U.S.-Trained Syrian Rebels Don’t Yet Pose a Real Threat to the Islamic State
Rebel forces clash in northern Syria.
Somewhere in northern Syria sits a small group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters who have been thrown into the chaotic mix of militia groups fighting it out with the Islamic State, Syrian government forces, and at times, each another.
The roughly 50 to 60 fighters — dubbed the “New Syrian Forces,” or NSF, by U.S. officials — came under attack by militants from the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front almost immediately upon crossing into Syria from their training site in Turkey last week. At least one NSF fighter was killed during the gun battle, and five more were captured, though Pentagon officials acknowledge that their true losses could be higher.
While it remains unclear what happened to all of the U.S.-backed forces once the fighting stopped, defense officials say that at least some remain in Syria.
Some of the fighters may have left the base, while the rest stayed behind to look after the U.S.-supplied weapons and communications equipment they had been given. Either way, it’s far from clear if, or when, there will be enough NSF to reclaim lost territory from the Islamic State and begin to gradually diminish its strength.
Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder refused to speculate how many NSF were still in the field and said that “we’re not doing a daily roll call” with them to get a head count. He insisted, however, that the U.S. military is in contact with their commanders. He said the NSF in Syria still remain a viable fighting force capable of defending themselves.
The NSF are, in effect, a more highly trained element of the Division 30 rebel group, which operates in northern Syria and from which the trainees were pulled earlier this year. Late last month, the group’s commander, Nadim al-Hassan, was captured by al-Nusra Front fighters near the city of Aleppo and is still being held.
While Ryder refused to provide details for how many NSF remain in Syria, he said that two more groups of fighters are being trained in Turkey by U.S. forces and are expected to enter the fight later this year. There are “hundreds” more Syrians who are undergoing a vetting process to enter the program, he added.
The 60 fighters already trained have not come cheap. The Pentagon has paid $41 million so far to smuggle them out of Syria, arm and train them in Turkey, and sneak them back in. Congress approved $500 million for the program for 2015, and the Defense Department has asked for another $600 million in the upcoming 2016 budget request to keep churning out fighters.
In a twist, the main western-backed coalition of Syrian rebels, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is due to arrive in Moscow for talks next week. While Moscow has been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the rebels are scheduled to meet with a host of top Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin’s Middle East envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov.
Photo credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images