LONDON — The Obama administration backed away Friday from a failed effort to stand up a rebel force in Syria, as the Pentagon announced plans to instead aid existing rebel units that officials believe have better odds of weakening the Islamic State.
The decision to significantly scale back the Pentagon’s flagship effort against the militant group in Syria is a recognition of its repeated failures. After a long-delayed launch this spring, the effort quickly became mired in problems, including attacks by rival rebel forces and a decision by one U.S.-trained unit to hand over equipment to the local al-Qaeda affiliate.
The overhaul of U.S. strategy comes as the Obama administration scrambles to adjust to Moscow’s entry into the already crowded Syrian battle space. Russian planes and forces are now backing an offensive by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against opposition units, complicating the United States’ own air operations over Syria.
The Pentagon will now provide equipment and weapons to vetted Syrian units “so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. ISIL is another name for the Islamic State, which now controls a wide swath of Syria and Iraq.
“We will monitor the progress these groups make and provide them with air support as they take the fight to ISIL,” Cook said in a statement to reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter in Britain.
U.S. officials are hoping the move will help friendly Arab forces replicate the success that Syrian Kurdish fighters have had against the Islamic State in northern Syria, and eventually isolate the group in Raqqa, its de facto Syrian capital.
U.S. officials are also hoping the new effort will help allied forces secure parts of Syria’s border with Turkey and choke off the Islamic State’s supplies of fighters and weapons from the north.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said the troubled Syria training program was not being abandoned or ended completely.
“It’s being refocused to enhance its effectiveness,” the official said. “It’s being refocused in a new direction.”
The plans will require the United States to alter the stringent vetting procedures used for the previous training program, which subjected trainees to multiple rounds of screening before they could be brought to Turkey or Jordan for training by U.S. service members.
The new approach was proposed by the U.S. Central Command last month and was approved by President Obama in meetings with his top national security staff late last week.
Obama has already acknowledged the train-and-equip effort “has not worked the way it was supposed to.”
“And part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL,” he said last week.
“The response we’d get back is, ‘How can we focus on ISIL when every single day we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the [Assad] regime?’” Obama added.
The program is separate from a CIA-led effort to aid rebel factions in Syria. It was not immediately clear how Friday’s announcement might affect the CIA program.
For more than a year, a U.S.-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq. Now U.S. officials are seeking to ensure American pilots don’t come into conflict with Russian jets as they pound positions across Syria.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, believes the United States is likely to work more closely with Syrian Kurdish fighters and with groups that cooperate with them.
“The previous program did not succeed,” Smith said in Washington at the annual conference of the Military Reporters and Editors Association. “There is no question about that.”
The congressman added that it was worth trying to boost Syrian rebel groups, but “they just do not exist in sufficient numbers” for the existing program to work.
Brian Murphy and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.