clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama's failed plan to train the Syrian rebels, in one brutal timeline

A Syrian rebel stands in the street in Aleppo, a major Syrian city.
A Syrian rebel stands in the street in Aleppo, a major Syrian city.
(Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Obama's big plan to train friendly Syrian rebels has had a really rough few days. The first 60 American-trained Syrian rebels, part of a group called Division 30, finally went onto the battlefield and almost immediately got attacked by al-Qaeda and suffered a humiliating defeat. According to the Guardian, al-Qaeda fighters killed five US-trained rebels, wounded 18, and kidnapped seven, including the unit's commander. Half of the American-trained fighters were put out of commission within weeks of hitting the ground.

The Pentagon's rebel training program, announced over a year ago, was supposed to be a key part of Obama's strategy against ISIS. Clearly, it's gone poorly. But to see just how poorly, it helps to look at this brief timeline of the Pentagon's Syrian rebel training program. It's not pretty:

  • June 10, 2014: ISIS takes Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, prompting panic in Washington about the group's expansion in both Iraq and Syria.
  • June 26: The Obama administration proposes a $500 million fund for training Syrian rebels who will fight ISIS. The effort, led by the Pentagon, is designed to "supplement or replace" an existing train-and-equip mission led by the CIA, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • September 10: Obama announces his comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS. Training and equipping a force of Syrian rebels to take and hold ISIS territory is a key plank. Obama calls on Congress to "give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters."
  • January 16, 2015: The Pentagon announces that it will deploy 400 trainers to begin working with the rebels. "We expect to begin training in early spring," Pentagon spokesperson Elissa Smith tells CNN.
  • April 27: Reuters reports that the administration has asked for a total of $1.1 billion to fund the program. No Syrian rebels have yet begun US training.
  • May 7: The training program formally launches, reportedly with an initial class of 90 Syrians.
  • June 18: Pentagon officials tell CNN that the program "has run into a number of difficulties." Problems include getting the rebels to training sites outside of Syria and vetting them to make sure they aren't extremists. At this point, according to the Pentagon, fewer than 200 of the 6,000 rebels who volunteered for the US program have entered training.
  • July 7: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says the Pentagon has only trained 60 Syrian rebels. "This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We'll do better."
  • July 30: Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, kidnaps about seven US trained fighters, including Division 30's commander.
  • July 31: Nusra fighters attack division 30 again, killing about five and wounding about 18. The New York Times reports that American officials "did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front," instead expecting al-Qaeda "to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State." In other words, the US thought al-Qaeda would welcome to the US-trained rebels and allies, and the exact opposite occurred.
  • August 2: Obama approves using airstrikes to defend US-trained rebels if they're attacked. Per the Wall Street Journal, "the decision ended a months-long debate over the role the American military should play in supporting its few allies on the battlefield in Syria." Maybe the US hopes to train more rebels, but currently it's sort of moot: There are only perhaps 30 fighters left, and their leader is in al-Qaeda custody.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.