WASHINGTON, DC — The Pentagon announced on Thursday that the U.S. has begun training about 90 Syrian rebels at an overseas location, adding that pro-Bashar al-Assad regime forces are losing momentum in their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and other groups.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, briefing Pentagon reporters alongside the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that a second group of so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels would begin training “in the next few weeks.”
In mid-March, the International Business Times (IBT) reported that the moderate Syrian movement no longer existed, adding that its members had joined Islamist elements of the rebel groups including the al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front and its rival ISIS.
“It is still unclear which rebel groups will receive U.S. weapons and training,” noted IBT.
Carter emphasized that the trainees are “highly vetted” and that the trainers are prepared to deal with any security problems that may arise, such as the trainees turning their guns on their trainers .
He stressed that the Syrian forces are being trained and equipped to fight ISIS, not Assad regime troops.
“This program is critical and a complex part of our counter-ISIL efforts,” the Pentagon chief told reporters.
Gen. Dempsey acknowledged that Syrian rebel factions have made recent gains against Assad and suggested that the dictator should consider negotiating peace.
“I do think that the regime’s momentum has been slowed and therefore you can certainly from that take that I do believe the situation is trending less favorably for the regime and if I were him, I’d find the opportunity to look to the negotiating table,” said the chairman, who is expected to retire this summer.
In April, ISIS seized territory that brought them closer to Assad’s seat of power in Damascus.
Meanwhile, that same month, the Nusra Front “edged closer to a government-held heartland along the country’s coast” after it captured a town in Syria’s Idlib province, reported NBC News.
Assad, in a rare public appearance on Wednesday, defended recent setbacks suffered by his regime troops.
The news that rebels are making gains against Assad and that the U.S. has begun its long-awaited program to train Syrian rebels came a day after Reuters reported that hundreds of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members are making their way back into Syria “hoping to rebuild a movement which was crushed decades ago at home and is deemed a terrorist organization by leading Arab states.”
The Syrian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood claims that it practices “moderate Islam” and has distanced itself from ISIS, indicating that its members may try to pass for the “moderate” Syrian rebels that the U.S. is trying to train.
“Membership of the Brotherhood remains punishable by death in Syria more than 30 years after President Bashar al-Assad’s father outlawed the group, but the exiles are filtering back mainly into opposition-held areas,” Reuters reported on Wednesday.
“There they are trying to re-establish the influence and credibility of the movement which has no official military wing and plays down suggestions that it is covertly supporting armed groups fighting in the Syrian civil war,” it added.
Carter would not tell reporters where the Syrian rebels are being trained.
However, a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post that the training program began Wednesday in Jordan.
Although stressing that the Syrian forces are not being trained to fight against pro-Assad troops, he declared, “If they are contested by regime forces, again we would have some responsibility to help them.”
“We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility,” he added.
The defense secretary said the U.S. would also assist the rebels in their fight against ISIS when necessary, possibly with air support.
He did not specifically say when the Syrian rebels are expected to be ready to fight, only saying that it will “take a few months.”
Carter explained that the trainees would be provided with small arms, noting that there is a limit in the sophistication of the weapons they will be receiving.
The Post reports that “once they have undergone U.S. training, the Syrians will be sent back into Syria with basic military gear, including vehicles, small arms, ammunition, trucks and machine guns to be mounted on the back of trucks.”
The training program is separate from a CIA initiative to assist Syrian rebels. Its intended purpose is to train about 5,400 Syrians per year at sites in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, notes The Post.
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