Jordan trains ‘moderate’ Syrians for post-Assad rule
MAFRAQ (Jordan) - Jordan is training secular Syrian forces to be deployed in Sunni Muslim areas in Syria to maintain security there when the regime of President Bashar Assad crumbles or abandons the capital, Damascus.
However, a strict vetting process and the recent dismissal of dozens of Syrian cadets for violating Jordanian Army disciplinary orders is hampering a US-sponsored programme to produce a viable force willing to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
“The training programme is off to an extremely slow start,” an Amman-based Western diplomat said, insisting on not being identified further because of the sensitivity of his information.
He admitted to “slowdowns identifying moderate Syrian rebels” but stressed that there were “dozens of cadets who are being trained by Jordanian military instructors”. He declined to provide details.
Three Syrian trainees interviewed separately on July 4th said their battalion initially included 301 Syrians but that 151 were dismissed and deported to Syria on July 1st.
“They desecrated disciplinary orders by being late to training and sometimes not showing up for days,” said one of the cadets, a person familiar to The Arab Weekly reporter for at least two years.
In Washington, US Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that “no shortcuts” will be made in screening Syrian rebel volunteers.
More than 6,000 Syrians have volunteered to battle ISIS but fewer than 100 have passed muster, Dempsey told a Pentagon news conference on July 1st. He said while the United States needs to develop a “credible, moderate fighting partner” on the ground in Syria, the “vetting must be done carefully to weed out extremists”.
The US goal is to train and equip 5,400 rebels per year, he said, adding that training is conducted in Jordan and Turkey. The US Congress allocated $500 million to finance the programme.
On June 17th, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a congressional committee that it was “very hard” to find fighters who are both “moderate” and willing to “take on ISIS as their primary foe”.
It was not immediately clear if the Pentagon-sponsored training is the same as that referred to by the diplomat.
Publicly, Jordan admits there are several hundred US military advisers in the pro-Western Arab kingdom, mostly manning Patriot batteries to fend off a possible missile attack by Jordan’s Syrian neighbour.
Jordan has a vested interest in a stable post-Assad Syria. The majority of Syria’s central and southern regions lack the riches of the north and north-east, which has oil reserves. Thus, people there may escape hardships to Jordan, which is already grappling with an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
The potential for a spillover of violence from Syria is a nightmare to Jordan whose northern border is about an hour’s drive from Damascus. The border was sealed in April of this year when it was seized by the militant al-Nusra Front.
Amman is concerned that when Assad is toppled, ISIS will have a freer hand in Syria, using it as a springboard for attacks on Jordan and other moderate nations.
Underlining the Syrian refugee crisis, Jordan said that Syrians made up 21% of the population of 7.5 million. They have strained the country’s meagre resources, particularly water, health care and electricity.
The Syrian refugees are mainly Sunnis, just like the rest of Jordan’s population. They fled more than four years of civil war which has killed some 231,000 people, according to Syrian opposition figures.
Cash-strapped Jordan, which reported a record deficit of $30 billion (72% of gross domestic product), lives off donations from traditional US and Saudi bankrollers.
The recruit said the cadets hailed mostly from the southern border city of Deraa and all are of tribal Bedouin background.
From Deraa himself, the trainee said many of the conscripted men were carefully selected from Zaatari, a camp in Jordan housing thousands of Syrian refugee families. Training at an army camp in an isolated strip near the northern city of Mafraq began October 1st, he maintained, declining to be identified further, citing Jordanian army regulations that ban him from talking to the media.
Another five conscripts, three of whom were among those deported, spoke in separate interviews with The Arab Weekly.
They provided similar information on condition of anonymity. All had Jordanian Army conscription identification cards.
They said their training focused on various techniques, mainly crowd and city control, anti-terrorism tactics, street fighting and “liberating areas from terrorist groups” — a clear reference to ISIS.
However, all six voiced one concern: Where they will be positioned in the future? They complained that their Jordanian instructors were keeping them in the dark about what was in store for the recruits.
Jordanian security officials declined repeated requests for clarification from The Arab Weekly.
The Western diplomat said Jordan and some of its Western allies say that it may be only a matter of time before Assad abandons Damascus to set up an enclave on the eastern Mediterranean shores in Latakia and Tartus for the ruling Alawite minority, comprising about 250,000 people. “There are clear signs that an Alawite enclave may emerge at some point soon,” he said.