WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday abandoned its efforts to build up a new rebel force inside Syria to combat the Islamic State, acknowledging the failure of its $500 million campaign to train thousands of fighters and announcing that it will instead use the money to provide ammunition and some weapons for groups already engaged in the battle.
Defense Department training sites across the Middle East, including ones in Turkey and Jordan, will soon suspend almost all operations, officials said, in favor of a revamped program that briefly screens Arab rebel commanders of existing Syrian units before equipping them with much-needed ammunition and, potentially, small arms. Airdrops of equipment could begin as early as this weekend, officials said.
The decision to scuttle a central piece of President Barack Obama's strategy for confronting extremists in Syria was made after mounting evidence that the training mission had resulted in no more than a handful of U.S.-coached fighters. And it comes amid Russia's forceful entry into the Syrian conflict, a move by President Vladimir Putin that has highlighted the lack of progress by the United States and its coalition.
Senior officials at the White House and Pentagon admitted that the strategy to pull fighters out of Syria, teach them advanced combat skills and return them to face the Islamic State had not worked, in part because many of the rebel groups were more focused on fighting the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.
But officials said they were trying to adapt in real time by seeking to identify the leaders of "capable, indigenous forces" in Syria who would sign a pledge to fight the Islamic State group, receive some instruction on human rights and the law of armed conflict review and leave with communications gear and some help on how to call in airstrikes.
Officials said the provision of equipment to the groups would be limited at first but could grow depending on a rebel group's performance. Failure on the battlefield or the loss of weapons that could fall into the hands of extremists could trigger a cutoff of military equipment, officials said. The U.S. military has confirmed that some rebel groups have surrendered their weapons when confronted by extremists, and acknowledges that accounting for U.S.-supplied arms across the battlefield proved almost impossible in the past.
The new program would mark the first time the Pentagon has provided lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels, although the CIA has for some time been covertly training and arming groups fighting Assad.
"We need to be flexible. We need to be adaptive," said Brett McGurk, a top adviser to Obama on the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
He added later, "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?"
For Obama, Friday's answer to that question was a reversal of policy that underscored a harsh reality — the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars in recent years to train security forces across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia has rarely succeeded in transforming local fighters into effective, long-term armies.
The president has long expressed skepticism that training Syrian rebels could resolve the political and military challenges in that country. Obama's advisers insisted that he remained committed to a broader strategy in Syria that seeks to destroy the Islamic State even as the United States and allies pursue a political transition that pushes Assad out of power. But Obama's critics seized on the admission of failure in the training program to demand a new strategy.
"The administration has had a weak, inadequate policy in Syria and a weak, inadequate policy against ISIS," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Adjusting one program, even if it were successful, will not solve the problem."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the shift in strategy was doomed because the United States was unwilling to support rebels fighting against Assad as well as against the Islamic State.
He called it "inexplicable that the administration acknowledges this problem yet refuses to fix it."
In a letter to the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA 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 letter referred to a recent incident in which some of the U.S.-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their U.S.-provided equipment, including six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition, to the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
White House and Defense Department officials said Friday that the equipment to be provided to the rebel groups would not include anti-tank rockets or other high-end equipment that could cause serious damage if they fell 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 Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.
Pentagon officials Friday announced what they called the "operational pause" in the training program as Defense Secretary Ash 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.
"I wasn't happy with the early efforts" of the program, Carter said during a news conference with Fallon. "So we have devised a number of different approaches."
The changes make official what those in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the administration have been saying in the wake of revelations that the program at one point last month had only "four or five" trainees fighting 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.
"There are many, many individuals in Syria who want to fight the regime," said Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense for policy. "We were focused on identifying individuals who wanted to fight ISIL. And that's a pretty challenging recruiting mission."
Several dozen opposition fighters already at the training sites are likely to complete their instruction — learning to help call in allied airstrikes and operate 122 mm mortars — and they will be placed in opposition groups in Syria to enhance their combat effectiveness, officials said.
But even as they shutter the existing program, the administration is hoping to bolster groups already fighting in Syria. In part, U.S. attention is shifting to northeastern Syria, where the United States hopes to assemble a group of Sunni tribes in a "Syrian Arab Coalition" to fight alongside Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State.
Anti-Assad insurgents say they have never heard of a group called the Syrian Arab Coalition, although they welcome the prospect of increased support.
"We have received large promises surrounding future military aid, and we really did begin to receive equipment," a spokesman for Thuwwar al-Raqqa, a Sunni group that has worked with the Kurds, told the website Syria Direct.
But many Arabs, especially in northeastern Syria where there are large Kurdish populations, are wary of the Kurds' project to create semiautonomous areas and have accused Kurdish militias of carrying out ethnic cleansing in the mixed area.
Ahmad Abu Bakr, an activist from Raqqa who was reached in Idlib, said that he had not heard of the Syrian Arab Coalition but that he was against any movement to cooperate with the Kurds.
"For us, they are an enemy, not a friend," he said.
Even some Arabs who defected from the Syrian army have refused to join the group, he said.
Kurds were part of the campaign "because the Americans will be sending powerful weapons only if the Kurds are part of it," he said. "The U.S. doesn't trust anyone except the Kurds."
The new program will arm only Arab groups, and not Kurdish forces, out of deference to Turkish concerns, officials said. U.S. officials said Friday that coalition air power would support the new Syrian Arab allies on the ground, just as those planes have helped Syrian Kurdish fighters over recent months.
The new program will begin in the next few days, officials said. While many details need to be worked out, Obama endorsed the shift in strategy at two high-level meetings with his national security and foreign policy advisers last week.
The administration was expected to provide classified briefings to lawmakers and their senior aides on Capitol Hill on Friday to explain the changes to the train-and-equip program.
Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the failure of the training mission was another example of the United States' misunderstanding the real dynamic in a foreign country.
"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," Tabler said. "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."