Syrian rebels being screened for Islamic State fight
By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 18, 2015
WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its international partners have identified about 1,200 moderate Syrian rebels who could be trained and equipped to fight Islamic State militants, according to the Pentagon.
President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into Syria to fight the group, which has overrun much of Syria and Iraq and carried out beheadings of Americans and other Westerners. The Pentagon plans to train and equip about 5,000 anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters each year during the next several years.
U.S. officials have said that building an effective local ground force that can retake territory from the Islamic State is a prerequisite for defeating the group. But before the training and equipping can begin, the U.S. and its allies must vet recruits and make sure they don’t have ties to extremist groups.
Information from the U.S. intelligence community and partners in the region regarding potential recruits will be used to mitigate the risk that extremists will infiltrate the training program, officials have said.
“We have, at this point in time, identified about 1,200 individuals through the screening process that we will begin to now, obviously, screen further and work through getting them into this training process,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
Kirby said that training will probably begin in mid-March. He has told reporters that the Pentagon hopes to have fighters ready to go into battle by the end of the year.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have volunteered to host the training sites. The U.S. has an advanced detachment of fewer than 100 troops in the region now, laying the groundwork for the training effort. There could be about 1,000 troops involved in the mission, including “enablers” and force protection people, Kirby said.
The equipment provided to the rebels would be “basic military gear,” most likely small arms and ammunition, trucks and vehicles, and radios. Kirby said additional military support from the U.S. is being discussed.
“Certainly we’re going to have some obligations and responsibilities after that training is complete,” he told reporters. “No final decisions have been made about what that support would look like … whether it’s intelligence support or [direct] air support.”
Kirby addressed news reports that the U.S. was considering training Syrian rebels to call in American airstrikes against Islamic State forces on the front lines.
“This is a classic cart before the horse kind of thing,” Kirby said. “The training that they are going to be receiving and the equipment that will go with that training is designed to give them basic military skills and organizational capabilities so that they can go back and defend their citizens, not to turn them into what we would consider … joint tactical air controllers.”
Kirby said it’s possible that they could take on that mission: “Could we possibly get to a point where they might be able to help with spotting from the ground in Syria for coalition airstrikes? Yes. That is a possibility.”