By PHILIP EWING and AUSTIN WRIGHT at Politico
With all the U.S.-trained fighters dead, captured or missing and their leader in the hands of Al Qaeda, top U.S. commanders are scrambling this week to determine how to revive the half-billion dollar program to create a moderate Syrian army to fight the Islamic State.
The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who viewed the force as a critical element of the military strategy in both Syria and Iraq, is conferring with top Pentagon officials behind closed doors to figure out what options are left for what is widely considered a policy and military failure, according to senior defense officials.
"We are trying to learn from experience," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Wednesday, while acknowledging raising a rebel army is "hard to implement, particularly in a place like Syria, and so we’re going to learn and get better at it as time goes on."
But a year after Congress authorized the Syrian train and equip program, to the tune of $500 million, even Republican hawks are no longer willing to throw their support behind it — including some who think it should be scrapped altogether.
"It’s a bad, bad sick joke," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters, calling the decision to authorize the program in the first place a mistake.
Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Appropriations Committee, returned from a trip to the region last week where he was briefed on the effort. His assessment of the program: "a bigger disaster than I could have ever imagined."
After nearly 12 months of extensive international outreach, the program has so far yielded only 54 fighters — all of whom were killed, captured by terrorists in Syria or scattered when they came under attack this summer.
The White House’s original goal for the first year was for more than a brigade’s worth of combatants — about 5,400 — who would be able to push the Islamic State out of the villages it controls in northern Syria and then go on offense against the terror group.
“Hundreds” more fighters are in training as part of a second cadre, defense officials say, but it isn’t clear whether when they’d enter Syria or even whether they’d be held back until the Pentagon decides how it might try to overhaul the program.
"These are the hard questions that are now being asked," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday.
Among the decisions that have hampered the effort, according to multiple experts, was the insistence from the start that moderate rebels trained by Washington pledge only to fight the Islamic State terror group — and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
It was Assad's crackdown on popular dissent, beginning in 2011, that set off the civil war and created the vacuum for the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups to thrive.
Narrowly proscribing the mission of the trainees was driven by the lack of support in the Obama administration and Congress to directly intervene in efforts to topple Assad after government troops were accused of war crimes, including unleashing chemical weapons against civilians in 2013.
"The train and equip program was built around a flawed view adopted by the Pentagon — an ISIS-only approach," said Chris Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. "It did not marry this program to the wider Syrian civil war. Rebels are unwilling to prioritize a fight against ISIS over a fight against the regime. They originally picked up arms to fight the Syrian regime."
In Murphy's view, "by forcing these recruits to pledge to fight ISIS instead of Assad, they effectively dried up their potential recruiting pool."
Once the program got underway, another major stumbling block proved to be the vetting process. The Pentagon, due to concerns that it might train fighters that would later defect to the Islamic State or the Al Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, ended up disqualifying many of the volunteers that did come forward.
"Many of the people that were trained turned out to be unreliable, and some were not trustworthy," Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and Senate Minority Whip, told reporters Wednesday. "It is a very tough situation to find good strong loyal fighters that we can train in this situation."
The mandate for the training mission was also far broader in scope than most programs for training foreign military forces.
"There are no direct recent analogues to the type of overt and broadly defined 'train and equip' program for vetted Syrians authorized by Congress," according to a paper issued this summer by the Congressional Research Service.
"Most 'train and equip' authorities have been far more limited in scope and funding, and targeted to government security forces," it continued. "The train and equip authorities ... are unique because, in the view of the Obama Administration and some in Congress, there were no other existing legal authorities that allowed such overt 'train and equip' assistance to be provided to non-government actors in Syria."
U.S. intelligence officials believe there are as many as 30,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, plus a patchwork of extremist groups such as the Al Nusra Front.
The Islamic State and opposition groups now control most of the territory in Syria, according to a report by IHS Jane’s. The Assad regime only holds about one-sixth of the territory it once ruled in Syria, the report concluded.
So Dempsey, leaders of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, and other top officials are considering a number of options.
One is to evaluate the idea of fielding a much larger force this time, according to the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Another option is to pair a cadre of trained Syrian fighters with a force of Kurdish fighters like those who helped push the Islamic State out of the town of the Syrian town of Kobani. And the Pentagon is studying ways to better prepare future trainees in the so-called New Syrian Force with better intelligence, air support, and to keep closer control of them.
Carter, in brief remarks to reporters Wednesday, insisted that "the underlying concept of trying to find capable, motivated ground forces that we can enable, who are local, who can sustain the defeat of extremism on territories, is fundamentally the right strategic principle."
Kosak, however, worries that the Pentagon will once again miss the mark and is proposing that it narrow, rather than expand, the training program's scope.
"The program will never achieve the effects the Pentagon laid out for it," he said, contending that it makes more sense to train rebels to hold particular areas, such as defending the Turkish border from Islamic State incursions.
"If you narrow the scope of the program maybe you could achieve some effects," he proffered.
But others assert that unless Washington reverses course on its policy of not seeking to topple Assad through the use of force — a prospect now seen as even less likely with reports that Russian troops have joined the fight to help Assad's troops — the effort seems doomed.
“Politically, it has run out of time,” said Nick Heras, a Middle East scholar and Syria specialist with the Center for a New American Security.
The view from Capitol Hill, however, is even more gloomy.
Declared Murphy: "This is not a worthwhile endeavor."