Obama’s Training of Syrian Rebels: Another Exercise in Public-Relations

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on May 2, 2014

Bashar az-Zoubi, leader of Liwa al-Yarmouk, the biggest brigade in Deraa and one of the biggest on the Southern Front. He is one of the main people President Obama’s ostensible switch to focussing on the south of Syria is supposed to benefit.

At the beginning of last month, the first solid evidence was presented of Syrian insurgents being trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Sara Williams of Vice.com caught up with a 20-year-old fighter who was trained in Jordan.

‘I was selected by the brigade commander to go to training camp,’ he says. ‘I was told we would be trained on heavy weapons and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.’ … The next morning, Fighter A and 39 other young men like him headed south into Jordan, their journey jointly choreographed by [Deraa’s] FSA military council and, allegedly, Jordanian intelligence. Mobile phones were confiscated, to be returned at the end of camp. No questions were asked. These men were going off the grid. When the group finally arrived at a high-security military facility deep in the Jordanian desert, Fighter A found the last thing he expected: Americans. ‘I was surprised when I saw foreign trainers,’ he says.”

The instructors spoke in English with Arabic translators at their sides. It was a “40-day programme of fitness, fighting tactics and weapons training“. Accommodated in pre-fabricated housing, “They served us the best types of food at the camp—grilled meat, mansaf [a Jordanian lamb dish], Kentucky Fried Chicken, soup, rice, Mexican chicken and many other foods. Each person got American food or Arab food at their request,” Fighter A says.

As to the training:

‘We were trained in urban warfare and street fighting: how to break into buildings as a team, how to blow up houses held by the enemy and how to free captives.’ … Recruits were trained on Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, cannon mortars, anti-tank mines and Red Arrow SPG-9 unguided anti-tank missiles. … ‘Before the camp I used a Kalashnikov and light machine guns, and at the camp I was trained to shoot faster and more accurately. Mortar cannons and anti-tank missiles like the Red Arrow SPG-9 were new to me’.”

The much-anticipated MANPADS of course never materialised. “There was no graduation ceremony, but we did a graduation project at the end. It was a complete fighting project that included everything we had been trained on,” the fighter says. They were each given $300 and sent back into Deraa, where they were re-connected to the world, given back their mobile telephones and other devices.

As to how this has helped inside Syria,

Since his American training, Fighter A has become a trainer himself, teaching the men in his brigade to shoot faster and more accurately, to fire mortars and lay into the enemy with anti-tank mines and missiles. He still fights with a Kalashnikov and a light machine gun, and his brigade has added mortar cannons and 14.5” machine guns to its arsenal. Though he hasn’t received any more money or any weapons from the US or Jordan, ‘I benefitted a lot from the camp,’ he says. … One thing he doesn’t keep up with is the exercise programme. The lack of food in Daraa leaves a 20-year-old man hungry on a good day, so Fighter A figures there’s no sense burning the extra energy if he can’t replace it.”

Joshua Landis is quoted on what this means saying that “America cannot let MANPADS into Syria because they will be used against Israeli planes someday,” and that America is “prolonging the rebellion, but we’re also making sure it can’t win.” Charles Lister is also quoted, and sharpens the point: the U.S. training mission in Jordan is having almost no discernible impact on the ground inside Syria. The trained rebels who are supposed to act as trainers inside Syria could all do so as efficiently as “Fighter A” and yet with their numbers so small and without the means to neutralise the regime’s airforce, there is no way to alter the balance of power and press into Damascus to depose the regime, which is of course the point.

Grant Landis this much, the Obama administration’s strategy does not intend for a rebel victory; it is invested enough that it can appease the Sunni Arab States and its domestic critics, but it has no actual vision for Syria beyond the foredoomed “Alawite General” scenario. This is not unlike its plan in Egypt, to keep the structure of the regime and change the front-man, which failed dramatically: it did not support democracy until the demand was overwhelming, then it did not like the look of the changes this was bringing to Egypt’s military regime so kept quiet when it veered back the other way with a military coup—except for John Kerry’s statement from Pakistan that the military was “restoring democracy“. This was the worst of all possible worlds: the “realist” conceit that attempted to stick with an untenable status quo and the liberal masochism that any U.S. hand would sully those she tried to help. The result was a reactive policy that confused everybody, including its practitioners. Both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the army believe the U.S. schemed against them, and the country will now revert to a military autocracy that has been decisively shown that it has the whip-hand in U.S.-Egyptian relations.

In Syria, the result of this catastrophic bungling is not only the massive loss of life and Iranian strategic advancement but a nationalist rebellion that looked to us for support that is increasingly convinced, as Fighter A puts it, that “America is benefiting from the destruction and the killing in order to weaken both sides.” It isn’t true: the policy is too dysfunctional to have even a wicked aim—and the statements of witless men like Denis McDonough suggesting that this is a brilliant scheme to have the Iran/Hizballah and al-Qaeda weaken one another (and the President’s own statements along those lines in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg) are really after-the-fact rationalisations designed to make the Obama administration at least seem in control, even if it is pursuing a callous policy.

In reality, the administration has little control of events inside Syria and is not acting in a way that suggests it wishes to drastically increase this influence. It is acting in a “do something” manner: it can hold this up—or at least whisper it to its friends in the press, since the operation is officially covert—to deflect attention when it is accused of watching a humanitarian and strategic calamity from the sidelines but that is the extent of this training effort.

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