Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Training for what in Syria?

Syria’s armed opposition groups have refused to join a US training programme having been told not to attack the Syrian regime, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Five years ago, American officials said that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must go, having lost his credibility as leader of the country.

Since then, the US has put together a pro-opposition forum dubbed the Friends of Syria. But aside from the rhetoric, the flak jackets, and other items of a “non-lethal” kind, the Americans have not been eager to give the Syrian opposition the kind of weapons that can stop the regime in its tracks.

When quizzed on the matter, US officials have said they do not want their high-quality weapons to fall into the wrong hands, a reference to the motley collection of jihadist outfits now operating in the country.

But tents and boots alone are not enough to win the revolution, the Syrian opposition has protested. Eventually, it seemed that the Americans had got the point. In July 2014, the US promised to launch a programme to train fighters it considered to be “moderate.”

US officials said that 5,000 fighters would be trained over two years, an average of 200 men or so per month. It set aside $500 million for this training programme, which was supposed to take place in Turkey.

The initial reaction among the Syrian opposition was positive, but before long scepticism set in. The training programme was too modest, some said. How could battles of such a scale, with hundreds of thousands of fighters, be influenced by the infusion of 200 or so men, however well-trained, per month, they asked.

But the worse was yet to come. When the Americans finally launched the programme in February 2014, it transpired that they wanted the fighters to focus on fighting the Islamic State (IS) group and not the regime.

Most of the Syrian opposition forces lost interest, and thus far only a few dozen men have enrolled in the programme. In mid-June, the Americans admitted that the programme, in place for a year or so, has managed to train fewer than 100 fighters.

Unwilling to admit that the programme had failed because of the unreasonable conditions imposed on the fighters, US officials came up with other explanations. The applicants were mostly minors, or physically unfit, or had the wrong loyalties, they claimed.

But the opposition has another story to tell. Osama Abu Zeid, legal adviser of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said the Turks and the Americans were not always on the same page as far as the Syrian opposition was concerned.

“There are Turkish-US differences concerning the programme, and the two sides have not been coordinating together,” he said. “The programme does not target the Al-Assad regime, but only IS,” he added.

This was a major hurdle for the opposition, for which the main adversary is the Al-Assad regime, not the jihadists of IS, however loathsome these may be. “The armed opposition factions, irrespective of their affiliation, are not prepared to join a scheme that does not target the Al-Assad regime,” Abu Zeid remarked.

“The US administration has no clear strategy in Syria,” he added.

According to opposition sources, the US confined its training programme to combatants having no links with the extremists and instructed them to refrain from engaging the regime in battle.

The opposition remains divided. Its lack of a common leadership and persuasive strategy has hampered its cause.

But if the US wants to find mainstream fighters to cooperate with, there is no shortage of them. With 100,000 army deserters and 100,000 other civilians who have had combat experience, the ranks of the opposition are filled with non-jihadists who are willing to fight for democracy, justice and the rule of the law.

They are willing to fight the regime and the IS jihadists, but not the latter alone. Abdel-Razeq Al-Laz, a defector from the Syrian army to join the ranks of the opposition, is now sceptical of US policies.

“The US deceived the Syrian people,” he said. “It doesn’t want the Syrian opposition to take on the regime and its militias, not even Hizbullah and Iran,” he added.

“The evidence suggests that the Syrian regime is doing all it can to keep IS alive,” Al-Laz stated. “The violence in Syria is not going to end until the regime falls.”

Louay Safi, a former spokesman for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), is also tired of US policies.

“The Obama administration is making excuses to hide its failures,” Safi said.

“The Americans do not trust Al-Assad, but neither do they trust the opposition,” he added.

“America is only interested in promoting its strategic goals in the region, and the Syrian opposition has no interest in these aims. What the opposition wants is to bring down the regime and create a free and just government in its place,” Safi stated.

“We are concerned that the US will cooperate with the regime through intelligence and military institutions in order not just to destroy IS, but also the opposition as well.”

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