US training just 60 Syrian rebels as part of $500m programme

Defence secretary Ash Carter said Washington's stringent vetting process was the primary reason for the "small class".
US defence secretary Ashton Carter testifies before a senate armed services committee hearing on countering ISIL on July 7, 2015. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
US defence secretary Ashton Carter testifies before a senate armed services committee hearing on countering ISIL on July 7, 2015. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

NEW YORK // The US military only has 60 recruits in its US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) programme aimed at training and arming a force of moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIL, the US secretary of defence has admitted.

The train-and-equip programme was funded by congress last year, with the goal of producing around 5,000 Syrian fighters a year over three years. These fighters would build an on-the-ground partner force for the United States in Syria, theoretically capable of beating back ISIL and holding retaken territory.

But hostile questioning by Republican members of the senate armed services committee during a congressional hearing on Tuesday led to the revelation that the programme – which is based in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – has barely got off the ground.

Defence secretary Ash Carter said that the stringent vetting process was the primary reason for the “small class”.

“This is the number that got through a very vigorous vetting and selection process that we have,” he said.

Mr Carter defended the programme, saying that there are 7,000 prospective rebel recruits still in the vetting process and that “as training progresses, we are learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships, which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations”.

His remarks came a day after US president Barack Obama admitted that training the Syrian rebels was an aspect of the strategy to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria that was “moving too slowly”, but that Washington will “ramp up [its] training and support of local forces” in Syria.

But without fundamental shifts in US policy towards Syrian rebels, it is unclear how Washington will be able to find a significant number of recruits, let alone ramp up the programme.

“When you think about how strict they’ve been about vetting criteria, and you’re starting with such a limited pool, you end up with very few people coming out of the other end successfully,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council think tank.

The vetting parameters disallow recruits who have worked with hardline extremist groups, even without being members, and seeks only those moderate rebels committed to a democratic and pluralistic Syria, said Mr Itani.

White House officials fear that weapons supplied to the rebels could be passed on to extremist groups, used against US interests by the vetted rebels themselves or turned against Syrian regime forces rather than ISIL, which is why the vetting process has been so slow.

Most crucially, the recruits must agree to only fight ISIL and not Syrian regime forces, with no US commitment to protect its trainees from the barrel bombs Syrian troops use to decimate civilian-populated rebel-held areas. The bombs have been deployed regularly against rebels already fighting ISIL.

There has been no decision made yet within the US administration on whether it would use air power to defend rebels against the Syrian attacks. Many within the administration fear that tipping the scales too heavily in the rebels’ favour could lead to regime collapse and a power vacuum filled by ISIL and other extremists.

“That decision will be faced when we introduce fighters into the field,” Mr Carter told the senate panel.

Reports suggest that dozens of rebels who were vetted for the programme have left because of these US-imposed conditions.

Another factor in the slow pace of the programme is the emergence of the YPG Kurdish militia in northern Syria as a capable ground force which the US can trust and is willing to support with airstrikes.

The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, along with a smaller number of Arab Syrian rebels, have surprisingly retaken up to a third of ISIL-held territory in Syria over the past month. This has made the complex and difficult process of building a Syrian anti-ISIL force less pressing, analysts say.

“They are the available solution, and because of that, why take the risks involved” in training rebels, Mr Itani said.

However, the short-term alliance with the YPG may eventually play into ISIL’s hands if Syrian Sunni Arabs feel threatened by the Kurdish forces, and may complicate the relationship with Turkey – a crucial country in the fight against ISIL which sees the YPG as part of the Kurdish separatist threat.

The YPG, observers say, is also not an enduring solution because of the need to eventually fight ISIL in Arab-majority areas in Syria.

Published: July 8, 2015 04:00 AM


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