Questions hang over US training of Syrian rebel fighters

Friday 22/05/2015

WHASHINGTON - When US Secre­tary of Defence Ashton Carter confirmed that the United States is training Syrian rebel fighters to engage Islamic State (ISIS) militants in battle, he touched off a firestorm of questions and concerns from the very moderate rebel fighters the programme supposedly is designed to help.
However, response to the May 7th announcement within the United States raised little interest despite a Rasmussen poll indicat­ing that 86% of Americans asked say that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to the United States.
Meanwhile, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander told the media a new battle plan includes an accommodation that moderate forces will be fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime with US backing. Rami Dalati, a member of the FSA Military Command’s Higher Council, praised Washing­ton’s response to the FSA’s calls to amend the military plan and allow the FSA to target not just ISIS but also Assad regime forces. “This is something that we insisted on,” Dalati said.
The US Department of Defense confirmed that about 90 rebels will receive training initially. That is about one-third less than the size of an infantry company. This could provide a training cadre for other FSA fighters or perhaps small unit actions. But it will be much too long before a critical mass of 1,000 or more trained fighters will be available to con­tribute significantly to unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad or to defeat ISIS.
Yet to be determined is how these fighters will be integrated into the battle against ISIS. The Obama administration has requested $500 million for the programme.
That is about $100,000 per fighter, which begs the ques­tion of whether it be money well spent or another example of throwing good money after bad with little or no positive result.
Training sites in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be added. More than 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered for the training but only about 400 have complet­ed pre-screening.
US Special Forces personnel have been tasked to train the rebels, many of whom are former Syrian soldiers. The main ques­tion yet to be answered is: “Is this too little, too late?” And, if not, then what kind of training and what kind of leadership will these fighters have to ensure their success in the battle against ISIS fighters?
Unfortunately, a strong leader has not emerged. Turkey and Jor­dan are fully engaged protecting their borders while Saudi Arabia is focused on pro-Iranian insurgents in Yemen and concerns about negotiations between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Also at issue are concerns that the training may be for naught. Some wonder whether the United States may once more be train­ing a brigade for ISIS, similar to the 3,200 vetted moderates who joined ISIS in late 2014, along with all the US-supplied weapons and training.
The main factor, then, remains how effective these troops will be and how loyal will these troops be — and to whom?