The United States recently admitted that their plan to train over 15,000 reliable, moderate Syrian rebels has so far only produced 60 trained men. This struck many who follow the war in Syria as very disappointing. But once you know the details of this program, the results are not so strange.
Back in January 2015 American officials met with some of the secular Syrian rebels leaders in Turkey to work out details of how the U.S. and Turkey would proceed to train and equip 5,000 Syrian rebels in Turkey. The U.S. offered to spend $500 million on this and Turkey was to provide the camps and access into and out of Syria. The Americans and Turks did not agree on how to screen recruits as well as some other details. The Turks are willing to accept recruits with more radical attitudes than the Americans are comfortable with. This is all part of a larger plan in which Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are to host training for 5,000 rebels this year and a total of 15,000 over three years, most of it paid for by the United States. About 2,000 rebels are to be trained in Turkey during 2105. The disagreements with the Turks led to a lot of delays in carrying out the plan. Yet this is not the first time the United States has tried to raise a force of Syrian rebels.
Since 2011 the United States has been searching for a sizable force of “moderate” (not Islamic radical) rebels in Syria and while there used to be some of these rare critters in 2011 their numbers have dwindled steadily ever since. Until 2013 there was the secular FSA (Free Syrian Army), but this group steadily lost recruits to the more successful and better armed and financed radical groups like ISIL and al Qaeda (especially the largely Syrian al Nusra). The radicals were stronger in part because they had support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states. Unlike the United States, the Arabs were not concerned about sending cash and weapons to Islamic radical groups in Syria because of the possibility that these groups would eventually attack the West. Preventing Islamic terrorist violence in the West was much less important to the Gulf Arab governments than their fear of growing Iranian power in the region. The Iran backed Assad government of Syria was a vital link in Iranian support for the Shia Hezbollah militia in south Lebanon and the Shia majority government of Iraq. The Sunni governments of Arabia were terrified of Iranian power reaching all the way to the Mediterranean and believed their Western allies did not sufficiently appreciate the Iranian threat.
The division between the secular and religious Syrian rebels became more pronounced after 2013, with the Islamic groups making it very clear that they will not tolerate democracy and didn’t agree with each other on exactly how to organize and run a religious dictatorship. This has always been a major failing with Islamic rebels and the source of endless fighting, even after those few cases when Islamic radicals conquer an area. The Sunni Arab governments supporting the Islamic terrorist rebels understood this shortcoming and believed it would prevent the Islamic terrorists becoming a serious threat to Sunni Arab governments.
In the meantime the Islamic rebels of Syria were cooperating with each other to push FSA units out of captured army bases and towns and villages that the FSA had long controlled. The FSA also suffered supply problems because American and Western aid was often withheld because of fears some of it will get to Islamic rebels. This is unavoidable considering the chaotic situation inside Syria. The Arab aid flows more freely because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab countries believe it’s crucial that some aid reach rebels. For this reason more rebels are shifting allegiance to rebel groups (usually Islamic) that receive most of their aid from Arab sources. By mid-2015 FSA was largely defunct and the only “moderate” Moslems the West could depend on were the Syrian Kurds. But the Kurds (and their desire for a nation of their own) are also seen as a threat by Shia and Sunni run governments in the region. As a result of all this the West finds itself with far more opponents in Syria than it expected and no clear plan for dealing with the problem.