US to scrap Syria rebel training programme

Washington abandons much-criticised $500m programme to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIL inside the country.

A rebel fighter briefs fellow fighters during an offensive against forces loyal to Syria''s President Bashar al-Assad on the frontline of Aleppo''s Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood
The US military began training for up to 5,400 fighters a year in May [Reuters]

The US says it plans to overhaul its much criticised programme to train “moderate” Syrian rebels battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), saying it would provide arms and equipment to established groups already fighting the ISIL group.

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“I remain convinced that a lasting defeat of ISIL in Syria will depend in part on the success of local, motivated, and capable ground forces,” US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement on Friday.

“I believe the changes we are instituting today will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria and ultimately help our campaign achieve a lasting defeat of ISIL.”

The announcement marked the effective end to a short-lived multimillion-dollar programme to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria after the programme’s disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.

“Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is now directing the Department of Defense to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.

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Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington DC, said reporters were told the US believes the fight against ISIL will take years to end.

“What is notable is instead of training the moderate Syrian rebels who had wanted to take arms up against President Bashar al-Assad, the US is going to be providing basic military equipment and support to existing groups who have been fighting against ISIL for the better part of the year now.

“Obama administration officials told reporters on Friday that this change will work, but they also did caution that the fight against ISIL is going to take years and it will not be resolved in a matter of weeks or months,” Jordan said.

Future training will be greatly scaled back, with the apparent US focus on providing weaponry to Kurdish, Arab and other rebel groups. The Pentagon did not name which groups would receive support.

Cook also said that the US would provide air support to rebels.

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Reuters news agency reported Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth as saying that the Pentagon will provide “basic kinds of equipment” to leaders of the groups, not “higher end” arms like anti-tank rockets and MANPADS.

Wormuth defended the $500m Pentagon programme that trained only 60 fighters, falling far short of the original goal of 5,400, Reuters reported.

“I don’t think at all this was a case of poor execution,” Wormuth said. “It was inherently a very, very complex mission.”

The CIA runs a separate, covert programme that began in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad. US officials say that effort is having more success than the one run by the military, which only trained fighters willing to promise to take on the ISIL exclusively.

The change in focus comes at a time when the Obama administration is also grappling with a dramatic change to the landscape in Syria’s four-year civil war in the wake of Russian military intervention.

‘Refugee camp targeted’

Meanwhile, at least five people have been killed when suspected Russian warplanes targeted a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Idlib province, Hadi al-Abdullah, a local activist in Idlib, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

“Five people were killed and dozens of others were injured in the attack on al-Nuqeir in Idlib suburbs. Russian warplanes used cluster bombs in the attack.

“The camp is severely damaged, and tents are still on fire.”

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday that Syrian warplanes targeted overnight several areas in Idlib suburbs, including camps for the IDPs.

The observatory said several people were killed and others were injured, but no final death toll has been reported.

Russia has been bombing targets in Syria for the past 10 days in a campaign which it says is targeting the ISIL in Syria, but the US has accused Moscow of targeting groups other than ISIL or al-Nusra Front.

Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria for 10 days [Hadi al-Abdallah/Al Jazeera]
Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria for 10 days [Hadi al-Abdallah/Al Jazeera]

ISIL advances in Aleppo

The Observatory reported that ISIL fighters have advanced and captured several villages in Aleppo province following deadly clashes with other armed groups.

This offensive is one of ISIL’s strongest advances towards Aleppo in months and puts them closer to government-controlled areas, the observatory said.

This comes as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general was killed near Aleppo, where he was advising the Syrian army on their battle against the ISIL fighters.

Iran is the main regional ally of Assad and has provided military and economic support during the civil war.

Syrian state media reported on Thursday that government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, launched an offensive in the central province of Hama and regained control over opposition-held areas.

Infographic: Syria: A Country Divided [Al Jazeera]
Infographic: Syria: A Country Divided [Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters