Project to train vetted rebels relies on secretive infrastructure throughout the region
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Aug. 18, the U.S. Air Force scrambled F-22 stealth fighters to protect American commandos near the city of Hasaka in northeastern Syria. When the jets returned to the area on Aug. 19, the mission underscored how dangerous the situation could be for the troops on the ground.
“We will ensure their safety,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis, a U.S. Navy captain, said in a statement. “The Syrian regime would be well-advised not to interfere with coalition forces or our partners.”
Elite forces from the United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries are working with various rebel groups ostensibly to fight Islamic State. In May, pictures emerged of American commandos working with the Kurdish group YPG. The next month, the BBC obtained photos of British special operators near New Syrian Army positions.
On Aug. 12, the Syrian Democratic Forces chased the bulk of the Sunni terrorists out of the city of Manbij much further to the west. Even closer to the Mediterranean, more local fighters are arrayed along a front between the towns of Azaz and Mara.
“The success in Manbij city will also help reinforce the growing isolation of Raqqa and enable us to achieve the next objective of our campaign in Syria — collapsing ISIL’s control over that city,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote in a press release on Aug. 15, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “The military coalition will continue to work with capable and motivated local forces to defeat ISIL and ensure it remains defeated.”
But despite this significant support, the Pentagon has given few specifics about the sometimes controversial mission inside Syria, including what exactly American forces are doing day to day and how close they are to any fighting. Through the Freedom of Information Act, War Is Boring obtained three heavily redacted 90-day status reports that nonetheless shed new light on the secretive operation that actually spans five countries.
Under the provisions of the 2015 defense budget, the Pentagon has to send one of these reports to congress every 90 days.
In 2014, the Pentagon laid the groundwork for a project to train and equip certain rebel groups inside Syria to fight against Islamic State. After jumping the border into Iraq in 2013, the terrorist organization had rapidly seized a swath of territory and announced it had created a new Islamic caliphate.
Congress ultimately approved more than $500 million for the program. The mission did not get off to an auspicious start.
In July 2015, the Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group Al Nusra — not part of Washington’s program — ambushed the first batch U.S.-trained forces. With less than 60 fighters in total to start with, surviving members of the contingent surrendered much of their American-supplied gear to their attackers in exchange for their freedom.
On Sept. 16, U.S. Army general Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon’s top officer in the Middle East, shocked American lawmakers when he told them that there were fewer than 10 graduates of the program still “in the fight.” At the same hearing, Christine Wormuth, the under-secretary of defense for policy, added that fewer than 150 individuals were still going through the training regimen.
Washington had hoped to get more than 5,000 local troops into combat in the first year. Austin and Wormuth said there had been problems in finding and vetting prospective trainees.
According to a status report covering the mission from March to May 2015, the Pentagon’s commando task force running the project — officially called the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria, or CJIATF-S — headed up a three step vetting process. With no commandos in the country at the time, American officials conducted the initial “pre-screening” interviews remotely.
If the recruit passed this step, coalition forces would “exfiltrate” the candidate to a site in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Turkey. There the individual would undergo a second, more in depth screening, followed by an official “validation.” Only then, could the fighter proceed with the training.
Censors removed the sections in the status reports describing exactly how many individuals made it through the various vetting stages. In one footnote, the Pentagon pointed out that many prospective organizations were simply not that big.
“Organizational structures usually are smaller in size than a similar element in the U.S. military,” the report explained. “An opposition group ‘brigade’ may be similar in size to a U.S. Army company, approximately 120 personnel.”
We don’t know exactly what factors these vetting processes ultimately covered. The Pentagon and its partners were probably eager to weed out terrorists, war criminals and human rights violators and other undesirable participants.
In addition, Washington was worried about Islamic State sneaking its members into the project to spy on the courses or kill the trainers. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other insurgent groups regularly claim responsibility for so-called “green-on-blue” attacks by Kabul’s troops and police against Americans and other coalition members.
So far, there have not been any public reports of similar insider attacks in the Syrian training program. None of the status reports we obtained suggest otherwise.
“To date, there have been no external or internal attacks or threats of attack against U.S. or coalition forces,” the review covering the operation from June to August 2015 said. “We are closely monitoring the security situation in Turkey in light of recent events.”
On July 20, 2015, Islamic State bombed the municipal cultural center in the Turkish border town of Suruç. The terrorists killed more than 30 people and injured more than 100 others.
At the time, Turkish forces were training Syrian rebels at a number of sites as part of the Pentagon-led project. Ankara situated at least one intake hub in the Mediterranean port city of Iskenderun, along with a separate training facility near Hirfanli in the center of the country. Incirlik air base was set to become the home of project’s central headquarters.
Jordan set up additional intake, training and logistics bases. Amman’s elite troops coordinated missions with American commanders and other officials from the Prince Hashem School for Special Operations and the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center. Early in Syria’s civil war, the Pentagon had stood up a forward command post at the latter facility.
