Rinse and repeat: 82 new US-trained Syrians prepare for fighting

Sharmine Narwani
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, the Guardian, Asia Times Online, Salon.com, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, BRICS Post and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @snarwani
Rebel fighters aim their weapons as they demonstrate their skills during a military display as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria. © Bassam Khabieh
A US military source has revealed in private conversation that the US-led Coalition formed to target the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups is currently training 82 new recruits for its Syria operations. These include 12 new fighters in Jordan and 70 in Turkey.

A spokeswoman for the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), Major Genieve David, would not confirm these numbers. “We are not giving out numbers due to operational security concerns,” she said via phone.

But Turkey’s Foreign Minister Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu’s comment a few days ago that “in the second group we have around 100 (fighters)” suggests that the source’s numbers are likely to be accurate.

It is uncertain, anyway, if all 82 trainees will graduate from the Coalition training program."

As US Defense Secretary Ash Carter explained in a hearing last month, the first group of 60 recruits to “graduate” into field roles inside Syria were whittled down from an initial pool of 7,300 candidates. Only days after his July 7 testimony to the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, that number fell further to 54.

But the vaunted train-and-equip program to which Congress allocated a whopping $500 million last year, is hemorrhaging more than just recruits. The principles upon which it closely vets trainees now appear to have more holes than Swiss cheese.

According to legislation approved by the US Congress, the candidates have to be “screened for any association with terrorist groups, militias aligned with or supporting the government of Syria, and any groups that were associated with Iran,” CENTCOM spokesman Lt. Commander Kyle Raines said from headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

Jabhat al Nusra - Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and a US-designated terrorist organization - is clearly one such group.

But a TV interview last week with Abu Iskandar, a leader of the 54 coalition-trained fighters, illustrates how - post-training - these “rebels” break all the rules. Asked about the group’s interactions with Al Nusra, Abu Iskandar replied:

“We are required to coordinate with all the fighting groups. There were contacts made with Nusra a week before we entered. Four months ago, Nusra expressed great admiration for our program. They said: go get arms and come and fight Daesh (ISIS). You will relieve some of the pressure that’s on us.”

“Coordinating” with Al Nusra, in fact, seems exactly the kind of activity that is prohibited under the guidelines established by Congress. But Abu Iskandar embraces the group further during the interview and calls Jabhat al-Nusra “our brothers.”

What does CENTCOM have to say about this? Raines explains: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces – we only ‘train and enable’ them.”

In other words, once the Coalition trainees are in the field, the US military “maintains communications and assists,” but does not instruct and direct them in their activities. Says Raines: “Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”

So much for the training precondition that restricts association with terrorists. But what about that other essential demand on Congress’ wish list? The one that prohibits recruits from targeting any other forces other than ISIS – and specifies that the Syrian army/state is off limits?

“Our fight is with Bashar,” says Abu Iskandar at one point during the interview.

And again: “[Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra] should be martyred either fighting Assad or Baghdadi’s men who are killing Sunnis.”

And another: “At this point, Bashar is the enemy and he’s going to fall, but who is the alternative? Who will take his place? He is going to fall. If we had a strong army with unified command, we could remove him in 48 hours.”

Abu Iskandar is clearly not on-message. Nor does he inspire much confidence in the Coalition’s vetting process. It is hard to imagine that western military trainers did much more with this motley crew of 54 Syrians than strap GPS devices onto their persons, give them fancy satellite phones, a few rounds at the shooting range, and some state-of-the-art military toys.

Abu Iskandar knows none of this means a whit anyway. “Our problem is not training,” he laments. “Our problem is the lack of a no-fly zone. Give us that and we will not need training from any outside country.”

But the CENTCOM spokesman makes clear: “There is no No Fly Zone (NFZ) under consideration.”

So why is this train-and-equip operation still chugging ahead? What will the 82 or 64 or 28 recruits graduating from the next New Syria Forces (NSF) class going to bring to the table? Twenty-two of the existing 54 graduates are currently incarcerated by their Al Nusra “brothers.”

The kidnappings, according to a McClatchy News report this week, were reportedly set-up by the Turks – who, in turn, are part of the coalition that trained these very fighters.

Doing the same thing; expecting different results

If perchance you’re confused, you’re not alone.

Nothing much makes sense about the many moving parts of the Syrian conflict, least of all the sharply conflicting interests of the United States and its pro-militant allies.

Washington’s “side” in this Syrian conflict consists of other western powers, Turkey, and several Arab states of the Persian Gulf, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Sneak Jordan onto that list, too. It leases itself out to wealthy allies who run their clandestine activities from Amman hotel rooms, refugee camps, operation centers and training camps that run along the stretch of border with Syria.

READ MORE: American taxpayers spend nearly $10 million a day fighting ISIS

Jordan often plays a double game in this conflict. Mindful of its own domestic vulnerability to a militant Islamist threat from within, Amman has reportedly shared military intelligence with the Syrian government - when it suits. On the other hand, much of the CIA’s covert Syria activities operate out of Jordan too. US officials claim the CIA spends about $1 billion per annum on these ops, and has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 of the fighters inside Syria today.

On the other side of Syria lies NATO-member Turkey, which has reportedly sanctioned the flow of weapons and fighters to Islamist militant groups, including Al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and ISIS, over the past few years. Media reports from Turkey have identified truckloads of assistance crossing into Syria under the watchful eye of Turkish military intelligence. Wiretapped leaks from early 2014 even have Turkey’s Intel Chief Hakan Fidan boasting about “2,000 truckloads of weapons” he has transported into the Syrian military theater.

