The Endgame in Syria
When Does Farce Become a Threat?

During the night, Syria’s al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front attacked the positions of ‘Division 30’, a group of fighters said to have been trained by U.S. forces in Turkey, killing five. The attack comes on the heels of yesterday’s report that Nusra disarmed and kidnapped 18 fighters from the group, including its leader and deputy. That report was disputed by the Pentagon in somewhat vague terms—the spokesman claimed no members of the “New Syrian Force” were captured or detained—but today, U.S. forces sprung into action, launching air strikes against Nusra positions in Syria.

The Obama Administration launched a training program in May with the goal of recruiting up to 5,400 ‘moderate’ fighters to counter ISIS advances in Syria. The program encountered difficulties, however, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified earlier this month that only 60 fighters had thus far been trained. If these latest figures are reliable, the total number of these reliable, moderate troops trained by the United States fighting in Syria now drops to 37.

As our coverage throughout this week has reflected, these developments lend an element of farce to an otherwise gravely incoherent U.S. policy in Syria. After all, if the attrition keeps up, “Division 30” could soon accurately be renamed “Division of 30 Guys.”

But there’s a point at which the farce itself becomes a threat to U.S. interests. The Middle East is a region where perceptions of strength matter—almost as much as actual strength. And the image of a bloated, remote superpower that can only field 60 fighters (at the cost of millions), loses nearly half of them, and seems not to know it, is one that projects weakness and invites further attacks.

Of course, one of the reasons Washington isn’t a-flutter about these developments is that we know they’re trivial—that we could change things in an instant on the ground if we really wanted to. But therein lies the rub: If the Administration never stirs itself to act, all our potential might adds up to nothing more than 60 (now 37) guys, and impotence.

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