Sarah Tully for The Hill: The Syria Snafu

Syria Snafu Emblematic of Congress’s Budgeting Problem

By Sarah Tully

Read this article on The Hill

“We’re talking four or five” men, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command during a Senate hearing in September. That’s how many U.S.-trained so-called moderate Syrian rebels are left on the battlefield fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as part of the administration’s $500 million dollar train and equip program.

During a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the United States’ efforts against ISIL, Austin and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth tried their best to sell lemons as lemonade. But Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not buying it. “I’ve never seen testimony as divorced from the reality of every outside expert as this,” said McCain, after hearing Austin’s relatively rosy testimony. In fact, committee Republicans and Democrats alike expressed skepticism for the program—a rare display of bipartisan agreement.

The program, which officials hoped would train roughly 5,400 Syrians, has come under fire in recent months with reports that only 54 U.S. trained fighters had entered the Syrian battleground to fight ISIL as of mid-August. Last month’s hearing revealed that, of the 54 trainees who entered the battlefield, only 4 or 5 trainees remain. As Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) put it, “that’s a joke.”

Congress authorized $500 million dollars for the program at the end of 2014, but most of the 6,000 Syrians who volunteered for the program did not make it through the application process. Many failed requisite background checks. Others weren’t willing to commit to focus their efforts on ISIL militants instead of the Syrian government’s fighters. The Pentagon had spent just about $42 million on the program as of May 30, 2015.

Wormuth was insistent that there are between 100 and 120 fighters currently “getting terrific training.” But no matter the quality of training, Wormuth and Austin were unable to convince the committee that four or five men—or even 104 or 105 men—are making any impact in the United States’ fight against ISIL.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) brought up a critical point: At what point does the U.S. have to admit that, while well-intentioned, this program is simply not going to play out as envisioned? The program to train and equip Syrian rebels is clearly not achieving what it was meant to with an embarrassing four or five soldiers left on the ground.

It is Congress’ job to get rid of ineffective programs like this one. But because of Congress’ impotence, Fiscal Year 2016 will start with a stop-gap funding measure, a continuing resolution (CR) which typically funds the federal government at last year’s level. The just-passed CR will avoid a government shutdown, but only through December 11, 2015.

If Congress keeps appropriating at last year’s level, this failed program will be funded at $500 million dollars for another year. But this is surely not the only unsuccessful Pentagon program from FY 2015 that could bleed into 2016.

This particular issue is emblematic of a larger problem: Strategy-based policies can only be implemented if Congress budgets properly, and actually prioritizes based on our national security needs.

So while members of the Senate Armed Services Committee can and should scoff at the lack of results for a $500 million dollar program, it is ultimately up to them, and their peers, to end it.

Article 1 section 9, clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution, the appropriations clause, gives Congress final authority on the appropriation of public funds. It’s time they fulfill their constitutional duty and properly exercise the power of the purse.

Tully is a research and policy associate at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World.