Will U.S. Protect Its Syrian Rebel Army?
The long-awaited Syrian train-and-equip program that President Barack Obama sold to Congress as the way to keep American boots off the ground in Syria is finally about to start training its first troops. Three Obama administration officials who work on the Middle East told me that after months of preparations, the vetting of rebel troops for the first tranche of training is nearly complete. About 1,800 soldiers from Free Syrian Army brigades in southern Syria will soon move to a training camp in Jordan to undergo weeks of preparation for a coming fight against Islamic State inside Syria.
But here's the problem: The administration hasn't figured out what to do if and when those troops are attacked by Bashar al-Assad's air force, after they get back into Syria. One Obama administration official described that prospect to me as the "Achilles' Heel" of the whole program, calling the deployment the administration's last and best chance to make the Syria component of its anti-IS strategy work.
On Thursday, administration officials met to ponder how to protect the new U.S.-trained Syrian rebel army from barrel bombs and other air attacks. Next Monday, Obama will preside over a meeting of his National Security Council on the campaign against Islamic State where this issue could be debated.