Last week, the head of the United States Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, testified to Congress about the status of the U.S.' $500 million dollar plan to arm and train "moderate" Syrian rebels. CENTCOM, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, provided a surprising report. Of the 5,400 rebels planned to be in Syria fighting ISIS this year, there were only "four or five" active fighters in country. He went on to say there is no way the goal could be reached in 2015.
"It's taking a bit longer," Gen. Austin said during his testimony. "But it must be this way if we are to achieve lasting and positive effects."
It's going to take a lot longer. The first round of American-trained Syrian fighters made their way into the country recently. They were quickly routed by or defected to the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front, a Sunni Islamist group. Al-Nusra stormed the rebel headquarters and took some of the fighters hostage.
Lt. Col. Mohammad al-Dhaher, the chief of staff of Division 30, the rebel group favored by the United States, resigned. He told the Telegraph the training program was "not serious," and he complained of insufficient numbers of trainees and fighters, inadequate supplies, and even "a lack of accuracy and method in the selection of Division 30's cadres."
That didn't stop the U.S. plan. On Sunday, 75 more American-trained Syrian rebels entered the country via Turkey, where the majority of the training takes place. Almost immediately, those U.S.-backed fighters surrendered to the al-Nusra front. The "vetted" U.S.-backed leader, Anas Obaid, told al-Nusra he intentionally deceived the U.S. to get the weapons.
The reason for the repeated betrayals of Syrian fighters is as fractured as the country itself. Division 30 fighters are only allowed to engage ISIS fighters, but the primary enemy of Nusra in Syria is the Asad government forces. Every group has their own aim.
Nusra's enemies include the the Kurdish YPG, ISIS, and the Free Syrian Army but mostly the Iran-allied Asad regime and its Shia Hezbollah allies.
The Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Kurdish YPG and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga are mainly fighting ISIS, but the West is worried they will try to carve out an independent Kurdistan from areas of Iraq and Syria (and maybe Turkey).
Turkey is especially concerned about the rise of Kurdish power and had conducted air strikes on Kurdish forces fighting ISIS as part of a greater conflict with Kurds and their PKK allies (a Communist terror organization in Turkey).
ISIS is fighting to implement their very strict brand of Sunni Islamist government, a new Islamic caliphate based in Syria and extending throughout the Islamic world. ISIS fighters are as well-funded and well-armed as the Asad regime and nearly captured Baghdad last year.
The U.S. and Iran are backing Iraqi forces (and there are even hints of cooperation between the two longtime enemies.
And last week, the Russians started sending weapons and advisers to Damascus.
Did you get all that?
CENTCOM may be doing the best it can with the information it actually gets. The New York Times discovered overly negative intelligence reports were being tossed back to their analysts to be rewritten in a more positive light, essentially manipulating and distorting the information given to lawmakers.