As US expands training of rebels, Syria braces for prolonged war on Islamic State as Assad watches on
Less than a year ago, US President Barrack Obama deemed groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Yet a new coalition and several hundred air-strikes later, IS is very much the focus of the war in Syria with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hardly the first name on the lips of Washington.
The CIA already has a program of training so-called moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan but with as many as 1000 troop, support and training personnel, the US has launched a new initiative to train thousands of rebels in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia starting in early spring.
"The goal for the train and equip program is to build the capabilities of the moderate Syrian fighters to defend the Syrian people; stabilize areas under opposition control; promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria; and empower trainees to go on the offensive against ISIL," stated Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Ominously, Assad was not mentioned in the statement.
Initial plans involve training some 5400 fighters in a 12 month period starting from early spring. With US officials acknowledging that at least 18,000 fighters will be needed, this is an acceptance that the battle against IS is one for the long-haul.
But so fractured is the Syrian landscape that picking out the moderates and vetting individuals is a painstaking task.
This also begs the question of the long-term strategy in Syria. Even if IS is defeated after many years, what then for the head of the Syrian snake, the Assad regime? More importantly, how about the fate of the millions of refugees and civilians who have already endured years of hardship and suffering?
This week, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave tentative support for a fast faltering Russian peace initiative between Syrian opposition figures and the regime set for this month. Key Syrian opposition figures have already pulled out amidst great skepticism that these talks can achieve anything meaningful, the fact it is hosted by one of Assad’s chief backers hardly inspires confidence.
What was telling is the lack of direct US involvement in such a proposal. Washington sees prospects of any real breakthrough as very slim and in any case it highlights its lack of focus on the removal of Assad.
Syria has become a sorry state of affairs and US pol- icies often seem like kneejerk reactions. Its lack of appetite to intervene as red-lines were crossed has meant that when it eventually had to intervene it was at a greater price.
As US proposes to train Syrian rebels, it’s unclear how this will be extended to the Syrian Kurds who have borne the brunt of the struggle against IS in recent months. Of course, Turkey will vehemently oppose any measure to train the Kurds, its reluctance in light of the US support of Kobane was clear to see, but US strategy must include the Kurds who are central to the defeat of IS.
jets have already launched hundreds of air-strikes on IS positions in Kobane. Yet a fierce IS onslaught in recent days that was repelled by Kurdish forces shows how tentative gains can be.
Kurds control 85% of Kobane after US and Peshmerga support and much sacrifice with IS proving a thorn that will not go away all too easily.
Most worryingly for the Kurds and others Syrians fighters, is that all these fighting and sacrifice against IS, leaves Assad firmly in power and overshadows the number one goal of the civil war.