[Published here June 2, 2014]
The American government may be getting closer to a broad train-and-equip program for vetted members of Syria’s armed opposition, according to US officials. The plan would constitute a move from a Title 50 action, run covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency and training a very limited number of rebels, to a Title 10 action run overtly by the Department of Defense that would target more scrutinized groups.
The US government had been deliberating transferring the covert CIA train-and-equip program, currently based in Jordan, to the Pentagon as early as last September, but the plan has only recently seen progress. Those familiar with the deliberations have attributed the sudden development to the growing threat of Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. “I think now there is a realization that… moderate fighters are fighting a two-front war, against the extremists and the regime,” Mohammed Ghanem, director of government relations of the Syrian-American Council, told NOW.
The White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon have yet to release further details of the train-and-equip program. The original announcement, made by Senator Carl Levin, was made after the US Senate passed its version of the Department of Defense’s 2015 budget. He said that the budget “authorizes the DOD to train and equip” vetted members of the opposition, but would not specify on the type of equipment to be provided.
A non-governmental source close to the deliberations, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, spoke to NOW regarding some of the details of the plan. He said the first part of the train-and-equip program would likely focus on “containment” – helping vetted members of the armed opposition secure Syria’s borders to diminish the number of foreign fighters flowing in and out of the country. In December, estimates of foreign fighters hovered around 11,000.
The second portion, he told NOW, would aim to develop “counter-terror stakeholders” – partners that would work with the US to diminish the threat of terrorism. