The United States has announced an adjustment to one element of its campaign to degrade and defeat ISIL in Syria. After encountering challenges to its train and equip program for vetted Syrian opposition recruits, the United States has paused the training aspect of the program. Going forward, the program will be reoriented to focus on equipping capable opposition forces fighting ISIL on the ground, whose leaders have been vetted by the United States.
On a conference call with reporters, Brett McGurk, U.S. Deputy Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Fight ISIL, pointed to the fight currently going on near the northern Syria town of Mar’a. The Coalition has been working with units there who have been fighting, “quite heroically now for a number of weeks,” noted Mr. McGurk. “The question begs itself,” he said, “Is it best to take those guys out and put them through training programs for many weeks, or to keep them on the line fighting and to give them additional…support? I think the latter is the right answer.”
During the same call, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Christine Wormouth observed that working with effective indigenous forces on the ground has proven successful in the past. “We’ve seen in places like Kobane, for example, or Tal Abyad…how it works where we combine our sustained air campaign with offensive operations on the ground by capable ground partners.”
Mr. McGurk noted that through the opportunity presented by the battle against ISIL in Kobane last year, the U.S. has gotten to know a lot of the indigenous fighters and leaders – “Arabs, Kurds…Christians…We’re looking for ways to take advantage of those relationships and harness them,” he said.
U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that the U.S. focus in Syria remains on dislodging ISIL from the country. Unfortunately, he said, Russia’s recent military actions in Syria do not help that goal: “We see the vast majority of Russian strikes targeting non-ISIL opponents to the Assad regime.” Mr. Rhodes called the Russian actions “extraordinarily counterproductive in terms of eroding the space for a political resolution.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Rhodes emphasized that there is no way a military solution that keeps Assad in power can be imposed on the Syrian people: “The people who have rejected Assad are the Syrian people.” Such an imposition, he said, “would be a recipe for more extremism, a recipe for more conflict.”