U.S. Military Trainers for Syrian Rebels to Arrive Within Weeks

The first of as many as 1,000 U.S. military trainers and support personnel will be sent to the Mideast within the next week or so to lay the groundwork for training more moderate Syrian rebels, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said.

The trainers, a mix of U.S. special operations forces and conventional forces, will deploy over the next four to six weeks to training sites outside Syria, Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been identified as locations for training.

The training is the second leg of a U.S. strategy, complementing American and coalition airstrikes against Islamic State and other extremist groups that started in September. The training effort was made possible after congressional approval last year of $500 million requested by President Barack Obama.

The move, a shift from the Obama administration’s “Iraq-first” strategy for combating Islamic State, is prompted by two developments, U.S. military and intelligence officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.

The first, the officials said, is mounting evidence that while coalition airpower has helped stall the extremists’ progress in Iraq, Islamic State has won control of almost a third of Syrian territory, despite losing ground to Kurdish fighters around the city of Kobani.

That, the officials said, gives Islamic State fighters a rear area -- though not an entirely safe one -- in which to train, plan and regroup similar to the one the Afghan Taliban and their allies have in northwestern Pakistan.

European Developments

The second development, which burst to the surface in France, Belgium and Germany this week, is the growing fear that Europeans and North Africans who’ve trained in Syria are a terrorist threat to Europe and North America.

French President Francois Hollande said in his New Year’s greeting to ambassadors that one-third of 40,000 extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria are “not from the region.”

While the Central Intelligence Agency has been training small numbers of Syrian fighters seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, the officials said that effort has been slowed by the difficulties of ensuring that recruits are genuine moderates and won’t defect to extremist groups, taking with them money and weaponry supplied by the U.S. or its allies.

A particular concern, one of the officials said, is man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that could make airstrikes in Syria and Iraq more dangerous.

The U.S. general heading the training effort met this week in Turkey with Syrian opposition leaders to discuss the size and scope of a recruiting mission that U.S. officials hope will number as many as 5,400 in the first year.

Vetting Program

No recruiting for the expanded military training program has started as the U.S. sets up what Kirby described as a “significant vetting program.”

Kirby said the U.S. in checking out potential recruits is “going to rely on information and intelligence that are provided by the intelligence community and by partners in the region to include Turkey.”

Leadership of the moderate Syrian opposition to Assad “wants this program as badly as we do,” he said. “They want to help us get the right groups and individuals into it.”

Kirby outlined three training objectives that include preparing rebels to “defend their own communities and their own citizens and go back to their own towns and cities and help defend their neighbors.”

The other two objectives, he said, are preparing rebels to attack Islamic State positions in Syria and working with the political opposition “toward a political solution in Syria.”

Hollande in his New Year’s message said the international community must try to restart negotiations between moderate Syrian opposition leaders and elements of Assad’s government. Both U.S. officials, though, said the American administration is skeptical that Russia, a major backer of the Assad regime, is prepared to play a useful role in promoting talks.

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