The first batch of specially trained moderate Syrian rebels deployed into their war-torn country in late July had been taught to kill with U.S. M-16 rifles loaded with American ammo. They communicated over U.S. radios. Their gear wasn’t surprising: as the vanguard of President Barack Obama’s force to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), they had been outfitted by the U.S. military. “This group was deemed adequately trained,” says Navy Commander Kyle Raines, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the program.
The Defense Department may need to redefine the meaning of adequacy. The U.S.-trained Syrian rebels were no match for the scale of their mission. There were only 54 of them, just one more than a full NFL football-team roster. The rebels, who were operating out of the northwestern Syrian town of Mariameen, had scant information from local residents. So in the dark were the rebels that before they could draw a bead on ISIS, they were attacked by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot also operating in Syria. The U.S.-trained rebels who weren’t killed or captured fled. “The American effort has failed in form and function,” says a recently retired U.S. four-star general. “It will need to be completely reworked or dropped as a failure.”
This is not how it was supposed to go. This spring, Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of Central Command, was telling Congress that “we are making significant progress” and ISIS “is losing this fight.” But now that fall has arrived, the President’s generals are repeatedly using another word to describe the campaign: stalemate. Others are more blunt. “It’s a mess,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who headed Central Command from 1997 to 2000.
The war could be going even worse than it appears. U.S. intelligence analysts at Centcom headquarters in Tampa have alleged that their military superiors have been skewing their intelligence assessments to make it appear that the ISIS campaign is going better than it actually is.
However the war is being presented, there are few good options available for the U.S. military in Syria. President Bashar Assad is fighting for his life, politically and otherwise, against an array of rebel factions, including ISIS. The rebel groups are fighting among themselves for supremacy. Kurdish forces are fighting ISIS with U.S. help, but the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey is fighting the Kurds as well, complicating potential alliances. The four-year-long civil war has allowed both Iran and Russia, longtime allies of Assad’s, to expand their influence inside Syria, while the chaos has triggered the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War II.
Russia has raised the stakes in recent weeks by dispatching warplanes, T-90 tanks, air-defense systems and housing for 2,000 troops to a base outside the Syrian city of Latakia, 150 miles north of the capital, Damascus. Moscow’s moves prompted Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to speak to his Russian counterpart Sept. 18 for the first time since Carter took office in February to avoid inadvertent clashes between nuclear-armed superpowers. While Secretary of State John Kerry tried to put a positive spin on the Russian moves by claiming that Moscow might help push Assad out of power, few analysts agree.
It’s easy to see why Obama never wanted to become involved in a disintegrating Syria. The President initially rebuffed advice from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA chief and former Army general David Petraeus that the U.S. arm Syrian rebels back in 2012, when there were more–and more moderate–locals to enlist in the fight. But once ISIS moved into Iraq in 2014 and beheadings of Westerners began, Obama relented. He ordered U.S. air strikes against ISIS–7,000 to date, according to the Pentagon. But mindful of the war in Iraq, Obama ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to the region to directly fight ISIS, instead ordering the Pentagon to launch a $500 million push to arm and train the dwindling number of ideologically moderate Syrian rebels. They were to constitute the ground forces America would not commit.
From the start, political considerations hampered what military planners considered the least bad option. The Administration’s goal was to vet, school and outfit 3,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels in 2015, rising to a brigade-sized 5,400 in 2016. The Pentagon acknowledged that the moderate Syrian opposition meant to make up this force was leaderless, rudderless and salted with questionable characters. But military officers never like to say no to the Commander in Chief. “We have the finest troops in the world,” Austin tellingly informed a Senate committee on Sept. 16, “and they will figure out a way to get the job done one way or the other.”
It was hard enough to find moderate Syrian rebels by the spring of 2015, but Washington further reduced its chances of success by demanding that the U.S.-trained rebels pledge to fight ISIS only–not Assad, the brutal dictator whose family has ruled Syria for 45 years. Assad’s decision to squash domestic opposition following 2011’s Arab Spring sparked the ongoing civil war, which has killed more than 200,000 people, forced 4 million Syrians to flee the country and created the environment that only further nurtured ISIS. “The rebels only organized to save their families, neighborhoods and cities from Assad’s massive genocide,” says Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general. “When we decided we were only going to bring in rebels who would only fight ISIS, we wrote off 90%-plus of them.” That slowed the number of recruits trained by the U.S. to a trickle. The first group of 90 began training in May, with 120 more in the pipeline. About 70 of them recently entered Syria, Centcom said Sept. 21. While much of the training is happening in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also agreed to host U.S. troops working with the rebels.
The July Fiasco, U.S. officials have suggested, shouldn’t be blamed on Washington. “We don’t have direct command and control with those forces once we do finish training and equipping them when we put them back into the fight,” says Marine Corps Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, a leader in the anti-ISIS campaign. And while U.S.-led air strikes eventually came to the rebels’ aid, that didn’t avert catastrophe. According to Centcom, only 20 of the 54 original recruits remain in the program. Nine of the 20 are fighting in Syria. Fourteen others have joined other rebel factions, 18 are MIA, one is being held by the Nusra Front, and one is believed to have been killed. “It is key to the success of the new Syrian forces that they will have a degree of protection,” Army General Martin Dempsey, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last spring. “We’re not going to be able to recruit men into that force unless we agree to support them at some level.” It’s far from clear that U.S. support will be better next time.
Even if the U.S. achieves its goal of training up to 15,000 rebels by 2018, it will be too few, far too late. “You’re not going to have three years,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. U.S. intelligence has estimated that ISIS has as many as 30,000 fighters, and it has been able to replace its soldiers as fast as they are killed.
The Pentagon, eager to extricate itself from what is increasingly looking like a morass, may relax its strict vetting standards so it can arm more rebels. Instead of screening each rebel, it may end up scrutinizing only the leaders. And instead of building entire combat units, soldier by soldier, handfuls of U.S.-trained fighters might be attached to battle-hardened Kurdish and Arab units already in combat. They’d be less of an army and more like special forces, collecting intelligence on the ground and calling in air strikes, especially against ISIS’s capital, Raqqa, in north-central Syria. The U.S. is also likely to cut its annual training goal of 5,400 by as much as 90% (assuming that Congress, which has been a bystander in the campaign, approves funding beyond 2016).
In another blow to the effort, retired Marine general John Allen, in charge of the Administration’s diplomatic efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, is stepping down after a year in the post. He has been frustrated by the Pentagon’s reluctance to take more aggressive actions, including using airpower to create a safe zone for refugees.
Republican presidential candidates believe more U.S. military might is the answer. “I intend to destroy radical Islam,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News Sept. 20. But there is no guarantee that tougher action–by the U.S. or anyone else–can fix the ongoing tragedy that is Syria. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has tried several military strategies in this part of the world: in Iraq (massive ground-force invasion), Afghanistan (smaller ground-force invasion), Libya (overt air war supporting local forces on the ground) and Yemen (secret drone campaign). None has completely succeeded. It may simply be that there is no military solution to Syria–and perhaps no solution at all.
This appears in the October 05, 2015 issue of TIME.