WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s plan to raise a 15,000-strong rebel army in Syria has run into steep political and military obstacles, raising doubts about a key element of the White House strategy for defeating Islamic State militants in the midst of a civil war.
Pentagon concerns have grown so sharp that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a two-page memo to the White House last week warning that the overall plan could collapse because U.S. intentions toward Syrian President Bashar Assad are unclear, according to a senior defense official who read the memo but was not authorized to speak publicly.
President Barack Obama has called on Assad to step down, but he has not authorized using military force, including the proposed proxy army, to remove the Syrian leader.
At a news conference Thursday, Hagel declined to discuss his memo to national security adviser Susan Rice, but he acknowledged that Assad has inadvertently benefited from more than five weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State, one of the most powerful antigovernment forces in Syria’s bitter conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry sought to paper over the problem Thursday, telling a forum in Washington that the proposed proxy army “can have an impact on Assad’s decision-making so we can get back to a table where we could negotiate a political outcome.”
Rebel leaders in Syria say they would reject joining a U.S.-backed force that is not aimed at defeating Assad, their main enemy.
Senior U.S. military officers also privately warn that the so-called Syrian moderates that U.S. planners hope to recruit – opposition fighters without ties to the Islamic radicals – have been degraded by other factions and forces, including Assad’s army, during the war.
It will take years to train and field a new force capable of launching an offensive against the heavily armed and well-funded Islamic State fighters, who appear well-entrenched in northern Syria, the officers say.
“We’re not going to be able to build that kind of credible force in enough time to make a difference,” said a senior U.S. officer who is involved in military operations against the militants. “We’ve watched the moderate opposition dwindle and dwindle and now there’s very little left.”
The Pentagon plan calls for putting 5,000 rebel fighters into Syria in a year, and 15,000 over the next three years.
It is the least developed and most controversial part of the multipronged U.S. strategy, which also includes near-daily airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, deployment of U.S. military advisers and other support to assist Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, along with attempts to choke off the militants’ financing from oil sales and foreign donors.
When officers involved in high-level Pentagon deliberations in the summer raised concerns about building a rebel army from scratch, they were overruled by senior commanders, who warned that airstrikes alone would not defeat the militants, one of the officers said.
But Pentagon unease has intensified in recent weeks as Jordan and Turkey, two allies that the Obama administration is counting on to help train the proposed proxy force, made it clear that they are lukewarm to the plan.
Washington and its allies are chiefly split over whether the proposed force should focus on reclaiming Syrian territory now held by the Islamic State militants, which is the U.S. priority, or should also battle troops loyal to Assad, the allies’ main concern.
Turkey said this month that it would train a portion of the Syrian force, joining Saudi Arabia in training on its territory.
But Turkish officials have signaled that the rebels it trains would concentrate on battling Assad’s forces, not Islamic State, once they return to Syria.
Jordan has not joined the training effort, although it hosts a separate, smaller, CIA-run operation for Syrian insurgents.
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