Training the Syrian Opposition: So, What’s The Plan?

September 25, 2014

The world is focused on the United States and its Arab partners pummeling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the air in Syria, but observers should be paying more attention to the other pillar of America’s anti-ISIL strategy. And they should be asking serious questions. Namely, what does the United States intend to accomplish by training and equipping the Syrian opposition? It isn’t entirely clear.

On Sept. 10, President Barack Obama outlined a multi-pronged counterterrorism approach against ISIL. By conducting airstrikes, increasing support to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL, using counterterrorism capabilities to prevent attacks, and providing humanitarian assistance to civilians threatened by the group, the United States and a coalition of like-minded states aim to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. In support of this effort, the president noted the importance of ramping up military assistance to the Syrian opposition and called on Congress to authorize additional training and equipment for those fighters. Both the House and the Senate passed this measure on Sept. 18.

However, little explanation has been publicly provided as to the objectives of training and equipping the Syrian opposition. Building partner military capacity is an important way to achieve broader political and security objectives, but it is not an end in itself. Training and equipping the opposition may be the right way to counter ISIL in Syria, but requires linkage to an objectives-driven strategy in order to succeed. A surge of training and equipment to vetted Syrian rebels may indeed help blunt ISIL in the short term if paired with air support. But the absence of clearly-defined objectives for such a train-and-equip program risks strategic failure over the long term.

To avoid this risk, the United States must do three things. First, the Obama administration must determine what its overall strategic objectives in Syria are. If the United States maintains its stated policy position from 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step aside, then it must also determine how to synchronize efforts to achieve that objective with efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL. Both the military and political battlefields in Syria have long been messy and complex, and have only grown more so with the emergence of ISIL. Steps must be taken with the specific aim of coordinating objectives that could easily otherwise conflict with one another.

For example, the United States could put pressure on Assad to step down by offering incentives to Russia to limit its support for Assad and to join the coalition against ISIL. Russia continues to back Assad because it perceives U.S. intervention in Syria as Western imperialism and a threat to its interests. Russia sells arms to Syria and retains a strategic naval base on the country’s Mediterranean coast. However, Russia also views the spread of Islamic extremism as a threat to its own internal security. The United States could leverage regional partners in a triangular diplomatic effort that gives Moscow something it wants. Perhaps Lebanon or partners in the Gulf could be induced to offer to host a replacement for Russia’s naval base in Syria at a reduced cost. Brokering major arms deals with Russia and pledging not to thwart Russian global oil and gas sales in exchange for a Russian agreement to help deter the spread of ISIL and other extremists could be similarly effective. Of course, the United States would need to calculate how these offers might interact with American efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe. Yet the simple fact remains: Assad is unlikely to budge as long as Russian support endures.

The president’s current approach assumes that the United States can “have it all” when it comes to Syria — neutering ISIL, convincing Assad to step down, and transitioning to a “moderate” power-sharing government in Syria while also stabilizing Iraq. Indeed, these should be America’s aspirations even if, in the end, they are not fully realized. The continuation of Assad’s presidency would perpetuate the kind of brutality and state failure in the region that spawned ISIL. A well-trained and equipped opposition army could help achieve all key U.S. objectives, but success along this current path seems unlikely.

Second, the United States and the coalition must decide what actions by the Syrian opposition army would be necessary to support the strategic objectives, and acquire agreement from Syrian opposition elements to do it. Staunching ISIL’s growth is certainly a clear military objective that would require an infusion of training and equipment to vetted Syrian rebels through established logistics channels and the proposed training sites in Saudi Arabia and possibly Georgia. However, it is unclear how the coalition would ensure that the opposition army’s gains endure in the absence of linking this military objective to political objectives in Syria. Limiting coalition objectives to blunting ISIL’s growth may actually help Assad consolidate or recover lost territory in Syria, as ISIL is in part both Assad’s creation and his enemy. Opting for a more robust military objective of rolling back ISIL without a linkage to political objectives would entail a greater commitment of more sophisticated weaponry and requisite training and would carry higher risks in terms of open-ended coalition sustainment without a plan to absorb the army into a future Syrian state.

Nesting train-and-equip efforts within a broader political plan for post-conflict Syria is wrought with potential pitfalls, to be sure. Even with the new congressional authorization to train and equip 5,000 Syrian moderate opposition fighters over the next year, it would take time to build a vetted opposition army with the capacity and capabilities to take on ISIL. The United States and its partners have reportedly covertly trained 2,000–3,000 moderate Syrian rebels thus far; ISIL may be able to currently muster between 20,000–31,500 fighters. Assuming the United States learned more about the various shades of Syrian rebels over the past year, it would still have to carefully sift through a wide pool of recruits with complex allegiances to build a cohesive and reliable army.

Despite these challenges, the United States and its coalition partners must link building a Syrian opposition army to broader strategic objectives, such as pressuring Assad to accede to political negotiations with the Syrian opposition or even to intensify the fight against Assad. Indeed, Syrian rebels are likely more motivated to fight Assad than to counter ISIL. Such an approach would require rehabilitating the Geneva process for a Syrian political transition and synchronizing the pace of opposition military gains with political negotiations. The Syrian opposition army would need more robust capabilities, deeper capacity, sustainment plans, and new doctrine to fight on multiple fronts and ensure that its successes endure — all of which necessitate a greater coalition commitment of trainers, advisors, funding, and equipment, not to mention political will. Risks of escalation would increase with this approach, as Iran and Hizballah would continue to resist coalition efforts to pressure Assad to relinquish power, potentially putting U.S. and coalition advisors and trainers assisting the Syrian opposition at risk. Yet, only by connecting military train-and-equip efforts to broader strategic objectives can the coalition achieve a lasting outcome.

Third, the United States must discuss its objectives for the Syria train-and-equip mission with coalition and Syrian opposition partners. Without a clear articulation of U.S. objectives and an understanding of partner objectives, convincing U.S. allies and partners to provide resources and support to the anti-ISIL coalition to achieve common objectives would prove more difficult. Beyond the immediate goal of stopping ISIL’s advance in the region, American allies and partners would likely differ in terms of the broader political and military objectives and would calibrate their level and sophistication of assistance to the Syrian opposition accordingly. By neglecting to discuss shared and differing objectives, the coalition could miss opportunities to target assistance more effectively or could make assumptions about where the assistance should be routed that may prove harmful to the overall strategy (e.g., funneling assistance to certain units that are more sympathetic to ISIL but in firm opposition to Assad). In addition, some coalition partners may not approve of an effort to pressure Assad outright; their political objectives could be different than the United States’ objectives. Leaving partners to guess what U.S. objectives are may motivate them to hedge their bets or to play a double game.

The way ahead in Syria and the fight against ISIL are fraught with challenges. Neglecting to put those challenges and the options to address them into a broader approach could risk lives and resources and result in strategic failure. Training and equipping the Syrian opposition could enable the coalition to counter ISIL in Syria, but it must be connected to an objectives-driven strategy in order to succeed.


Melissa G. Dalton is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Photo credit: Freedom House