WASHINGTON -- The U.S. general directing the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq set off a wave of criticism Wednesday when he told a Senate panel that the $500 million Pentagon program to train nationalist Syrian rebels had so far yielded only "four or five" fighters.
Gen. Lloyd Austin's remarks seemed to critics like a confirmation that public funds had been wildly misused on a program that was meant to produce upward of 5,000 U.S.-trained fighters.
But there's more to the complex story of what the U.S. is up to in Syria than this admission of startlingly limited progress -- and that context is central to understanding Wednesday's furor.
Syria watchers have known for months that the Pentagon's program would be in trouble. Most argued that it was doomed from the start, because it wanted to force nationalist Arab activists who were most concerned with toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad to focus instead on the Islamic State militant group. Many of those nationalists told the U.S. that while they were no fans of the Islamic State, their first priority was still Assad, because of his brutality and because of the risk that his regime might go unpunished for its atrocities.
Still, after some initial difficulty recruiting and vetting rebels who agreed to the congressionally approved mission, the Pentagon introduced a force of 54 U.S.-trained rebels into the Syrian battlefield. Then al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate kidnapped the rebels' leader and attacked them. A number of those rebels remain in al Qaeda's hands. (In further bad news for the Obama administration, rebel sources told McClatchy last month that the assault was planned in concert with Turkey, an ally of the U.S. that would like to see the U.S. help battle Assad as well as the Islamic State.)
All of this suggests that there has been a serious failure to plan how best to protect U.S.-friendly assets. Al Qaeda's reaction was not totally unforeseeable. After all, the Syrian al Qaeda branch has little to gain from seeing Washington expand its presence in Syria, because the branch relies on other rebels being willing to work with it to gain territory -- something that would become impossible for rebels explicitly linked to the U.S. program -- and because it has itself previously been the target of U.S. airstrikes.
When you consider Austin's remarks on Wednesday in the context of these other recent events, they start to seem less surprising. Austin's comments are simply the latest reminder of how troubled the Pentagon program remains. A senior congressional aide told The Huffington Post this week that officials throughout the administration seem aware of the gaps in the program. The aide told HuffPost that the program itself is still salvageable, but that it's not clear whether certain changes that some Syria watchers consider vital to the program's success -- like a commitment to the creation of a safe zone for the rebels -- will actually happen.
What Austin did not mention Wednesday is that there is a significantly larger and more successful U.S. rebel-training operation run by the CIA in southern Syria. Austin could not publicly acknowledge that effort, and neither could the senators questioning him, but others who follow the Syrian civil war helped set the record straight:
In 2013, working with U.S. regional allies who also invested funds, intelligence and weaponry, the CIA-run program set up shop in Jordan and began to arm and pay Syrian nationalists fighting Assad.
That focus made it significantly more successful in recruiting Syrians than the Pentagon program has been. For about $1 billion a year, according to The Washington Post, the CIA's Syria mission paved the way for rebels in the south to beat back the regime without cooperating with extremists, and to appear, for a time, to be a ray of hope for the country.
That operation now looks to be in jeopardy, with some U.S. lawmakers in recent months beginning to question its effectiveness and with the Assad regime bolstering its defenses. Still, the CIA has sent nearly 10,000 Syrian fighters into the country, officials told the Post in June. That's something that went unmentioned this week in the headlines about Austin's "four or five" trained fighters.
None of this is to say that U.S. operations in Syria are a roaring success. The continued flow of migrants and refugees out of the shattered country is proof enough of that. And scrutiny of the Obama administration's policies is only going to grow stronger, because the Pentagon's inspector general is presently investigating claims that military officials distorted intelligence reports to exaggerate U.S. progress against the Islamic State. Top lawmakers emphasized in Wednesday's hearing that they will be keen to hear what the inspector general concludes. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called the claims "a serious allegation that strikes at the core of our government in terms of our ability to oversee and make decisions around the use of our military."
Despite the growing skepticism about its overall Syria strategy, the White House continued on Wednesday to defend the Pentagon program.
"We've acknowledged for some time the significant challenges we've encountered in training and equipping and sending to the battlefield moderate elements of the Syrian opposition," press secretary Josh Earnest said during his daily briefing. "The administration knew on the front end that this would be a quite difficult task, and it's proven to be even more difficult than we thought."
He punted specific questions about the plan forward to the Defense Department.
Changes in the United States' Syria strategy, Earnest said, are "warranted."
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
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