— The Obama administration on Friday abandoned its effort to build a rebel force inside Syria
to combat the Islamic State, acknowledging the failure of its $500 million campaign to train thousands of fighters and saying the remaining money would be used to provide lethal aid for groups already engaged in the battle.
Senior officials at the White House and the Pentagon said the strategy to pull fighters out of Syria, teach them advanced skills and return them to face the Islamic State had failed, in part because many of the rebel groups were more focused on a campaign against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
But officials said they were trying to adapt their strategy by seeking to identify the leaders of “capable, indigenous forces” in Syria who — after what the officials described as a vigorous vetting process — will for the first time be given military equipment to distribute to their forces engaged in fighting on the ground.
“We need to be flexible. We need to be adaptive,” said Brett McGurk, a top adviser to Mr. Obama on the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Is it best to take those guys out and put them through training, or to keep them on the line fighting and give them equipment and support?”
Pentagon officials announced what they called an “operational pause” in the training program on Friday, as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter left London
after meetings with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, about the continuing wars in Syria and Iraq
. Officials said they held out the possibility that some training might resume.
In Washington, White House and Defense Department officials said the equipment to be provided to the rebel groups would be “basic” in nature and would not include antitank rockets or other high-end equipment that could eventually fall into the hands of groups that commit acts of terrorism against the United States
or its allies.
“We are very careful to provide support to groups who are not involved in that type of activity,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.
But officials spoke only in general terms about their methods to monitor equipment. They said some of the groups that would receive equipment were familiar to American commanders.
In some cases, “we have been working with these groups for months,” said Christine E. Wormuth, the under secretary of defense for policy. “We have pretty high confidence in them already.”
The closing of the program comes as the administration’s attention is shifting to northeastern Syria, where it hopes to assemble a group of Sunni tribes in a “Syrian Arab Coalition” to fight alongside Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State.
“Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is now directing the Department of Defense to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” a Pentagon statement said of the new effort. The statement said the Pentagon would monitor the progress of these groups “and provide them with air support as they take the fight to ISIL.”
A senior defense official said that the remaining training “will be much more minimal” than the previous program. The Central Intelligence Agency runs a separate program to train and arm selected groups, many of which are now battling Syrian army units backed by Russian air power.
The new program, the official said, will begin in the next few days.
Officials said the equipment, which will be supplied to leaders of Syrian opposition groups, would include weapons, ammunition and communication equipment.
“I wasn’t happy with the early efforts” of the program, Mr. Carter said during a news conference with Mr. Fallon. “So we have devised a number of different approaches.” Mr. Carter added, “I think you’ll be hearing from President Obama very shortly” on the program.
But after the news conference, a senior defense official said that Mr. Carter had misspoken and that Mr. Obama would not be speaking. The White House is expected to make a statement.
The shift in strategy comes amid a huge deployment of force by Russia
in support of Mr. Assad, who has clung to power since the civil war began in 2011. Russian warplanes have conducted scores of airstrikes, and Moscow has fired a barrage of cruise missiles at targets in Syria.
Mr. Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, say he is a bulwark against the Islamic State. The United States insists that Mr. Assad must go, though possibly as part of a negotiated transition. For years, the Americans have found it difficult to identify groups in Syria that they can confidently support.
A senior Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that there would no longer be any more recruiting of so-called moderate Syrian rebels to go through training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a much smaller training center would be set up in Turkey
, where a small group of “enablers” — mostly leaders of opposition groups — would be taught operational maneuvers like how to call in airstrikes.
While many details of the new approach still need to be worked out, President Obama endorsed the shift in strategy at two high-level meetings with his national security and foreign policy advisers last week, several American officials said.
The change makes official what those in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the administration have been saying for several weeks would most likely happen, particularly in the wake of revelations that the program at one point last month had only “four or five” trainees in the fight in Syria — a far cry from the plan formally started in December to prepare as many as 5,400 fighters this year, and 15,000 over the next three years.
Already, the Pentagon has announced it was “pausing” the transfer of trainee candidates in Syria to training sites in Jordan and Turkey. Several dozen opposition fighters already at the training sites are likely to complete their instruction — learning to help call in allied airstrikes and operating 122-millimeter mortars — and they will be placed in opposition groups in Syria to enhance their combat effectiveness, officials said.
“Training thousands of infantry was not the right model, I think that’s become pretty clear,” said another senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The official said the training was “to be suspended, with the option to restart if conditions dictate, opportunities arise.” The official also said that support to Sunni Arab fighters in eastern Syria was an example of focusing on groups already fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “rather than using training to try to manufacture new brigades.”
The shift in strategy comes as critics in Congress have increasingly demanded that the administration make changes or face the elimination of the program.
In a letter to the State Department, the Pentagon and the C.I.A. last week, four senators — three Democrats and a Republican — criticized the program. “The Syria Train and Equip Program goes beyond simply being an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars,” the senators wrote. “As many of us initially warned, it is now aiding the very forces we aim to defeat.”
The senators — Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut
; Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia
; Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico
; and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah
— were referring to the latest debacle of the program.
Some of the American-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their United States-provided equipment to the Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, the United States Central Command acknowledged in late September.
In a statement correcting earlier assertions that reports of the turnover were a “lie” and a militant propaganda ploy, the Central Command said it had subsequently been notified that the Syrian rebels had “surrendered” some of its equipment — including six pickup trucks and a portion of its ammunition — to the Nusra Front. Those rebels, unlike any who would be part of the new program, were trained and equipped outside Syria.
More broadly, the program has suffered from a shortage of recruits willing to fight the Islamic State instead of the army of Mr. Assad, a problem Mr. Obama mentioned at a news conference last Friday.
The administration was expected to provide classified briefings to lawmakers and their senior aides on Capitol Hill on Friday to explain the impending changes to the train and equip program.
“The opposition and their regional backers wanted the program, they just couldn’t accept ISIS as the priority and U.S. ambiguity on taking out Assad,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Like in the Iraq war, you can’t expect people to fight on your behalf unless you give them what they want. We got the politics wrong yet again.”
The shift in strategy comes as Mr. Obama has approved two important steps to set in motion an offensive against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria in the coming weeks.
Mr. Obama ordered the Pentagon, for the first time, to directly provide ammunition and perhaps some weapons to Syrian opposition forces on the ground. He also endorsed an idea for an increased air campaign from an air base in Turkey, although important details of that plan still need to be worked out.
Together, these measures are intended to empower 3,000 to 5,000 Arab fighters, a conglomeration of 10 to 15 groups, who would join more than 20,000 Kurdish combatants in an offensive backed by dozens of coalition warplanes to pressure the Islamic State in Raqqa
, the militant group’s main stronghold in Syria.
American military officials have screened the leaders of the Arab groups to ensure that they meet standards set by Congress when it approved $500 million last year for the Defense Department to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.
Under the shift in strategy that emerged on Friday, the administration would now focus more of its efforts on equipping these Arab fighters and inserting some of the trained Syrian rebels within their ranks.