The U.S. military has finally started training Syrian rebels.
"We're announcing today that combat training has begun for a company-sized group from the New Syrian Forces. This program is critical and a complex part of our counter-ISIL efforts," U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
Carter revealed on Thursday the U.S. is currently training a company of Syrian rebels in Jordan to fight ISIS in Syria. As for just how many fighters are being trained, it's not much. Especially given the U.S. goal of training around 5,000 fighters per year.
"There are about 90 of the trainees," Carter said. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal , an unnamed U.S. official compared the recruits to "drops coming out of a pipeline."
With Syrian rebels fighting on two fronts against both ISIS and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, one might think they'd be looking for any help they can get. So what's with the low turnout?
As valuable as receiving advanced combat training and arms from the U.S. might be, the U.S. will only train rebels for the purpose of fighting ISIS, not the Assad regime.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Syria analyst Hassan Hassan says training rebels to fight Assad is just as, if not more, important than training them to fight ISIS. One reason, he argues, is morale. While the U.S. remains noncommittal in taking action against Assad's forces, Syrian rebels are fighting to topple the regime. That makes it just as important of a target to them as ISIS is to the U.S.
The U.S. hasn't had the best track record in working with opposition forces in Syria, either.
A leader of the Hazzm Movement, a group backed by the CIA in a separate training program, complained to U.S. lawmakers in January saying, "We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don't have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves."
The Hazzm Movement ultimately dissolved itself and joined a larger Islamist rebel group after experiencing heavy losses against Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. A U.S. Central Command spokesman told The New York Times a further 3,700 or so fighters have volunteered with 400 already screened and 800 in the process of being screened.
Whether those fighters will all make it is hard to say. The U.S. is employing stringent screening procedures to help prevent any civilian attacks or defections when the trainees return to Syria.
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