Jordan trains ‘moderate’ Syrians for post-Assad rule

Friday 10/07/2015
US goal is to train and equip 5,400 rebels per year

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.