US Vice President Joe Biden last year made clear that Washington’s regional allies were fueling the terrorism in Syria:

“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks…the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

It is no wonder that the Turks have refused to participate meaningfully in the multinational effort to thwart ISIS – until recently, refusing even to allow coalition forces to launch air raids from the handy Incirlik airbase in Turkey.

Over in the Persian Gulf, you have Turkey’s fellow Muslim Brotherhood-inclined Qatari allies helping to bankroll Ankara’s grand plan for an Islamist Middle East. Qatar, which hosts the biggest US military base in the region, has been a staunch supporter of Islamist militants inside Syria and so is often called upon to negotiate the release of hostages – western and otherwise – nabbed by terrorist groups.

READ MORE: Coalition ISIS 'successes' show no signs of halting terrorist group

Qatar’s longtime rival in the Persian Gulf is Saudi Arabia, which shares Doha and Ankara’s single-minded determination to unseat the Syrian government, but prefers to work with like-minded hardcore Salafists. In 2012 and 2013, under the guidance of Riyadh’s former ambassador (for 22 years) to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudis steered the escalation of violence inside Syria, backing radical Islamists with unlimited money, weapons and support.

As the US’s closest Arab ally - and biggest recipient of American weapons in recent years – a pampered Saudi Arabia doesn’t really know when to quit, even when the terror blows back inside its own borders.

Why rehash old facts about coalition partners and stalwart US allies vested in the Syrian conflict? Because in order to comprehend why 82 more Syrian recruits are being trained by the US-led Coalition in Turkey and Jordan “to fight ISIS,” you have to first be reminded of a particular quirk of humanity: some of us do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.

Reading the Mideast tea leaves

So here’s what’s coming in the days, weeks and months ahead on the terrorist-busting front.

An alliance will split apart. A coalition will lose its direction. A bloodbath will mark the demise of the most foolhardy constellation of players since the European religious wars.

The key US-led coalition members do not share common objectives. On the rare occasion when their tactical interests converge and they achieve a victory, they quickly splinter off, each vying to establish their own primacy – directly or via proxies.

And there is no overriding strategy that binds. Forget the publicly-stated objectives for a moment. This coalition was purportedly assembled to fight ISIS and other like-minded terrorists. But who are these other terrorists? Jabhat Al Nusra? Washington “says” so, but then commits to turning a blind eye when allies Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel coddle and support the Al Qaeda affiliate.

What about Ahrar al Sham militants, who have recently been the subject of some stunning whitewashing by western media and punditry? When asked to characterize Ahrar’s level of militancy for the record, a State Department spokesman told me in July: “The US has neither worked with nor provided any assistance to Ahrar al-Sham. The US supports moderate Syrian opposition groups."


That sounds as vague and uncertain a statement as I’ve ever heard. Nobody is ready to publicly “commit” to any one of these groups – mainly because they know that, tomorrow, that very group could feature in a Syrian atrocity video and sink their “investment.” Privately, however, active and tacit foreign support continues to plump up these terror groups, unabated.

What is the coalition’s most fundamental goal then? To defeat ISIS? They’ve as much as said that’s not possible. To bolster “moderates?” They can’t even name them. To overthrow Assad? After four years of failed attempts, and now jihadists at their borders, the West will have none of that these days.

If this coalition cannot agree on the most basic definitions of “good guys” and “bad guys” in this conflict, they’re never going to share in the larger picture.

And we are seeing that manifest now, in The Big Fight Brewing on The Turkish Border.

Washington has been very cautious about criticizing Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict to date. That is likely to change in the foreseeable future if Ankara escalates its conflict with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and even Iraq. The Kurdish autonomy project in Iraq is especially dear to the Americans, and Kurds are currently involved in hard-fought battles with ISIS on several fronts – to great effect.

Turkey’s new Kurdish strategy is not going down well in Washington at all. And there is concern that the confrontation will worsen as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan marches toward two goals: 1) whittling away at Kurdish legitimacy inside Turkey so that his AKP party can win in November elections; and 2) carving out a buffer zone in northern Syria to break up the “Kurdish Corridor” that flanks the Turkish border.

Turkey’s priorities are manifestly clear. In their short stint as coalition partners “fighting extremists in Syria and Iraq,” the Turks have managed to launch more than 400 airstrikes against Kurdish targets - and only 3 against ISIS forces.

In taking on the Kurds, Erdogan has just placed the United States in geopolitical hell. Washington has to tread a very fine line between the Turks and the Kurds – all while trying to attain its vastly bigger goals of containing ISIS; sabotaging Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah aspirations; placating some very trigger-happy Israelis; ushering an unpopular Iran nuclear deal through a Republican Congress; babysitting a paranoid Saudi Arabia, and a myriad other pressing Mideast priorities.

Coalition members’ interests are diverging more than ever before. Even as Russian and Iranian initiatives converge to offer ceasefires and transition plans for Syria, US partners have moved further apart, each juggling domestic priorities with more urgency as blowback from regional conflicts come home to roost.

Now throw in 82 off-message, bumbling Syrian rebels into the mix and what do you get? Rinse and repeat: that ridiculous pipedream that ‘more of the same’ will produce a different outcome.

This Syrian ‘experiment’ needs to be over. Repeating the same mistakes will never change the trajectory of the conflict in Syria – as it won’t in Iraq or in Yemen. Why are terrorist-supporters Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar even in this Coalition? Why are the Americans, British and French - who have backed autocracies to the hilt, weaponized the bad guys, and seeded radicalism in the region through their Iraqi and Afghani military adventures – at the helm of this dubious venture?

This Coalition is rotten at its core. It is time to change the players, if not the game itself, to create even a long shot at success."

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.