weapons from getting into the hands of the wrong people. I just don’t think anything has changed on that front.” 

Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineThe Trail 2016: Control the Alt-Right Shift Simon Cowell wants Trump, Clinton on ‘America's Got Talent’ Eric Trump: It would be 'foolish' for my dad to release tax returns MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, said while he would be willing to give the Pentagon a hearing to listen to their plan, “I’m not sure the train-and-assist thing is the right way to go.” 

Kaine added the first program was “ill conceived” and there were better ways — including instituting a no fly zone — to spend U.S. money, noting, “I think a lot of people recognize that in retrospect.” 

Congress approved $500 million for the Syrian train-and-equip program in 2014 despite concerns in both chambers about the strategy and the resolve of Syrian moderate rebel fighters. About a year later, the Pentagon suspended the program after Austin said only a handful of the initial class of recruits were still fighting in Syria. 

Republicans, and some Democrats, argue that any revamp of the program must include allowing the U.S.-backed rebels to go after Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and offering support from the U.S. military if the moderate fighters are attacked by Assad. 

“If it’s going to be the same conditions that were available last time, no,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamThe Trail 2016: Clinton’s ups and downs Graham: GOP being 'left behind' under Trump Thousands of Soros docs released by alleged Russian-backed hackers MORE (R-S.C.) said when asked if he would support restarting the program. “I’d like to know, what — are we going to limit their fighting just to ISIL?” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGeneral calls McCain's Bergdahl comments 'inappropriate' Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Five takeaways from Clinton, Trump finance reports MORE (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said he didn’t believe the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program would be successful, adding that Pentagon officials are “waffling” about whether they would allow U.S.-trained troops to fight Assad. 

“Oh, we’re telling them their first priority is ISIS or something like that. I know what they’re doing,” he said, suggesting the United States is trying to placate Russia, which is supporting Assad inside Syria. 

But defending U.S.-backed Syrian rebels against Assad could open up a new front on authorizing the war against ISIS, where a debate has stalled in the Senate because of political and policy differences. 

Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerBolton would consider serving as Trump's secretary of State Trump struggles to land punches on Dems over ISIS GOP senator: Trump calling Obama ISIS founder 'went far too far' MORE (R-Tenn.) — who called the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program an “abject failure” — told The Hill that it was “beyond belief to me” that Obama hadn’t requested additional legal authority to be able to defend moderate rebels if they’re attacked by Syrian forces. 

Kaine, a major proponent for passing a new authorization, added that “there’s definitely no legal authority now to protect them from attacks from Assad, so we would need to give them additional authorities to do that.” 

Gen. Joseph Votel, who is expected to succeed Austin as the commander of Central Command, told senators this week that they would recruit groups that are focused on ISIS in an effort to “avoid the problem that we had last time.” 

He added that the new train-and-equip program was a “thickening effort. I don’t look at it in the same way as we did before as a decisive way of a large force.” 

The Pentagon’s program was separate from a CIA effort to train Syrian rebels, which has also come under fire from lawmakers who have suggested it's been targeted by Russia. 

Asked if Austin had made his request to restart the Pentagon's program to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a defense official told The Hill Friday that “at the secretary's recommendation, the President has authorized training of select individuals in key capabilities to better enable groups that are already fighting” in Syria. 

The official added that the decision was made as part of an effort to “accelerate” the fight against ISIS and “the provision of our support to these local forces will be measured against their performance.” 

Other White House and Pentagon officials are remaining tightlipped about the push to renew the program.  

A spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment on either when Obama received Carter’s recommendations or when he made his decision. 

Meanwhile, Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the Pentagon's fight against ISIS, also declined to answer a question about the train-and-equip program, telling reporters he was hopeful he would be able to talk about it "a little bit next week." 

It’s unclear what Congress would do to stop the new train-and-equip program. 

A bipartisan group of senators, including Murphy, previously tried to pass language that would have prohibited funding the Defense Department's Syria effort but were unsuccessful. 

“I suspect we’ll continue to push that initiative,” Murphy said, but he added that a “legislative prohibition” on funding would be needed.

That could be an uphill battle. Despite his skepticism, McCain suggested that he wouldn’t support directly blocking the Pentagon for restarting the program even if he doubts it will work. 

“I am extremely skeptical, because I’ve seen the movie before,” he said. “But for me to say no, you can’t do any arm and train? That’s not right.”