US sees Syria rebels in political, not military solution – paper

The US plans to train and equip will ultimately have a crucial political role in ending the Syrian conflict, says Washington's representative to the coalition.

Members of the Iraqi security forces carry the coffins of their comrades during a procession to their burial site in Iraq's Shiite shrine city of Karbala on Monday. Mohammed Sawaf / AFP
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BEIRUT // The United States does not expect Syrian rebels it plans to train to fight ISIL militants to also take on president Bashar Al Assad’s forces, but sees them as a crucial part of a political solution to end the war, a senior US official said.

The United States, which is leading an international coalition bombing ISIL in Syria, has said it wants to train and equip “moderate” rebels to fight the militant group, which has seized tracts of land in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Asked whether those rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) units would ultimately go on to fight Syrian government forces, tretired US general John Allen, the US representative to the coalition , told the Asharq Al Awsat daily:

“No. What we would like to see is for the FSA and the forces that we will ultimately generate, train and equip to become the credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognise.”

“There is not going to be a military solution here,” he added, in comments published at the weekend on the newspaper’s English language website.

The Free Syrian Army is a term used to describe dozens of armed groups fighting to overthrow Mr Al Assad but with little or no central command.

They have been widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents such as ISIL.

Rebel fighters have voiced frustration with the US-led approach to fighting ISIL. They say Washington and its Arab allies are too focused on quashing the militant group at the expense of confronting Syrian government forces, which many rebels still see as the ultimate enemy.

The Syrian air force has ramped up its own bombing campaign on insurgent-held areas since the US-led airstrikes began last month, increasing rebel fears that the government is profiting from the distraction of the coalition campaign.

Gen Allen said there was a need to build up the credibility of the moderate Syrian opposition at a political level, adding that it was normal for rebel forces to clash with the Syrian military as they seek to defend their territory and families.

“But the intent is not to create a field force to liberate Damascus – that is not the intent,” Gen Allen told the newspaper.

“The intent is that in the political outcome, they must be a prominent – perhaps the preeminent voice – at the table to ultimately contribute to the political outcome that we seek,” he said at the start of a Middle East tour.

US president Barack Obama said last month he wanted to train and equip Free Syrian Army rebels to “strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists” and to prevent US troops from being dragged into another ground war.

“The outcome that we seek in Syria is akin to the [anti-ISIL] strategy that fits into a much larger regional strategy and that outcome is a political outcome that does not include Assad,” Gen Allen said.

The United Nations says more than 191,000 people have been killed since the start of the Syrian uprising against Mr Al Assad’s rule in 2011. Rights groups say the actual figure is higher.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, a suicide car bomber driving a military Humvee struck a checkpoint manned by troops and pro-government Shiite militiamen south of Baghdad on Monday, killing at least two dozen people, officials said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place on the outskirts of the Sunni town of Jurf Al Sakhar, 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, but the bombing bore all the hallmarks of ISIL.

The ISIL militants lost control of the town only the previous day, when Iraqi soldiers and the Shiite militia retook Jurf Al Sakhar from the Sunni extremist group. ISIL had seized the town in July, as part of its blitz earlier this year that captured large swathes of northern and western Iraq.

In Monday’s attack, the bomber rammed his explosives-laden Humvee into the checkpoint, killing at least 24 people and wounding 25, a police officer said. Most of those killed were members of the Shiite militia, he added.

In the wake of ISIL’s advances, Shiite militias in the country have answered the call by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, to join government forces in the fight against the Sunni extremists.

Jurf Al Sakhar is part of a predominantly Sunni ribbon of territory that runs just south of Baghdad and lies on a road usually taken by Shite pilgrims when they head in droves to the holy Shiite city of Karbala further to the south.

Pilgrims will be taking the route again next week in order to commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein – one of the most revered Shiite martyrs.

* Reuters and Associated Press