Pentagon to overhaul training of Syria rebels

US admits shortcomings, will deploy more fighters in safer zones, improve intelligence

WASHINGTON • In an acknowledgment of severe shortcomings in its effort to create and field a force of moderate rebels to battle Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, the Pentagon is drawing up plans to significantly revamp the training programme.

It is dropping larger numbers of fighters into safer zones as well as providing better intelligence and improving their combat skills.

The proposed changes come after a Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda launched an attack, in late July, on many of the first 54 Syrian graduates of the military's training programme and their rebel unit.

A day before the attack, two leaders of the US-backed group and several of its fighters were captured.

The encounter revealed several glaring deficiencies in the United States programme, according to classified assessments.

The classified options now circulating at senior levels of the Pentagon include enlarging the size of the groups of trained rebels sent back into Syria, shifting the location of the deployments to ensure local support, and improving intelligence provided to the fighters.

No decisions have been made on specific proposals, according to four senior US Defence Department and Obama administration officials briefed on the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential planning.

The Pentagon effort to salvage its flailing training programme in Turkey and Jordan comes as the world is fixated on the plight of thousands of refugees seeking safety in Europe from strife in the Middle East, including many fleeing violence of the Syrian civil war and oppression in areas under the control of ISIS.

Officials in Washington and European capitals acknowledge that halting this mass migration requires a comprehensive international effort to bring peace and stability to areas that those refugees are now fleeing.

The 54 Syrian fighters supplied by the Syrian opposition group Division 30 were the first group of rebels deployed under a US$500 million (S$712 million) train-and- equip programme authorised by Congress last year.

It is an overt programme run by US Special Forces, with help from other allied military trainers, and is separate from a parallel covert programme run by the CIA.

After a year of trying, however, the Pentagon is still struggling to find recruits to fight the ISIS without also battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, their original adversary.

The willing few face screening, but it is so stringent that only dozens have been approved from among the thousands who have applied, and they are bit players in the rebellion.

"As with any difficult endeavour, we expected setbacks and successes, and we must be realistic with those expectations," Captain Chris Connolly, a spokesman for the US military task force training the Syrian rebels, said in an e-mail.

"We knew this mission was going to be difficult from the very beginning," he added,

Meanwhile, France has said it will begin reconnaissance missions over Syria tomorrow and is considering launching air strikes against ISIS militants in the country.

"We have proof that attacks have been planned from Syria against several countries, notably France," President Francois Hollande told a news conference yesterday.

"My responsibility is to ensure that we are informed as much as possible on the threats to our country... So I have asked the defence minister that from tomorrow, reconnaissance flights begin over Syria that will enable us to consider air strikes against ISIS."

However, the French President ruled out any ground intervention in the country, saying that it was for Syrians and regional states to do the work on the ground. NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Pentagon to overhaul training of Syria rebels'. Print Edition | Subscribe