The ‘New Syrian Forces’: A Failed U.S. Initiative

Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services' hearing discussing Counter-ISIL Strategy

Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services’ hearing discussing the Counter-ISIL Strategy

The New Syrian Forces (NSF) is a Syrian armed group officially sanctioned by the United States and trained by the Pentagon. The NSF program was launched in May this year and the forces are a part of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) 30th division, which consists of around 1,200 fighters. The division was established from several smaller armed groups to streamline the recruitment and training of fighters by the Pentagon, but the division is still largely under development. The Obama administration sees the formation of a moderate, reliable and trained military force that would fight directly with ISIL in Syria as key to the global strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the organisation. The NSF, however, continues to be far off from fulfilling the administration’s vision.

The “ISIL-first” principle of the Pentagon initiative, where Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces are not targeted, is one of two key reasons why the programme hasn’t yet been successful. Only a handful have signed up for the NSF because many see Bashar al-Assad’s government as worse than ISIL and would prefer to fight the government instead. The second reason the program has been so disastrous is that those that do sign up also have to be evaluated through a stringent screening process in order to root out extremists seeking to infiltrate the program. Besides a background check, the screening process involves a polygraph test and a counterintelligence interview. The division’s leaders have complained about such stringent procedures as it saps resources from the actual training and arming of the fighters.

Since the NSF program’s launch, only 60 fighters have been successfully trained according to Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in an early July Senate hearing. Secretary Carter said that 7,000 potential fighters were undergoing screening but that the number of trained fighters was a lot smaller than he had hoped.  The program has a budget of $500 million, of which an astonishing half has so far been spent. This new force remains small and is uninspired and mediocre in quality, as the best opposition rebels are fighting the Syrian government forces and would not like to take ISIL head on.

The aforementioned 60 NSF fighters are currently active in Syria alongside the FSA’s 30th division but have run into severe trouble recently, not from ISIL, but unexpectedly from Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest and best-financed armed groups operating in the country. On the 30th of July, Jabhat al-Nusra captured two leaders and six fighters of Division 30. The day after, the Nusra Front mounted an intense assault, with medium and heavy weapons, on the division’s encampment near the town of Azaz in Aleppo province, which is located near the Turkish border. Five FSA fighters from the division were killed in the attack, with 18 wounded and 20 captured by the al-Qaeda linked group. The abductions and the subsequent attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra were seen as a significant intelligence failure in Washington and took Pentagon officials by surprise. The U.S. went to great lengths to defend the 30th Division from the surprise assault on Friday. American warplanes provided defensive support fire through precision air-strikes.

The Pentagon trainers had prepared the initial 60 trainees to withstand attacks from both ISIL and the Syrian Army, but never expected Jabhat al-Nusra to mount an attack considering their opposition to ISIL in recent months. Indeed, some officials expected Jabhat al-Nusra to welcome Division 30 as allies in the fight against ISIL. This was a fanciful assumption, and the U.S.-trained NSF, along with the 30th division, now finds themselves with no allies in a hostile and war-torn country.

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