Posted by Arab American Institute on August 21, 2015 in Blog

By Anna Toth

syria_fighters.pngIf you are curious as to what $41 million of U.S. training and equipment looks like, look no further than the 54 moderate Syrian rebels who have joined the anti-ISIL coalition, known as the New Syrian Force. The U.S. initiative to combat ISIL in Syria with trained Syrian rebels was launched earlier this year. The New Syrian Forces are the first U.S. fully-trained, highly vetted, highly trained, and highly expensive tactical soldiers combating ISIL on the ground in Syria. While air strikes are effective, boots on the ground within the Syrian border are essential for the expulsion of ISIL from Syria and the installation of a stable state. The training process is extensive and expensive, but necessarily so. General Raymond Odierno, U.S. Army chief of staff, urged in press briefing on August 12, that while the program hasn’t gone as smoothly as the Pentagon may have liked, “it’s important to continue to train Syrian forces,” because they are a critical component in the multi-front attack against ISIL. In a recent CNN interview however, a member of the program’s fledgling class, Abu Iskandar, pleads with the U.S. to hurry along the training process, stating that, “[n]early 17,000 Syrian men want to join, but the training is very slow...We need it to be faster -- 30 days instead of 45 days. More trainees-- we should have been 500 [in Jordan] and another 500 in Turkey.” The graduating “class” of rebels that Iskandar is a part of has already dwindled in size, after five of the 60 graduates were captured by the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al Nusra.

Critics of the program believe that the program is unsustainable, one defense official saying that “the program has been disappointing on every level.” This is not the most encouraging news, especially now that the U.S. military has committed itself to defending the trained Syrian rebels via air strikes against anyone who attacks them, even if those attacks come from forces loyal to Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. In a press briefing held by the State Department on August 3, Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner stated that the U.S. “[has] said all along that we’ll take necessary steps to ensure these forces can successfully carry out their mission. And we’ve cautioned Syria in the past not to engage U.S. aircraft, and the Syrian regime would similarly be advised not to interfere with New Syrian Forces’ counter-ISIL mission.” And while the U.S.-trained Syrian rebels are required to sign a pledge stating that their top priority is to fight against ISIL, not the Syrian forces fighting for President al-Assad, Abu Iskandar believes that a fight against the Assad regime is expected. He claims that the second rule the U.S. trained moderate rebels are taught is “that we fight whoever fights us,” and contends, “the Assad regime is fighting us...shall we stay sitting without fighting Assad?” 

Anna Toth is an intern with the Arab American Institute