Flashback: US spent $500M, only got 4 or 5 “moderate” rebels to fight ISIS in Syria

A 2015 incident that is rarely discussed but critically important, and frankly hilarious, provides much insight into the history of the war in Syria — and the key role of US intervention in the bloody conflict. It reflects the often-cited myth of the so-called “moderate rebel” in Syria, a country where the opposition forces are utterly dominated by hard-line Salafi jihadist militants.

The US devoted a whopping $500 million to a military program to train “moderate” rebels to combat ISIS. The goal was to prepare some 5,000 fighters. After a year, the US had only managed to train just around 60 fighters in Turkey willing to go up against the genocidal extremist group.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter revealed this in July 2015, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I wanted to tell the truth. The number 60, as you all recognize, is not an impressive number. The number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point.”

Just a few weeks after Carter disclosed these paltry numbers, half of the moderate rebels trained by the US were attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, the most powerful branch of the extremist group.

Seven US-trained moderate rebels were kidnapped in a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. Al-Nusra killed another five moderate rebels and wounded 18 more in an attack on their headquarters.

By September 2015, top Army general Lloyd Austin admitted in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the $500 million US military program had completely failed.

“It’s a small number… we’re talking four or five,” acknowledged Gen. Austin, the head of US Central Command.

Half a billion tax dollars and a year of work later, and just “four or five” US-trained moderate rebels remained in Syria fighting ISIS.


“The administration knew on the front end that this would be a quite difficult task, and it’s proved to be even more difficult than we thought,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest later remarked. “Many of our critics had proposed this specific option as the cure-all for all of the policy challenges we’re facing in Syria right now.”

It really is a striking metaphor for the war as a whole: the US and its allies devoted billions upon billions of dollars to try to create a supposed “moderate” opposition, and it was devoured by extremist Islamist militants.

Yet the persistent myth of the Moderate Rebel™ lives on.