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US and Turkey to train Syrian rebels

US says it will provide basic military training and equipment to Syrian moderate rebels to fight Islamic State militants
Rebel fighters run across the street as they hold a position in al-Mayasat, a rebel-controlled area of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 4 February, 2015 (AFP)

A deal between Turkey and the United States to train and equip Syrian opposition forces was signed on Thursday between Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and the US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass.

“The agreement is an important step in our common efforts for this strategic partnership,” Sinirlioglu said at the signing ceremony. “We have a lot of things to do, we have a very chaotic situation in our neighbourhood and in different parts of the world. So when we work together, we believe we can make a difference.”

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby has told reporters that the United States will provide basic military training and equipment to Syrian moderate rebel fighters to assist them in containing the Islamic State group.

“The main purpose of the training is basic military structure and skills,” Kirby said.

“I can’t rule out that at some point, we might find it useful for them to have the ability to help assist with targeting on the ground,” he added, referring to the possibility of producing forward air controllers which will lead US military planes to designated targets.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has confirmed that the US-Turkey memorandum of understanding to jointly train and equip Syrian fighters will be not just against IS but against the Assad government as well. Cavusoglu emphasised that the Assad government and the IS both constitute a “threat for Syrian security and stability.”

“Fighters in the train and equip program are expected to fight IS, but they should also struggle with the regime,” he said.

The Pentagon has recruited 1,200 individuals from different Syrian opposition groups to be part of the program, which is due to begin in mid-March. Some 1,000 American troops are due to be deployed to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to start training the moderate Syrian rebel fighters.

Radwan Ziadeh, the executive director of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has criticised the program as lacking political strategy.

“It’s seen only as the UN sending missionaries to train Syrian fighters and sending them to fight against IS,” he told the Middle East Eye. “There’s a lack of political strategy in how that links the political opposition to the fight against the Assad government. This is only part of the puzzle which will involve the US to [think of] a grand strategy on how to end the Syria crisis and to put Syria back on the transitional path to democracy.”

Ziadeh said he finds it hard to believe that the program will succeed, citing the mixed signals the program has sent to the Syrian people.

“The program has been postponed many times since the air strikes against IS in Syria started last year,” he said. “And now, six months later, the US is about to start training 1,200 fighters. That sent a wrong message to the Syrian people by showing them that the US only cares about its own interests rather than finding ways to stop the air strikes and atrocities and the massacres committed by the Assad government.”

Turkey wants rebel factions to be trained to battle both pro-Assad forces as well as IS insurgents, but Washington wanted to train the rebel forces as part of its fight against IS.

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