The Cable

Questions Plague U.S.-led Effort to Train Syrian Militias

After months of delays in finding and vetting hundreds of Syrian recruits, U.S. and allied forces have finally started training the first group of 90 fighters to act as a “moderate” security force to fight the Islamic State in Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday. The first group just started training at an undisclosed ...

ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 07:  Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the media during a briefing at the Pentagon May 7, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter talked about various issues including the situation in the Middle East and the Department of Defense budget request.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 07: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the media during a briefing at the Pentagon May 7, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter talked about various issues including the situation in the Middle East and the Department of Defense budget request. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After months of delays in finding and vetting hundreds of Syrian recruits, U.S. and allied forces have finally started training the first group of 90 fighters to act as a “moderate” security force to fight the Islamic State in Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday.

The first group just started training at an undisclosed location within the past several days — there are sites in Jordan and Turkey, according to reports — and a second group should begin the program in the next few weeks, Carter told reporters at the Pentagon during a joint press conference with Chairmman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Still, the ultimate plan to train up to 15,000 Syrian fighters remains shrouded with uncertainty.

One of the biggest unresolved issues is what happens when these forces come face-to-face with troops from the Assad regime who are de facto partners in the fight against the Islamic State but are on the front lines of the strongman’s brutal effort to repress the insurgency aimed at his ouster.

“They are being trained and equipped to fight ISIL” Carter said, using another acronym for the militants. “They are not being asked by us — and it’s not part of our program — to engage Assad’s forces.”

Another issue is what kind of support that U.S. and allied forces can or would provide if the Syrian rebels find themselves overmatched in combat by better-armed militants.

Carter said that the U.S. “has an obligation” to support these forces in the field, though he would not say what that might entail.

He even more opaque about what kind of support the U.S. would provide if these forces came into contact with Syrian government forces, saying that there are still questions to be answered on the U.S. side, but that Washington was prepared to use drones and “possible air support help” in certain cases.

Defense officials have previously said that approximately 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered so far to take part in the training programs, and about 400 have already completed the first segment of the screening process.

The public affairs shop for the U.S. Central Command tweeted on Thursday afternoon that the trained Syrians are being dubbed the “New Syrian Forces.”
Despite these and other issues, the U.S. Congress has authorized the program for three years, and the Obama administration requested $500 million for the program this year. That number would rise to $600 million in 2016 if the House’s version of the 2016 budget remains intact though the remainder of the budget haggling process in the coming months.

Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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