The Senate Armed Service Committee meeting on Wednesday drew shock and laughter around the world. Defense officials admitted to having only “four or five” US-backed rebels on the ground operating in Syria. The plan to train-and-equip rebels and embed them with forces already based inside the country has been a “total failure,” the Senior Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain asserted. He rebuked the Obama administrations restrained role in the conflict and insisted more U.S. engagement was necessary. “I’ve never seen testimony as divorced from the reality of every outside expert as this.” What so frustrated McCain came from Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of U.S Central Command, who walked back earlier statements from outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who stressed that “setbacks are to be expected in the early stages of the fight.”
The tone of the CENCOM official may have been moderate, but the news he carried was egregious. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted with no successful results accounted for. The 500 million dollar program is a vacuum with no identifiable ways to measure success. The Senate and indeed the public are right to laugh, but the next necessary move is course correction. The program is an abysmal failure, has no prospects, and should be shutdown.
Unfortunately what is lacking in the exchange between the Senate and CENTCOM is any doubt that the U.S. effort to create a “New Syrian Army” should continue. The argument between McCain and the White House is over how far the U.S. role in the conflict should go, with McCain seeking a much greater American role in support of the rebellion.
I am in perfect agreement with Americans in and outside the government denouncing the program. What I am less enamored with is what some propose we do next. Throwing good money after bad isn’t a sound strategy that will advance U.S. interests or bring the conflicts endgame any closer to fruition. The US-backed force is a distraction at best from real solutions that could return Syrians to some sense of normalcy. Military solutions and narratives of regime change are advancing at the expense of peaceful efforts to stabilize Syria and bring to an end the violence and resulting migration crisis.
If the global community has any interest in helping Syrians live through these conditions, it should make more resources available to internally displaced refugees, rather than armed rebels. IDRs make up the majority of refugees, and they flee for security to government-controlled areas, where we can have identifiable benchmarks and account for allocation. Through credible Syrian and international NGOs, in coordination with local communities, the donor class could empower Syrians to take an active role in the reconstruction of their country.
The Armed Service Committees attempt to bring transparency to the train-and-equip program through these meetings should be welcomed, but the Senate should begin efforts to end the program, and schedule investigative hearings to disclose the details of its failure. Holding accountable those individuals who pushed and prepared this program is necessary if we are to learn from the mistake in the future.