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We Need To Stop Backing Syrian Rebels Willing To Work With Al-Qaeda


Slowly but surely, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are retaking the rebel-held portion of Aleppo. The siege may not end this week or even this month, but in the decimated city so central to Syria’s convoluted civil war, the momentum behind government troops and their Russian allies is clear.

Faced with this unwelcome reality, the theoretically moderate rebel militants long supported by the United States via the CIA have grown restless. President-elect Donald Trump has indicated he may not continue backing them once he takes office—Trump views defeating the Islamic State as the United States’ primary objective and is willing to work with Assad and Russia to do it—so the opposition groups have begun casting about for other sources of support.

Top on the list of potential allies: al Qaeda and Islamic extremist groups like it, which can provide weaponry and coach rebel fighters in “adoption of more traditional guerrilla tactics, including sniper and other small-scale attacks on both Syrian and Russian targets,” The Washington Post reports.

There’s No Player in Syria Allied with U.S. Interests

Some Trump advisors, including incoming White House national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, believe the CIA-backed rebels are already more closely allied with al Qaeda than Washington presently admits. But regardless of whether he is correct, that the terrorists responsible for September 11 are a palatable option for these groups tells us all we need to know: namely, that America’s foreign policy is incoherent and devoid of strategic, long-term thinking.

This is not to say, of course, that Washington should endorse the rebels’ enemies: There is much to critique in the Assad regime—which has deployed brutal chemical weapons against civilian populations in Aleppo—and its supporters, not to mention the evil tactics ISIS shameless uses in its quest for mastery of the Middle East. Rather, it is to say that there is no player in the Syrian civil war aligned with American interests, and in attempting to fashion some “good guys” out of opposition militants, America’s naïve foreign policy elite has succeeded only in racking up an enormous bill.

The single most egregious expenditure, of course, was the $500 million spent training an ever-shrinking pool of rebel fighters. It was bad enough when, in the summer of 2015, we learned about half that money was spend on just 60 troops—a whopping $4 million per person. Then it got worse.

These pricey militants were culled from forces opposing Assad but were supposed to prioritize fighting ISIS. That worked out for just two months. Then, more than 90 percent of the class of 60 were routed by—get this—al Qaeda, leaving just “four or five” U.S.-trained rebels on the battlefield. The $500 million was originally allocated as part of a plan to train 5,000 Syrians annually. It successfully deployed five guys.

Supporting Syrian Rebels Is Costly and Counterproductive

Beyond that single debacle, U.S. involvement in Syria has cost taxpayers an average of $11.5 million each day since August of 2014. To date, that’s nearly $10 billion—apparently the price we must pay to arm militants who are also willing to work with al Qaeda.

But American support for the not-so-moderate Syrian rebels isn’t merely costly; it has also been colossally counterproductive. Even before Syrian rebels began eyeing al Qaeda as a potential primary ally, they were fighting Kurdish forces also armed and funded by the United States (where the Syrians were supported by the CIA, the Kurds are backed by the Pentagon). Effectively, America funded a proxy war with herself.

As new dalliances between Syrian rebels and al Qaeda emerge, Washington should seize this moment to extract America from a civil war where we have nothing to gain and much to lose, allowing regional powers who oppose ISIS and seek a stable Syria to address what is for them a local, vital problem. That we are working so closely with fighters aligned with the perpetrators of 9/11 makes inescapable the conclusion that intervention in Syria does not and will not advance U.S. security.