The U.S. announcement marked the effective end to a short-lived $580 million program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria, after its disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.
The Pentagon said it would shift its focus away from training to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a U.S. vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.
The strategy switch comes as the Obama administration grapples with a dramatic change in the landscape in Syria’s four-year civil war, brought about by Russia’s military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s intervention has cast doubt on Obama’s strategy there and raised questions about U.S. influence in the region.
Moscow is mounting air strikes and missile attacks that it says are aimed both at supporting its longtime ally Assad and combating ISIS. Washington says Russian air strikes in Syria are targeted primarily not at ISIS but at other rebel groups, including those that have received U.S. support.
Obama has previously questioned the notion that arming rebels would change the course of Syria’s war. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2014, he said the idea that arming the moderate Syrian opposition would make a big difference on the battlefield had “always been a fantasy.”
By vetting only rebel commanders, the new U.S. policy could raise the risk that American-supplied arms could fall into the hands of individual fighters who are anti-Western.
The Pentagon will provide “basic kinds of equipment” to leaders of the groups, Christine Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters on a White House conference call.
The Syrian rebel groups that have recently won favor with Washington include Sunni Arabs and Kurds as well as Syrian Christians, U.S. officials have said.
Wormuth defended the Pentagon program launched in May that trained only 60 fighters, falling far short of the original goal of 5,400 and so working out at a cost so far of nearly $10 million per trained fighter.
The Pentagon confirmed last month that a group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had handed over ammunition and equipment to Nusra Front, purportedly in exchange for safe passage.