Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Too few for victory?

US plans to train 5,000 opposition combatants a year in Syria may be inadequate given the extent of the problems in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

After much dithering and a fair amount of head scratching, the US has come up with plans to train the Syrian opposition. US and Turkish officers last week signed an agreement under which the training of fighters will begin in March, with the first batch of trainees being ready for combat by the end of the year.

US officials say that the total number of opposition fighters trained will be 5,000 per year. Of these, the Americans plan to train 1,200, the Turks up to 2,000 and, according to unconfirmed reports, Qatar, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will train 1,000 fighters each.

Although the plans seem systematic when compared to the rather random efforts the US has been engaged in over the past four years, many question their efficacy.

Unconfirmed reports say that after a year of training, the fighters will be given small armoured vehicles mounted with machineguns and communications equipment and sent into battle. There is no mention of anti-aircraft weapons in the plans.

US and Turkish officials have been talking about the plans for months, but there is no clear agreement between the two on what the exact mission of the combatants will be. The Americans want them to fight the Islamic State (IS), while the Turks say they should fight both IS and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Washington has said that the combatants should also police areas that IS retreats from.

The Syrian opposition is divided over the move, some labelling it “constructive” and others ridiculing the modest size of the programme. What will 5,000 men, however well trained, do in the face of multiple terror groups, the regime’s army, local militias, and imported mercenaries, opposition members ask.

The US has procrastinated for almost four years in helping the opposition on the pretext that it has not been able to locate suitable “moderates.” But few are able to understand what it meant by this term. Does it mean moderate Islamists, secularists, professional dissident soldiers or anyone willing to respect the international laws of war?

At the time the plans were revealed, tens of thousands of opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters were positioned in south Lebanon, disciplined and organised as any trained force can ever be and publicly committed to respecting the laws of armed conflict.

There are also more than 100,000 Syrian army defectors living in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. These have no shortage of training, and they would conceivably be willing to enrol in a credible fighting force against the regime.

Furthermore, there are more than 100,000 civilians who have had battle experience over the past four years and would appreciate the chance to fight the regime if credible command, armaments and air cover were provided.

There is no shortage of trained combatants who could fight both the regime and IS. What is lacking is the method of doing so, for these combatants cannot face the regime without air cover or at least anti-aircraft weapons. About 70 per cent of Syrian civilian casualties thus far have been in air raids carried out by the regime.

The opposition is also sceptical about the US plans for practical reasons. When the US offered training to several hundred opposition fighters in the past, the trainers focused on fitness and small arms, plus lectures on war ethics.

The trained fighters emerged from the training, were given medium-calibre arms and a few anti-tank shells and then sent into battle where their impact was negligible.

Munzir Aqbiq, a member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), called the new programme “encouraging,” but voiced concerns over the silence on air cover.

Speaking to the Weekly, Abqiq said that the US-Turkish plans called for optimism. But for the plans to succeed, “the fighters must have air cover,” he said. He added that the plans would be incomplete without safe havens, no-fly zones and air cover.

“The plans are vague when it comes to safe havens and no-fly zones. We don’t know if the international coalition plans to bomb the pro-Al-Assad militia either,” he noted.

Haytham Manna, a member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), has serious doubts about the plans, saying that they will not alter “the balance of power and combat reality.” Even if the training is exceptional, “how do you expect 5,000 fighters to fight IS and the regime?” he asked.

“There are nearly 300,000 combatants fighting for IS and Al-Nusra Front, as well as for the regime’s army and auxiliary outfits. You’re talking about 75 fighters for each one of those you plan to train. This is good for the movies, but not for real life,” Manna stated.

Former FSA spokesman Louay Al-Miqdad is also puzzled by the restrictions the US keeps imposing on the FSA. “The US wants to train and educate the FSA fighters for months before giving them weapons. But in Ein Al-Arab, or Kobani, it air-dropped weapons without thinking about the level of training the fighters had or their political leanings.”

According to Al-Miqdad, air cover is more important than training, recounting a case from the recent past. “Units from the FSA wanted to go to Raqqa to fight IS. But on their way there they came under aerial bombardment from the regime. Sending fighters into battle without air cover would be suicide.”

Al-Miqdad proposed the creation of training camps inside Syria that could speed up the process and accommodate larger numbers of trainees.

The best bet for Syria now is not to wait for the training of a few thousand fighters to take place over several years, as the Americans intend. Instead, air cover and quality weapons should be offered to the thousands of FSA personnel and to army defectors who will then be able to get the job done.

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