Around 1,500 to 2,000 people are expected to be trained in Turkey (in the first year), a limited number” of US soldiers would come to Turkey to help carry out the training jointly with Turkish colleagues.
Syria militants fire rockets and howitzers, made up by propane cylinder and named ‘hell’, around the Citadel of Aleppo in Aleppo, Syria, on December 30, 2014. Anadolu/Mustafa Sultan
Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels this month, as part of the US-led campaign to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, a senior Turkish foreign ministry official said Monday.
Meanwhile, the newly elected head of Syria’s Turkey-based opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), ruled out taking part in a Russian-led bid for new talks to end the Syrian conflict.
The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said.
The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.
“Around 1,500 to 2,000 people are expected to be trained in Turkey (in the first year),” the official said, adding that a “limited number” of US soldiers would come to Turkey to help carry out the training jointly with Turkish colleagues.
The training is planned to take place at a base in the central Turkish city of Kirsehir.
In October of last year, John Allen, a senior US official, said that his country does not expect the Free Syrian Army (FSA) it trains to fight ISIS militants to also take on Syrian Arab Army forces, but sees them as a crucial part of a political solution to end the war.
“There is not going to be a military solution here,” he added.
The FSA is a term used to describe dozens of armed groups fighting the Syrian army to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad but with little or no central command. They have been widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents such as ISIS.
The plans gained momentum in November 2014 when Britain announced it would also make “a significant contribution” to equip and train the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition to defeat the ISIS group as well as the Syrian army.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that “the UK is helping the opposition establish security and governance, and to deliver essential services. This includes life-saving search and rescue training, helping Syrians whose homes have been reduced to rubble by the regime’s bombs.
“We are providing non-lethal equipment and the UK expects to make a significant contribution to the US-led Train and Equip program,” Hammond said in the statement, adding that “Assad can play no future role in Syria.”
Meanwhile, Gulf state Qatar, with the help of the US, has already been covertly training the so-called “moderate” Syria rebels to fight the Syrian army and ISIS group as well as other extremist groups for over a year, sources claimed in November.
The camp, south of the capital between Saudi Arabia’s border and Udeid area, the largest US air base in the Middle East, is being used to train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants and other so-called “moderate” rebels, the sources said.
Reuters could not independently identify the participants in the program or witness activity inside the base, which lies in a military zone guarded by Qatari special forces and marked on signposts as a restricted area.
But Syrian rebel sources said training in Qatar has included rebels affiliated to the FSA from northern Syria.
The sources said the effort had been running for nearly a year, although it was too small to have a significant impact on the battlefield, and some rebels complained of not being taught advanced techniques.
The training is in line with Qatar’s constant meddling in regional affairs.
Small groups of 12 to 20 militants are identified in Syria and screened by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the sources said.
Once cleared of links with jihadist factions, they travel to Turkey and are then flown to Doha and driven to the base, though it wasn’t clear how the militants are ‘cleared’ of jihadist links.
Rebel fighters have voiced frustration with the US-led approach to fighting ISIS. They say Washington and its Arab allies are too focused on quashing the militant group at the expense of confronting Syrian army, which many rebels still see as the ultimate “enemy.”
ISIS militants have seized large swathes of territory in Syria and around one third of Iraq. They seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June last year.
Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against the insurgents, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200 km (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria.
But it agreed in principle to train and equip Syrian rebels and is already training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. Ankara has signalled that it is ready to extend similar assistance to the Iraqi army and send arms.
The US decision to train and equip rebel groups in Syria was criticized by several renowned officials who warned of dire consequences.
Former US Congressman Ron Paul, an outspoken anti-interventionist, denounced in an interview with Russia Today the plans, noting that these Western-backed forces have been “helpful to ISIS.”
“The FSA turned over the weapons, that we (the US) sent them, to ISIS,” Paul said. “It is pretty well recorded that for $50,000 the FSA turned over one of the two American journalists to ISIS.”
In his article, Kucinich quoted historian Alastair Crooke who described “moderate” rebels in Syria as being “rarer than a mythical unicorn,” and warned that “funding Syrian rebels will precipitate a new and wider war in the Middle East.”
“Saudi Arabia, which, with Qatar funded the jihadists in Syria, is now offering to ‘train’ the rebels,” which means that “the sponsors of radical jihadists are going to train ‘moderate’ jihadists,” Kucinich added.
Kucinich also described the US Treasury as becoming the “piggy bank” of ISIS.
“The US has supplied weapons to the Iraqi government and to Syrian rebels which have ended up in the hands of ISIS,” he explained. “As a result, the US Air Force has been bombing Humvees and armored troop carriers purchased with US taxpayer money.”
SNC refuses to take part in Moscow talks
Khaled Khoja, who was elected early on Monday to head the SNC opposition grouping, said Moscow’s proposal was impossible.
“The dialogue with the regime that Moscow is calling for is out of the question,” he said at a news conference in Istanbul, where the Coalition is based.
“We can’t sit at the same table as the regime… except in a negotiating framework intended to achieve a peaceful transition of power and the formation of a transitional body with full powers,” he said.
Russia, a key ally of Assad, has been trying to relaunch peace talks that would include meetings between delegates of the regime and the fractured opposition.
It has invited 28 opposition figures, including members of the tolerated domestic opposition as well as individual coalition members, to Moscow later this month.
Among them are Hadi al-Bahra, whom Khoja succeeded on Monday, and two other previous Coalition chiefs, Moaz al-Khatib and Abdel Basset Sida.
It remains unclear whether the coalition will prohibit its members, who have been invited by Moscow, from attending the talks.