In the wake of repeated embarrassments to its Syria policy, the White House is moving toward a less scrupulous, more aggressive strategy in the country.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the presumptive new strategy includes less strenuous vetting requirements for rebels receiving weapons, and a renewed focus on Islamic State’s eastern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. Last week, a top general revealed that only “four or five” fighters under the U.S.-backed Syrian rebel program were still on the battlefield. (RELATED: General Admits We’ve Only Trained ‘Four Or Five’ Anti-ISIS Fighters)
Over the weekend, news emerged as well that about 70 U.S.-trained rebels had recently crossed the border to fight in Syria. Conflicting reports claim that some of those fighters have already been captured by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
President Barack Obama’s new strategy, as ever, involves taking advantage of the situation on the ground in Syria instead of proactively influencing it. It also recognizes that Iraq is not the only front on which the battle against Islamic State must be carried out.
One of the factors influencing the White House’s failure to equip Syrian insurgents was its stringent criteria for rebels. The Post quoted an anonymous official who clarified the administration’s new top priority: “The key thing is getting them some [expletive] bullets.”
But now, the White House sees an opportunity. Kurdish forces, fighting independently but with U.S. support, have seized key sections of northern Syria near Raqqa and the Turkish border. With the Kurds’ gains, the U.S. hopes it can isolate Islamic State in its Syrian command center and cut its Syrian forces off from those operating in Iraq.
The move is part of a broader effort to create a zone of control along the Turkish-Syrian border, together with air support from Turkey. But some say that Turkey is not a reliable partner in the air war against Islamic State. Turkey has bombed the same Kurdish forces that are combating Islamic State, and it may have also betrayed a previous division of U.S.-trained rebels into Jabhat al-Nusra’s hands. (RELATED: Report: Turkey, The New Anti-ISIS Ally, Betrayed US-Backed Syrian Rebels)
The largest risk in this strategy is the possibility of U.S.-supplied weapons once again falling into the wrong hands. But Obama’s critics are unlikely to be satisfied. For some, years of inaction outweigh the risk of worsening the Syria quagmire. And for others, any entrenchment in Syria is a war that isn’t America’s place to be fighting.
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