The Pentagon’s overhaul of how it counters the Islamic State in Syria could create at least one clear winner: the Sunni Arab groups and their Kurdish allies there that have engaged in heavy combat against the militants for months.
As U.S. officials explained on Friday how they will scale back and alter the Pentagon’s maligned $500 million train-and-equip program, they cited the success, largely attributed to the Kurds, in taking back the Syrian border town of Kobane last year from the militants. The Pentagon’s effort has so far focused on establishing a Syrian rebel force to counter the Islamic State, but it will be adapted to instead aid existing groups that are already fighting.
Officials emphasized that U.S. military aid will go directly to the Arabs, not the Kurds, but the Kurdish fighters stand to benefit from the decision. To date, Washington has hesitated to hand equipment directly to the Kurds. Instead, they send materiel through the central government of Iraq. The new aid will be transported directly to Syria, where Arab groups are expected to launch a new offensive in and around Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital, while the Kurds continue to hold border areas where together they have succeeded in routing the militants.
The greatest successes against the Islamic State in Syria have come in the northeastern corner of the country, where the Kurds and Sunni Arabs have fought the group on the ground and the United States has backed the effort with hundreds of airstrikes.
A senior administration official told reporters in a conference call on Friday that the overhauled train-and-equip program will work by selecting commanders from forces the U.S.-led military coalition is already working with, vetting them to make sure there are no security concerns, and then training them and providing them with “equipment sets.”
The official would not specify what the equipment could include. Asked if it could include anti-tank weapons or anti-aircraft weapons like the man portable air defense system (MANPADS), the official did not rule out that option.
“As we work with these groups and continue to see what kind of progress they make and continue to build competence, you know, we may be able to look at additional types of equipment,” said Defense Department undersecretary Christine Warmouth. “But initially, we are certainly not talking about some of the higher-end types of equipment.”
The plan includes some politically complicated discussions for Washington. Turkey has expressed concern over U.S. aid to the Kurds, some of whose allies are considered terrorists in Turkey.
The change in the Syrian train-and-equip program does not address the requests of the Kurdish government in Iraq, said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, its representative in Washington. Speaking at the Military Reporters and Editors Association conference on Friday, she said it still needs more weapons and financial support to withstand the Islamic State in the future. It doesn’t make sense militarily or logistically to only send weapons through Baghdad, she added.
“We have no doubt who the enemy is — it’s Daesh — and we’re not going to put our weapons down,” she said, using one of the names for Islamic State fighters. “We’re not afraid to fight.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the U.S. has said it will not directly arm Kurdish forces.