Congress is in the process of allowing the Pentagon to spend nearly $721 million to recruit, train and equip a rebel army in Syria, and lawmakers have set strict limits on how the money can be spent, according to officials and documents.
Neither the exact scope of the funding nor the conditions attached to it have been previously reported.
Ironically, however, while the budget for the program is large, the assistance has been so slow to arrive that the moderate rebel forces it is intended to help may find themselves all but beaten on the battlefield by the time the initiative gets underway, according to accounts from the front lines.
President Barack Obama has described the training of a Syrian rebel force as a linchpin of the fight against the Islamic State. Despite the pressing nature of the issue, until a few days ago, the Pentagon had only short-term authority for the program — but it has had not one penny to implement it.
The authorization had come under the temporary continuing resolution (PL 113-164) that expired Thursday at midnight. It would be continued in the defense authorization bill (HR 3979) that the Senate expects to send to the White House for enactment on Friday.
Only this week, however, was any spending approved. That happened when the last of the four congressional defense panels approved a Nov. 10 Defense Department request to reprogram previously appropriated funds from war operating accounts to the higher-priority Syrian program.
The Pentagon asked to move $225 million for this purpose. Congress approved $220.5 million of it. (The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense said no to just over $4 million of it because lawmakers and staff felt it should more appropriately be provided for in the regular Milcon-VA spending bill).
The $220.5 million will be used for training the first two classes of 300 recruits, with an annual goal of 5,400 fighters, according to the Pentagon comptroller’s request.
Also this week, House and Senate negotiators finished writing a governmentwide spending bill (HR 83) for fiscal 2015 that would provide longer-term funding for the Syrian rebel force. The House passed the bill Thursday night, and the Senate could take it up as soon as Friday.
Tucked deep inside the bill is authorization to spend up to $500 million on the Syrian rebels. That money would be drawn from a new program appropriated in the bill for the first time called the Counterterrorism Support Fund. Lawmakers set aside $1.3 billion in this pool of money, which is intended to help U.S. allies who are fighting terrorists (the request was $4 billion).
The $500 million for the Syria program is for “training, equipment, supplies, sustainment and stipends, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups or individuals.” The goals: “defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition; protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria; and promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”
The $500 million can only be spent if certain conditions are met, the bill says. It cannot be used to supply shoulder-fired missiles, which many lawmakers worry could end up in the hands of insurgents who might use them to shoot down military planes or even civilian passenger jets.
What’s more, the bill says, the Syrian recruits cannot be associated with any of several named militant groups. And, the appropriators wrote, the provision is not “a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of the United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances. . . .”
In addition to the Pentagon program, an officially covert CIA train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian rebels is continuing. But the CIA’s lack of capacity to expand its project was a key reason that the administration and Congress wanted a Defense Department initiative.
Falling Behind on the Front
As substantial as the incipient Pentagon program is, it has arrived too slowly, critics say.
Moderate Syrian rebels are rapidly losing ground in that country to jihadists and to the Bashar al-Assad regime, so much so that the fighters whom the Pentagon would support may have a postage-stamp-sized piece of territory to work from by the time the U.S. weapons arrive and the training sessions start — if the moderate rebels even continue to exist as a fighting force, experts say.
And even though money is now finally starting to arrive at the Pentagon for the program, it will still take a while to get the training going.
“My understanding is that they will use most of that [$225 million in reprogrammed] money relatively soon, but it’s to put things on contract (weapons, etc.) that will take a while to deliver,” a knowledgeable House aide said.
But the Defense Department program is “unlikely to be militarily significant in the near future,” the aide said.
In the meantime, the moderates in Syria are being routed.