On September 16, 2014, there was a brief exchange regarding the nascent war against the self-declared Islamic State—totally unnoticed at the time—between the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the secretary of defense:
Senator John McCain: We are now recruiting these young men to go and fight in Syria against ISIL [also called ISIS], but if they’re attacked by Bashar Assad, we’re not gonna help them?
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: They will defend themselves, senator.
McCain: Will we help them against Assad’s air …
Hagel: We will help them and we will support them, as we have trained them.
McCain: How will we help them—will we repel Bashar Assad’s air assets that will be attacking them?
Hagel: Any attack on those that we have trained and who are supporting us, we will help ’em.
Nine days later, then-Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby further confirmed this policy position: “The secretary was clear in his testimony that, once we have trained opposition forces, should they come under attack, we would defend them.” Thus, this broad policy guidance—that the United States would “help” and “defend” any Syrian rebels that went through the congressionally mandated and Pentagon-directed train-and-equip program—was clear from the very beginning. However, the manner in which Obama administration officials refuse to publicly provide any further clarifying information about this highly consequential position reveals a lot about how the administration goes to war.
Every member of Congress or staffer I’ve spoken with in the past 10 months has been tremendously troubled by the lack of clarity about the U.S. commitment to these rebels and the likelihood that they would make a difference on the ground. On multiple occasions, policymakers have appropriately pressed administration officials for further clarification of precisely when, how, and on what legal basis the United States would support and directly defend Pentagon-trained rebels. In short, they have simply refused to provide an answer.