This Friday the US military announced it is training “dozens” of Syrian “opposition fighters”. Pentagon insists these fighters would battle the Islamic State and are specifically trained to act as spotters for US strike aircraft:
The U.S. military said on Friday it has started training dozens of Syrian opposition fighters to battle the militant group Islamic State as part of a revamped program that aims to avoid mistakes that doomed its first training effort in Turkey last year.
Training for the first group of recruits includes how to identify targets for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes to allow coalition aircraft to better strike Islamic State from the air.
One reaction to this announcement has been to dismiss it out of hand. Speaking to Sputnik Marcus Papadopoulos of UK-based Politics First magazine commented that Pentagon was actually training Islamist terrorist:
The people who the Americans have been training for the last five years in Syria are not freedom fighters, they are not rebels. They are militants. They are Islamist militants. They are terrorists. These are the people who have been carrying out some of the most heinous crimes imaginable not just against Sunnis in Syria but also against Shia, Alawites, Jews and Christians.
This is an understandable sentiment but is not accurate or informed.
It is true that the US has sponsored tens of thousands of Islamist jihadis in Syria but it does not follow from there that the current Pentagon training effort is training up such forces.
In fact there are many reasons to believe that Pentagon is training exactly who it is claiming – anti-ISIS fighters.
The first reason is that US military is clearly invested in the war against ISIS.
It has escalated its effort against ISIS in Iraq to the point where it now has 4,500 troops there along with 7,000 contractors which include 1,100 Americans.
It has no fewer than 21 generals in Iraq directing these forces.
Furthermore, the US has officially 50 special forces troops embedded with the SDF/YPG forces in northeastern Syria.
Moreover, the Pentagon has been pushing for that force to be expanded many times over.
Also while it has been said that the recent Syrian-Russian victory in expelling ISIS from Palmyra has been its biggest defeat to date that that isn’t really true.
Its biggest defeat was delivered in February 2016 when the Iraqi army, Shia militas and US special forces and strike aircraft expelled ISIS from Ramadi in Iraq.
The biggest ISIS defeat in Syria was the Siege of Kobani where the Kurdish YPG, PKK and Peshmerga backed by US aircraft by March 2015 repelled a six-month-long ISIS onslaught on the city.
The second reason is that Pentagon’s record on not enabling Syria jihadism is far better than appreciated.
As said tens of thousands of Islamist militants were indeed effectively sponsored by the US but that was the work of the CIA which the Pentagon stayed clear of.
Pentagon ran a wholly separate train-and-equip program which failed to have any effect on the ground precisely because the US generals would not collaborate with jihadis.
In 2015 Pentagon allocated $500 million to train end equip 5,400 Syrian rebels in Turkey. It was a source of great amusement to all when in the end only 180-200 fighters were enlisted in the program.
However, what was not really understood is that at least 1,100 Syrian fighters had sought to join the program but the US trainers turned the majority away after a vetting process designed to root out sympathizers of ISIS and Al Nusra.
Also, Pentagon was once more ridiculed when the 75-strong second class of their graduates upon crossing over into Syria promplty gave up its equipment to Al Nusra and subordinated itself to its command.
What was less understood was that the group was informed by the experience of the 54-strong first graduate class who upon entering Syria were decimated by Al Nusra.
More importantly, after this fiasco Pentagon promptly canceled the program and itself proclaimed it a dismal failure.
Actually the generals were never enthusiastic about toppling Assad but kept their eyes primarily on ISIS.
The US Joint Chief of Staff general Martin Dempsey ignored the White House and passed on information to Israel, Germany and Russia to be passed on to Assad that would help him against ISIS.
The ex-chief of military intelligence Michael Flynn publicly critiqued the Obama administration for making a “willful decision” to see the rise of ISIS.
The US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – a civilian who was very close to the military – bumped heads with the anti-Assad hawks, warned taking out Assad wouldn’t “put IS back in the box”, and since having been forced out of the Obama administration clearly articulated it’s ISIS, not Assad, that is the real threat to the United States.
Third reason is it only makes sense.
The new Pentagon Syria training program was announced in Baghdad by the spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
That means the US military conceives of it as part of its “Operation Inherent Resolve” which corresponds to its war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Also the Pentagon is clear that identifying targets for US strike aircraft is a key part of the training.
In Syria the US military has only ever bombed ISIS, and in a few instances the Al Nusra Front – it has never struck the Syrian army or loyalist forces.
Unless Pentagon is lying about this part of the training it is clear that US military expects its trainees will come up against ISIS.
Will it make a difference?
Pentagon’s original Syria training program was an utter failure.
However, the new scheme as described by US military sounds a lot more realistic and sensible.
Instead of trying to form up entire units in Turkey to be sent across the border where they are promptly lost, the Pentagon is now scooping up individual fighters from units that already exist and are able to maintain themselves in the field.
These will then be sent back to share their knowledge with their squads and to serve as spotters for US strike craft.
Question is which formations are being boosted in this way?
Since the Syrian-Russian relief of Aleppo the only “opposition fighters” in contact with ISIS are the Kurdish YPG, the Arab-elements of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the rebels in Azaz pocket.
The fact the training is taking place in Turkey precludes the US from training YPG fighters. Ankara would never allow it.
Turkey would be happy to see FSA elements in the Azaz pocket – which have indeed clashed with ISIS – be boosted by the US. However these forces are primarily interested in fighting Assad and are, since the Syrian-Russian advance in northern Aleppo, isolated and militarily insignificant.
The fact YPG is not being trained already means Pentagon’s training program isn’t a “game changer” that would keep ISIS up at night.
If the FSA is being trained then the program is completely and utterly insignificant.
However, if the Kurd’s Arab allies in the SDF are being trained as is likely then the program can have some tactical significance and may yet help YPG/SDF on its anticipated advance towards ISIS-held Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east of the country.