By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.
But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.At briefings this week after the disclosure of the paltry results, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, repeatedly noted that Mr. Obama always had been a skeptic of training Syrian rebels. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itselfwas flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.
The idea of bolstering Syrian rebels was debated from the early days of the civil war, which started in 2011. Mrs. Clinton, along with David H. Petraeus, then the CIA director, and Leon E. Panetta, then the Defense secretary, supported arming opposition forces, but the president worried about deep entanglement in someone else’s war after the bloody experience in Iraq.In 2014, however, after the Islamic State had swept through parts of Syria and Iraq, Mr. Obama reversed course and initiated a $500 million program to train and arm rebels who had been vetted and were told to fight the Islamic State, not Mr. Assad’s government.
Some Syrian rebels who asked for American arms in 2011 and 2012 eventually gave up and allied themselves with more radical groups, analysts said, leaving fewer fighters who were friendly to the United States.
CIA Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition