Washington's policy of recruiting, training, deploying, maintaining and supporting armed rebel groups to operate inside Syria in sympathy with Western aims of attacking ISIS while steering clear of Assad regime forces was always ambitious. Without coalition troops accompanying them, there is little to no oversight of what these forces do on the ground, including who they fight against and with. Yet the risk to Western personnel is too great to justify such a step.

The other main difficulty is in getting enough fighters to pass the vetting requirements, which essentially requires potential combatants to eschew targeting the Syrian army in favour of fighting only ISIS. 

It appears the advance guard of this US-backed New Syrian Force has not fared well, with claims that one of the leaders of the group was captured and several killed already. There are confusing reports about exactly who attacked whom, who was captured, and from what faction. One US source denied any links between Washington and the fighters involved, but this report indicates that Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaida's Syrian affiliate) attacked and captured some US-trained fighters.

Exactly who they were hasn't been confirmed, but the first batch of US-trained rebels (54 of them) did deploy by road from Turkey into northern Syria last month, so it's plausible that these latest reports refer to the same group. Even more confusingly, this Stars & Stripes report appears to indicate that the people captured were from Division 30, a Free Syrian Army element, and that the US-trained group was working with, if not embedded within, them.

Whoever they were, they were important enough to justify US air strikes to support them, even though it appears the air strikes targeted Jabhat al-Nusra rather than ISIS, which is the intended target for the New Syrian Force.

This little vignette should be a cautionary tale to those advocating greater Western military involvement in Syria. It's a confusing place where the insertion of additional forces, absent any commensurate diplomatic initiatives, is more likely to muddy the waters rather than clear them.

Photo by Flickr user Freedom House.