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America's Syria dilemma

Spencer KimballJuly 11, 2015

US efforts to recruit moderate rebels are not going well. With "Islamic State" now enemy number one, the White House has tacitly forged an alliance with its old adversary: Bashar al-Assad. Spencer Kimball reports.

Syrien Wahlkampf Bashar al Assad
Image: Phil Moore/AFP/GettyImages

America's rebel army in Syria has instructions not to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The main enemy is the "Islamic State" (IS). Not that the pro-Western militia poses a threat to either. So far, Washington has only trained 60 fighters.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged as much this week, telling Congress that the number falls far below the Pentagon's original expectations. The secretary's admission triggered consternation among President Barack Obama's opponents and damage control by his supporters.

"Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends," Senator John McCain said during a committee hearing. "That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing."

Why has the US trained so few rebels? There's a strict vetting process, which according to Carter ensures that recruits are committed to fighting IS as their first priority and will obey the laws of armed conflict.

According to Syria expert David Lesch, the Obama administration has been cautious because it fears US arms could fall into the hands of Islamist radicals: "which has happened on a consistent basis, including US aligned rebel groups' weapons depots being overrun by Islamist groups."

Syrien Al Nusra Kämpfer
Hawks have criticized Obama for not acting before Islamist groups filled the vacuumImage: Reuters/A. Abdullah

What moderate opposition?

Some 7,000 recruits are currently being screened, according to the defense secretary. The Pentagon's goal is to train more than 5,000 fighters annually and build a force of more than 15,000 fighters in three years. They receive a monthly stipend of between $250-$400 from Washington.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes there are few moderate fighters left in Syria. But there's a strong financial incentive to join the US.

"There are tons of Syrians who will do just about anything for a salary," Landis, who writes for Syria Comment, told DW. "Not anything, but they'll certainly take the money."

Senator John McCain and other congressional hawks have long criticized the Obama administration for not intervening and training rebels earlier, before jihadist groups like al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra and IS moved in.

But Landis doesn't put much stock in those arguments. Despite the president's efforts, there simply wasn't a unified opposition to do business with, the Syria expert said.

"He tried to see if he could get some unity amongst the Syrian militias and he couldn't," Landis told DW. "And that sent a loud message, which is he can't control the situation."

Tacit alliance with Assad

When the Syrian uprising first erupted, President Obama's position was clear - President Bashar al-Assad had to go. But today, the situation is more complicated. Damascus is a secular power with an organized military that opposes IS.

"There has been a strategic alliance between Assad and the United States the moment the United States declared war on ISIS," Landis told DW, using a common acronym for the IS.

But for the rebels on the ground, the main goal remains overthrowing Assad, putting them at odds with the White House's new priority.

Kämpfe zwischen syrischen Regierungstruppen und Rebellen in Daraa
It has been difficult to find much unity among the opponents of AssadImage: picture alliance/AA/I. Hariri

"Almost all of the armed opposition want to fight the Assad regime and not ISIS," David Lesch told DW. The Trinity University professor led researchers to the region and spoke with many of the major players in the Syrian civil war during the period of 2012-2013.

"The clear priority is the regime; after Assad is removed, then they will fight the Islamic State," Lesch said.

'They're all enemies of America'

According to Landis, although White House rhetoric toward Assad has softened, the US still would like to see him removed. It's a temporary alliance of convenience until the Islamic State is defeated.

Punishing economic sanctions remain in place against the regime, and key US allies in the region - Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states - want Iran's main regional ally gone.

"America wants to destroy Assad and weaken him," Landis said. "America is trying to destroy all the major powers in Syria. They're all enemies of America."

"Some of the American military people think this way," he continued. "Though they never articulate it to the press, because it seems very un-American, and it would contradict the talking points of the State Department and the president."