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Exclusive: Georgia Offers to Host Training Camp for Syrian Rebels

Exclusive: Georgia Offers to Host Training Camp for Syrian Rebels

This post has been updated.

In a potential boost for the Obama administration, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has offered to host a training facility for the Syrian rebels as a part of the U.S.-led war against Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq, according to an American administration official.

If accepted, the offer could supplement the White House’s existing plan to train 5,000 Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia in the next year to fight against the extremists now controlling swaths of both Iraq and Syria. It would also significantly elevate Georgia’s role in the anti-Islamic State coalition as the United States and other Arab allies begin conducting airstrikes against militant targets in Syria. Georgia, which has spent years cultivating close ties with Washington in the hopes of gaining membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has also sent troops to fight alongside American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"[The training center] was something we offered, but is still under consideration," Georgian Ambassador Archil Gegeshidze told Foreign Policy, confirming the U.S. official’s remarks.

The potential scale of the Georgia-based training program remains unclear, but Gegeshidze noted that it could host anti-IS fighters from multiple countries, not just Syria. "It’s a counterterrorism training center for any nationality," he said.

In closed-door meetings, Georgian officials made the offer to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on his visit to the country’s capital of Tbilisi in early September. During the trip, Georgia became the first country to sign onto the anti-IS effort outside of the "core coalition" of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, and Denmark.

The Pentagon declined to say whether the Georgian proposal had been accepted or to offer a timeframe for when a decision would be reached.

"Georgia continues to demonstrate its commitment to promote and uphold peace and stability as it has in the past with strong support to international missions in Iraq and Afghanistan," a Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The government of Georgia is coordinating internally on a way ahead, but is positive in its resolve to assist."

Though Georgian officials have never described their offerings as a quid pro quo, there are a number of reasons the tiny Caucasian country of 4.5 million would stick its neck out for Washington.

Like other Southern Caucasus countries, Georgia feels a potential threat from the Islamic State given the number of Caucasian fighters who have taken up jihad in Syria and Iraq. To name one infamous example: Omar al-Shishani, a leading Islamic State commander, hails from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region. 

"If and when they come home, there could be a nasty blowback effect," noted Thomas de Waal, a Eurasia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The offer is also in line with the goals of Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, a leading pro-Western figure in the government, who continues to advocate for a Georgian security policy known by some as "unilateral NATO approximation."

"That means, even though there is no prospect of NATO membership, they have decided to do everything they can to be NATO outside NATO," said de Waal. That includes doing things like supplying significant troops to combat areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, sending peacekeepers to Mali, and now expressing willingness to host Syrian fighters.

The United States has returned the favor by sending U.S. marines to train brigade-sized Georgian units and providing political support for Georgia’s eventual membership in the security alliance. Georgia also hopes to complete a deal to purchase Sikorsky-built Black Hawk helicopters.

"We fully support Georgia’s ongoing defense modernization efforts," Hagel said during his September trip. "We want to and we will continue to help Georgia fulfill its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, including membership in NATO."

But joining the anti-IS coalition doesn’t come without risks.

Islamic State militants beheaded British aid worker David Haines in a two-minute video released on Sept. 14 and titled "A Message to the Allies of America."

"For being a lapdog … you will drag your people into another bloody and unwinnable war," warned the Islamic State narrator.

Georgia also shares a border with NATO member Turkey, which itself has come under attack from IS militants. On June 11, IS fighters stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, and captured 49 employees and family members. The men, women, and children remained captive until Sept. 19, when IS released them in a deal that remains murky.

Despite Georgia’s offer to host Syrian rebels and other anti-IS fighters, it’s unlikely to receive NATO membership anytime soon, if ever. The primary obstacle is the country’s separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian forces remain in those territories after invading Georgia in 2008. That has raised fears within the alliance that Tbilisi’s entrance could one day force a NATO confrontation with Russia under the treaty’s Article 5 collective security guarantee, which requires member states to come to the aid of another member subject to an armed attack.

Regardless, one NATO expert mused that Tbilisi’s enthusiasm makes other NATO allies look bad by comparison. "Just imagine how effective NATO would be if all of its current members contributed commensurate to the level of Georgia," said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. "From providing among the most significant military contributions to operations in Afghanistan, to sensitive nonproliferation and intelligence cooperation, Georgia acts as a model NATO ally."

Update: Shortly following the publication of FP‘s article, the Georgian Ministry of Defense issued a statement that ruled out the deployment of Georgian troops to the conflict in Syria. It did not deny the substance of FP‘s article regarding the hosting of a training center. "Georgia, as the strategic partner of the United States of America and one of the most NATO interoperable countries, is considering the ways how to contribute to the goals of anti-ISIS coalition in fight against terrorism," read the statement.  "Different ways are under discussion to neutralize the terrorist threats endangering peace and security in the region and its democratic development.  None of the options discussed together with the allied countries envisage deployment of the Georgian army units in the war zone. A final decision will be reached at the highest political level."