In a grim assessment of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday that the country’s armed opposition will not be able to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now or in the foreseeable future, despite the existence of a Pentagon program to train and equip 5,000 rebels per year.
“We do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove him from power,” Brett McGurk, one of the State Department’s point men in managing the ad hoc international coalition battling the Islamic State, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It will have to be a diplomatic process.”
In recent weeks, the situation for Syria’s beleaguered moderate opposition has gone from bad to worse, as they continue to lose ground in the crucial northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The near-extinction of many moderate rebel groups has coincided with increasing gains by Salafist groups tied to al Qaeda or the Islamic State. For the remaining “moderates,” aligning with Washington poses a deadly risk, as U.S. airstrikes against al Qaeda-aligned militant groups in Syria fuel conspiracies that Washington tacitly supports Assad.
That’s a problem for the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which relies in part on recruiting and training moderate rebels to combat Islamic State militants before taking the fight to the Syrian government.