U.S. Navy construction units helped build some of these sites. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to establish additional training and logistics spaces.
Though the four countries helped pay for the construction, the Pentagon had significant funds available these new base areas. Of the $500 million it had on hand, the military set aside more than 10 percent for building facilities.
But despite the rapidly expanding infrastructure, the Pentagon appears to have spent very little of the money. By August, just over $40 million was formally committed to specific activities, including buying weapons and ammunition, feeding and arming the recruits and shuttling them and their gear around the region.
When Austin and Wormuth briefed legislators the following month, their statistics highlighted just how slow the project was proceeding. And the gathered senators were not happy with what they were hearing.
“I have never heard testimony like this. … never,” Sen. John McCain, an outspoken critic of the Pentagon’s policies in the fight against Islamic State, said at the September hearing. McCain lambasted the two officials assessment of the campaign against the brutal terrorists in both Iraq and Syria as “divorced from the reality.”
The White House and the Pentagon responded by overhauling the entire Syrian endeavor. On Oct. 9, 2015, Wormuth joined Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and the Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk on a conference call with reporters to explain the new plan.
“We will be taking some of the leaders of these groups who are already fighting on the ground, putting them through the same rigorous vetting process that we have used in the original program, and then giving them basic equipment packages to distribute to their fighting force, again, to help enable their offensive operations,” Wormuth said.
Later in October, Air Force cargo planes dropped 50 tons of weapons and ammunition — likely already in the warehouses in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — to various groups in Syria. Two months after that, Pres. Barack Obama announced that he was sending commandos directly into the war torn to coordinate the aid and possibly hunt Islamic State terrorists themselves.
Then on Jan. 15, 2016, the Pentagon created a new headquarters to oversee commando missions in the battle against Islamic State, dubbed Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, or SOJTF-OIR. Inherent Resolve is the official nickname for the campaign in Iraq and Syria against the terrorist group.
The officer in charge of SOJTF-OIR would be the same one at the head of CJIATF-S. In effect, Washington had created a single, overarching elite force to take on Islamic State from multiple directions.
On top of that, the move might have streamlined support for irregular troops fighting the terrorists on both sides of the border. It is likely that commandos assigned to one or both of these task forces helped coordinate the abortive attempt by the New Syrian Army and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to take over the Syrian border town of Al Boukamal.
With elite troops setting up shop inside Syria, censored redacted the construction updates in a review covering December 2015 to March 2016. Reports suggest that the Pentagon has expanded at least two airstrips for its forces inside the restive country.
And this report is the first to mention Russian involvement in the nation’s civil war in the unredacted segments. On Sept. 30, 2015, Moscow launched its first air strikes against opponents of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Six months later, the Kremlin announced that it was ending its aerial campaign.
“Russia publicly stated their military campaign was completed and they would begin retrograding military forces,” the Pentagon noted in its status report. “In practice this was likely diplomatic posturing.”
As Russia’s fighters and bombers continue to pound cities such as Aleppo, this has turned out to be an accurate assessment. The unredacted portions of the review did not mention any concerns about Moscow or Assad attacking American commandos in Syria or their partners.
Regardless, Washington has hailed victories in Manbij and elsewhere as evidence that the project is producing results. In February, the Pentagon asked for another $250 million to keep the program going.
By Aug. 22, Syrian rebels were slowly clearing booby traps and making sure there weren’t any Islamic State fighters still in Manbij, Voice of America’s Jeff Seldin wrote on Twitter, relaying an official Pentagon statement. The Syrian Arab Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces were setting up defensive positions in case the terrorists tried to retake the city.
However, its not clear whether the assistance project has reached a point where it can take advantage of these funds. After shifting focus, the Pentagon appears to have revised its estimates of how much money it would be spending.
As of March 2016, the official status report said that nearly $390 million of the original fund had been “obligated” for various work. However, in stark contrast to the tally in the previous review, the Pentagon had only committed just shy of $4.1 million.
The July coup attempt in Turkey could not have helped the situation. The violent incident temporarily shut down all operations at Incirlik. In the wake of the plot, Turkish authorities arrested or sacked tens of thousands of government officials, including senior members of the military.
The Pentagon had already come into conflict with Turkey over including the YPG in the training program. After Turkish complaints, American commanders banned commandos from wearing the organization’s insignia on their uniforms, a common way to show solidarity. Ankara considers the Kurdish group’s members to be terrorists in their own right.
These issues could require the Pentagon to shift more support for the rebels to other partners such as Jordan. Unfortunately, none of the other countries backing the project are as strategically located along Syria’s northern flank.
Then, on Aug. 10, a special House of Representatives task force released a report concluding there was significant evidence that Austin and his staff had manipulated intelligence to show a more positive situation in Iraq and Syria. In March, Army general Joseph Votel, previously in charge of the Pentagon’s top commando headquarters, replaced Austin.
In the end, lawmakers may find they have new questions about the mission in Syria.