The misgivings of Division 30 trainees
URFA (Turkey) - The US-sponsored effort to train moderate Syrian opposition forces to combat Islamic State (ISIS) militants is “useless and a waste of time and energy,” a rebel commander said. His is among numerous criticisms, including from members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, about the project aimed at building a new force called Division 30.
Three months into the effort, a mere 50 fighters had graduated from the US train-and-equip programme, a far cry from the 15,000-strong force the Syrian opposition and the US administration had envisioned. US Central Command Commander General Lloyd Austin III told a Senate hearing that of those trained and sent to fight in July only “a small number” remained. “We’re talking four or five,” he said.
To that, Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said: “We have to acknowledge this is a total failure. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the fact.”
Mustapha Sejari , the commander of a unit that was supposed to receive US training in Turkey and Jordan , would agree.
“The Americans are not serious about training the Syrian opposition. It is a project to pass time and tag opposition groups as (US) collaborators,” Sejari said.
Sejari quit after he concluded the effort was futile. “The American project is limited to graduating batches of 30 to 50 fighters every three months. Only those who had no other choice stayed in the programme,” he said.
Hundreds of fighters enrolled but later walked out, refusing to sign a pledge to refrain from fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to opposition sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The opposition groups initially accepted to take part in the programme on grounds that there is no US conditions or terms for joining and that the US would provide air cover, full armament and training on sophisticated weapons,” one source said.
Many refused to be enlisted because of the US restriction that limited their fight against ISIS, a move Turkey applauded, the source added.
The training started in May with 500 fighters identified by the United States as part of the “moderate opposition”. But when the Americans requested they sign the contract, as many as 450 withdrew.
“Their argument for pulling out was that their main target is to fight against the Syrian regime and that ISIS would collapse the moment the regime is toppled because they are two faces of the same coin,” another opposition source said.
The American plan was criticised by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which identifies itself as a pillar for military action in the revolution. FSA Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Haitham al-Afisi, a former Syrian Army officer, denied there was coordination between the Americans and the FSA on the programme.
“My relationship with the Americans is not in my capacity as an officer of the FSA’s chief of staff but as a commander of one of the training units,” Afisi said.
“The mechanism that has been adopted to implement the project is inefficient and infeasible but we were promised that things will improve in terms of the numbers of trainees and the logistics support,” he added, referring to the first 50 fighters who graduated.
Afisi warned that the project may collapse unless a more serious approach is taken to embolden the fighters. “The truth is that the programme did not make any difference on the ground, especially in fighting ISIS. The division proved to be inefficient so far. It can hardly defend the area where it is deployed,” Afisi said.
The three-year US plan, with a $500 million annual budget, aims at training and arming 5,000 fighters a year to combat ISIS. Fighters who passed the test to undergo training receive a monthly salary of $225. Candidates should be aged 20-28, in good health and have never had contacts with ISIS.
“We received tough training on the use of various types of weapons,” said one of the training graduates.
“The division’s fighters coordinate closely with the (US-led) coalition forces fighting ISIS, as is the case of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and should be able to achieve progress on the ground if they are deployed on the war front because they would be relying on coalition air cover,” said the trainee who asked not to be named.
The division’s offices in rural Aleppo were attacked by the al- Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which accused fighters of collaborating with the “American enemy”, and one of its commanders, Colonel Nadim al-Hassan, was captured along with five soldiers.
The US-trained fighters have not been tested in the battlefield, according to Colonel Mohamad al-Ahmed from the Sham Front group.
“Not a single fighter from the division is participating in the raging battles with ISIS in the northern part of rural Aleppo. At the same time, there is no coordination whatsoever with the coalition forces to target ISIS strongholds in the area,” Ahmed said.
In what was seen as an indication that the US plan to train Syrian rebels to combat ISIS is in tatters. US media reports said the Pentagon was preparing new plans to find sufficient competent fighters, bolster their fighting capacities and provide them with intelligence assistance.
Washington has not given up on the plan publicly, although the moderate opposition fears it is already crumbling.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it was easy for critics to look after the fact and complain about the training programme’s lack of progress. He said the Pentagon was working to improve the programme.