U.S. to Give Some Syria Rebels Ability to Call Airstrikes / After training, moderate rebels to get pickups with gear to call for American B-1B bombers
WEST KURDISTAN (SYRIA) – By Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous – WALL STREET JOURNAL – 17 Feb 2015 – WASHINGTON—The U.S. has decided to provide pickup trucks equipped with machine guns and radios for calling in U.S. airstrikes to some moderate Syrian rebels, defense officials said. But the scope of any bombing hasn’t been worked out—a reflection of the complexities of the battlefield in Syria. Military officials point to U.S. airstrikes, called in by Kurdish fighters, that helped drive Islamic State fighters from the city of Kobani as the model for the new campaign.Still, there are significant differences with what the U.S.-trained rebels will face. In Kobani, a larger and more-cohesive Kurdish force was fighting from a fixed position against a single enemy—Islamic State—without having to worry about the Syrian regime or other rebel groups.
U.S. officials also are confronted with the fragile nature of the international coalition assembled to fight Islamic State, the uneasy peace with Iran inside of Iraq, and questions about whether U.S. warplanes can or should target the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The plan comes as the U.S. prepares to start training moderate rebels, who are waging a two-front fight against the extremists and the Syrian regime. Defense officials said the training will begin in mid-to-late March in Jordan, with a second site due to open soon after in Turkey. At the same time, the threat is spreading. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called on Tuesday for the United Nations to endorse an international military campaign against Islamic State in Libya, a day after he ordered cross-border airstrikes in retaliation for the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by the extremist group. The U.N. Security Council was to meet in emergency session on Wednesday, but the U.S. and several other council members called in advance for a political solution.
The Obama administration has been facing growing pressure to step up support for the moderate Syrian rebels from Republican hawks in Congress and from some allies, as well as conservative critics.
The first training sessions are to last between six and eight weeks. The training will focus on helping the rebel forces hold territory and counter Islamic State fighters—not to take on the Syrian army. After that the U.S. will consider introducing what it is calling “the new Syrian force” onto the battlefield, officials said. A team of four to six rebels will each be given a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup, outfitted with a machine gun, communications gear and Global Positioning System trackers enabling them to call in airstrikes. The fighters will also be given mortars, but the administration hasn’t decided whether to provide the teams with more sophisticated antitank weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency began a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in 2013, providing ammunition, small arms and antitank weapons to small groups of trusted fighters. While that program continues, some officials and administration critics say it has fallen well short of its aims. Officials said air support will be critical if the military-trained rebels are to have a more dramatic impact on the battlefield than the CIA program did. But a final decision on under what circumstances the U.S. will provide air support to the rebels hasn’t been made, according to Pentagon officials. The U.S. has begun screening some rebels to join the program. While the U.S. hopes to train 3,000 fighters by the end of the year, officials wouldn’t say how many have been selected so far.
The U.S. hopes to step up the training next year, to approximately 5,000.
But officials say the moderate forces will never outnumber Islamic State extremists or regime forces. Reflecting that, the Pentagon believes the moderate forces must have superior training as well as support from U.S. warplanes. In the Syrian city of Kobani, near the Turkish border, Kurdish forces called in targets for American B-1 bombers, helping them wrest control from Islamic State forces in late January. Drawing on that experience, the U.S. believes its aircraft can have a devastating effect on Islamic State forces elsewhere if it works with another partner force on the ground. “The way we envision it, it would be very similar to Kobani,” said a senior military official. But while Kurds in Kobani were calling in strikes mostly on fixed targets in a precisely defined area, the U.S. trained rebel force would likely be calling for strikes against moving targets, a much more difficult task. U.S. officials also don’t know whether American planes will be able to provide air support if the moderate forces it trains get in a fight not with Islamic State, but with forces loyal to the Syrian president. Because the U.S. isn’t at war with Syria, U.S. military lawyers are wrestling with whether U.S. warplanes would have legal authorization to strike Mr. Assad’s forces, even to support a U.S.-trained rebel force. Aside from the legal issues, officials said that, as a policy question, the White House hasn’t given a green light to supporting the rebels if they get into a battle with the Syrian military.
Some Republican lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), have been critical of what they see as a U.S. campaign in Syria that is too narrow to succeed. “How can we train up a Free Syrian Army or send any other force into Syria if we don’t first deal with the Assad air threat,” Mr. Graham said at a confirmation hearing this month for incoming Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.Some critics of the Obama administration’s campaign in Syria also raised questions about the proposal.
Kimberly Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, said providing air support for the rebels is critical. But, she said, if the Obama administration doesn’t target the regime’s forces as well, it will inadvertently empower other extremists in Syria.Expanding the war to Assad’s forces could fracture the international coalition gathered to fight Islamic State, however. Some countries believe it should be expanded. Others believe it would be a mistake to dilute the focus, and say attacking Assad’s forces could quickly help Islamic State grow stronger. Some in the military believe the U.S. needs to wait until Islamic State fighters are weakened further before it considers airstrikes against Syrian forces. More important, U.S. officials have said if the U.S. begins attacking Assad’s forces, the uneasy peace between Iran, an Assad ally, and the U.S. in Iraq will break down and Iranian-backed militias could begin targeting U.S. forces there.
Iranian leaders have told supporters in Iraq not to attack U.S. bases, but that detente could dissolve if the war in Syria expanded to take on Mr. Assad, U.S. officials say.
“Because we have a common enemy, a common goal, everybody is moving in the same direction,” said the senior military official. “You cross a red line in Syria, you start to infringe on what Iran sees as its long-term interest and those Shia militias could turn in the other direction.”
Military officials said their ability to control the rebels will be limited once they are on the battlefield. However, the senior official said the U.S. will have some leverage, including ammunition resupply, stipends paid to the fighters and support from airstrikes. “All those things could be put at risk if they go counter to what we have asked them to do,” the official said.Another critic, James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, questioned how long any supporting air campaign for the rebels would last.“I would say it is more of a PR thing than part of a sustained campaign,” he said.
The U.S.-trained rebels most likely will be calling in strikes on Islamic State fighters, rather than on fixed targets, military officials said. The planes would drop 500- and 2,000-pound guided bombs, a typical load for the B-1s that have operated in Afghanistan as well as Syria. Using the B-1’s sniper pod, which allows the aircrew to precisely target moving objects, the crew could target tanks, motorcycles and other moving vehicles.Air Force pilots who have recently returned from the battle over Kobani said that communication with Kurdish fighters was decisive in targeting airstrikes.
Kurdish fighters were initially skeptical of what the U.S. strikes could do, said Lt. Col. Ed Sumangil, commander of the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron that flew missions over Kobani until earlier this month. But after hitting targets called in by the Kurds, the advance of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was quickly halted, and, in the ensuing months, rolled back.“We were getting information from the Kurds from our command and control element,” said Lt. Col. Sumangil. “We were getting information quickly enough for the purposes of what we were trying to achieve: target ISIL fighters and their positions.”
Write to Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org and Adam Entous at email@example.com