US military says it has begun training dozens of Syrian rebels

The new training programme, designed at tackling ISIL, follows a similar programme last year that failed.

A woman sits on a wheelchair near a damaged building, as a boy follows another one riding a bicycle in the rebel-controlled town of Maaret Al Numan in Syria's Idlib province on April 1, 2016. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
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WASHINGTON // The US military said on Friday it had started training dozens of Syrian opposition fighters to battle ISIL as part of a revamped programme that aims to avoid the mistakes of its first training effort in Turkey last year.

Training for the first group of recruits includes how to identify targets for US-led coalition air strikes to allow aircraft to better strike ISIL from the air.

“That allows us to bring significantly more fires into play in any of these skirmishes, battles, and firefights that are taking place throughout Syria,” said US army colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition.

Col Warren said no Syrian fighters had yet graduated from the programme.

The Pentagon has declined to say where the training is being conducted, but US officials said it is in Turkey.

The failure of the original programme, which sought to train thousands of fighters, has been a concern for president Barack Obama, whose strategy depends on local partners combating ISIL militants in Syria and Iraq.

The 2015 programme was problematic from the start, with some of the first class of Syrian fighters being attacked by Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra in their battlefield debut. At one point, a group of US-trained rebels handed over ammunition and equipment to Al Nusra.

Instead of trying to pull entire units from the fight for training, as the Pentagon sought to do last year, the new programme will take small groups of fighters from the front-lines for training.

“If it works we’ll do more. And if it doesn’t, we’ll shift again,” Col Warren said.

The US announcement came as France accused the Syrian government of violating a fragile truce in the five-year war that has devastated the country.

The French foreign ministry also accused president Bashar Al Assad’s regime of trying to undermine efforts by the international community to resolve the conflict.

A spokesman said civilians had been targeted in the government’s aerial bombardment of the Deir Al Asafir district, south-east of Damascus, on Thursday.

The death toll from the strikes rose to more than 30 on Friday. Most of those killed were women and children.

“This attack, which deliberately targeted civilians, shows that the regime is pursuing its actions and violating the ceasefire,” spokesman Romain Nadal said.

“This abject act was intended to terrorise the Syrian people and undermine the efforts of the international community to find a political solution.”

Air strikes continued in the area on Friday. Two strikes hit the outskirts of Deir Al Asafir and at least seven hit the village of Bala, just north of the district, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

UN-led talks on a peace deal are due to resume in Geneva soon, but the sides are deadlocked over the fate of Mr Al Assad, whom the opposition insists must leave power before a transitional government is agreed.

* Reuters, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse