US freezing of Syrian rebel training scheme shows western disarray

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LONDON: The US decision to “pause” its troubled $500m programme to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State (Isis) is yet another move highlighting western disarray and failure as Russia continues its airstrikes, which western governments say are supporting Syrian government.

The Pentagon said on Friday it was changing its strategy in Syria. It would supply “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,” a spokesman said.

The programme, the most visible element of US backing for Syrian opposition forces, has suffered embarrassing setbacks. Last month it transpired that it had trained only four or five fighters inside Syria, while others who underwent training in Turkey had surrendered to rival groups and handed over the their weapons when they crossed the border into Syria. Other covert programmes are run by the CIA.

Syrian opposition sources, already unhappy with US policy, were sceptical that meaningful military support would now be forthcoming. Pentagon officials said that “only basic types of equipment”, not “higher-end” weapons, such as anti-tank rockets and Manpads (portable anti-aircraft missiles), would be provided.

Arab diplomats have said in the last few days that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies were looking for new ways to arm anti-Assad rebels in the wake of the Russian military intervention. 

The US was also in contact with the Syrian Jaysh al-Fateh coalition of mainly Islamist rebel groups, exploring whether any could be suitable partners for increased weapons deliveries, the diplomats said.

A senior US official said there would no longer be any recruiting of Syrian rebels for training in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a single training centre would be set up in Turkey, where a small group of “enablers” – mostly leaders of opposition groups – would be vetted and taught operational methods, such as how to call in airstrikes.

The announcement caps a grim few weeks for US policy on Syria, already weakened by the perception that while the Obama administration is prepared to fight Isis, it will not tackle the Assad regime head-on. Instead, the president is holding out for a political solution to end the four and a half year conflict.

Gen Lloyd Austin, who heads the US military’s Central Command, confirmed last month that 54 graduates of the train and equip programme had been attacked by the al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in northern Syria in July. It is still not clear how many of the fighters fled, were captured or killed.

Austin told Congress that there was no way of meeting the original goal of 5,000 recruits a year. 

The US, like Britain, has been signalling in recent weeks that Assad could remain in power in Damascus for an undefined transitional period, fuelling opposition fears that they are being abandoned.

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