This train-and-equip program led to the infamous deployment on the 12th of July, 2015 of a mere 54 fighters into northwestern Syria where, within the space of 24-hours, most of them were either killed or fled from Jabhat al-Nusra militants. Militants who managed to capture their leader along with several American-made weapons — which they proudly flaunted in a propaganda video.
Another group of Syrian fighters also specifically established to fight IS by the CIA, Division 30, were sent into Syria the following month. Shortly after they established their headquarters however they were attacked by al-Nusra which rapidly defeated them, leaving them in a state of disarray with its remaining members fleeing and joining other armed groups. Another subsequent deployment of 70 of these fighters in September, 2015 resulted in them instantly surrendering their weapons to al-Nusra and disappearing.
These humiliating failures aptly epitomized the shortcomings of that $500 million program. Since then the US has increased its support to the most successful fighters against IS in Syria, the Kurds. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) proved their worth against IS when they repelled a major IS siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani in late 2014. After beating IS back from their territories the YPG mounted a series of highly effective counter-offensives against the group, forcing them out completely from the north-eastern provinces of the country. In late 2015 they merged with armed Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens and formed the coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been putting IS increasingly on the defensive with close US coalition air support. It’s clear the US sees the SDF as their best bet to liberate large swaths of Syria from IS control.However the US has opposed the SDF from advancing against IS in Syria’s north-western border regions. This is primarily because its ally Turkey doesn’t want a force with a large Kurdish component — one they continually insist is connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) it is fighting inside Turkish Kurdistan — taking over the only remaining open part of Syria’s border with Turkey.
Consequently the US and Turkey have favoured Arab rebels taking that territory. Here again the failure to defeat IS with non-SDF ground allies is particularly striking. On April 8th, 2016 the US and Ankara appeared to make a breakthrough. Rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) group made headway against IS in the north-west. With the support of both US air-strikes and cross-border Turkish artillery fire these FSA fighters managed to seize several villages from IS along the border, including the strategically-important village of al-Rai. Finally a defeat was afflicted against IS without the use of the SDF, however it was a short-lived victory. IS regrouped and mere days later they recaptured al-Rai and six other villages and afflicted a humiliating blow to that FSA group and to American and Turkish efforts.
While the SDF are not directly on the border with Turkey in the north-west, they have this month undertaken a major advance aimed at cutting IS off from Syria’s north-western border – they already control the entirety of the border from Syria’s east up to the east bank of the Euphrates. The Manbij offensive has proven to be a major strategic success. To date the US coalition is successfully achieving with the SDF what it has failed to do with these groups it has tried to build outside of Syria from scratch.
Nearly a year after the humiliating defeat of the Division 30 fighters by al-Nusra, a similar defeat was suffered in late June of this year by another group of fighters the US trained in Jordan to fight IS. The so-called New Syrian Army (which was controversially bombed by the Russians in June) was created and trained by the Americans and British in Jordan to fight IS in Syria. Deployed from Jordan the group made significant headway against IS in late June. They mounted an offensive against IS at the al-Bukamal border crossing with coalition air cover, the aim of the operation being to cut IS off from part of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. Coordinated with Iraqi forces at the other side of the border the offensive got off to a good start, advancing towards the crossing the New Syrian Army managed to capture the al-Hamdan airbase. But then, they were ambushed. IS successfully repelled their offensive and managed to seize the airbase along with several of the groups weapons, effectively dashing another coalition attempt to mount a non-SDF ground offensive against IS.
These three unsuccessful efforts bear many similarities: All of these groups battlefield defeats transpired near Syria’s borders (Iraq, Jordan and Turkey), all were non-SDF forces and all were unable to secure their territorial gains against the Islamists for more than a short few days. These failures serve as clear indicators that the US badly needs at least one of these groups to afflict a lasting battlefield defeat against IS to demonstrate that “train-and-equip” is a necessary and worthwhile undertaking that will contribute to IS’s defeat.