In his testimony to Congress yesterday, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of Centcom, admitted that the US-trained New Syrian Force (NSF) rebels amount to only four or five existing fighters in Syria. While it’s been no secret the “create a new rebel faction” strategy failed, and officials are confirming planned changes.
According to those officials, they intend to totally abandon the “rebel” conceit and stop having the NSF fight against ISIS as a distinct force, and will instead load them down with US communications equipment and have them gather intelligence and pick targets for US airstrikes.
To that end, the intention is to get these people “embedded” into various other fighting forces, both secular rebels and the Kurdish YPG. The Kurds, a much bigger faction, will probably be the bulk of this embedding, though they aren’t really “rebels” and are fighting alongside the Syrian military in Hasakeh to defend the city from ISIS.
The other major change is to once again scale back the number of forces they intend to train. Initially this was tens of thousands, but was reduced to 5,400 earlier this year. Now, officials say, they will scale it back to about 500 total, which might be attainable at some point, though it is still a hundredfold increase from what’s left of the faction.
Last year, Congress authorized half a billion dollars to create this force, with the notion that they would be the major rebel force that would eventually be installed as the new government. Now that they’ve been downgraded to glorified spotters for a US air campaign that itself isn’t accomplishing much, the US is once again without an official “endgame” plan in Syria.
This is likely to once again raise talk of the proposal, championed primarily by Gen. David Petraeus, to ally with al-Qaeda and treat them as the “pro-US” faction inside Syria, despite them being anything but pro-US. Given the poor track record the US has of picking “winners” in Syria, it remains to be seen if al-Qaeda will even accept the offer.
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