October 09, 2015

CNAS Press Note: Downsizing the Syrian Rebel Train-and-Equip Program

Washington, October 9 – On news that the Obama Administration had halted the program to train and equip Syrian rebels, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Research Associate Nicholas Heras has written a new Press Note, “Downsizing the Syrian Rebel Train-and-Equip Program.” 

The full press note is below:

The announcement that the Pentagon will downsize its Syrian rebel Train-and-Equip (T&E) program and modify it to train instead local Syrian rebel “enablers” to support U.S. airstrikes from a distance indicates a serious strategic reassessment of how to improve U.S. leverage on the ground inside of Syria. The reality on the ground in northern Syria is that the United States does not have the leverage with a broad constituency of rebel groups to entice them to join a new, U.S.-directed rebel army to fight solely against ISIS, at the expense of fighting the Assad regime. Without this leverage, the T&E program, which has faced great recruitment difficulties, is instead turning toward bolstering a more successful model to build out a local Syrian force to take the fight to ISIS and to work successfully toward achieving U.S. objectives in Syria.  

This model is the Euphrates Volcano, which is a multi-ethnic Syrian rebel coalition of moderate Arab and Kurdish armed groups that is cooperating to displace ISIS from its rule along the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Raqqa governorate. The Euphrates Volcano has demonstrated that it can successfully enable the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against ISIS. Most importantly, both the Arab and Kurdish groups within the Euphrates Volcano coalition place the greatest priority on waging war against ISIS, so that the Arabs can retake their land lost to ISIS, and the Kurds can defend their communities from ISIS attacks. Expanding support for the Euphrates Volcano coalition promises to provide the United States with greater leverage in eastern Syria against ISIS, while potentially improving the prospect for inter-ethnic cooperation in a post-Assad Syria.

Moving forward, the United States will need to take a region-by-region approach to the Syrian conflict, and work more aggressively to bolster moderate rebel forces on the ground that can provide the United States leverage, particularly against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons. First on this list should be the Southern Front, a coalition of moderate armed opposition groups that are strongest in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, that are working toward the implementation of an inclusive rebel rule that can be a model for the rest of the country.

Heras is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.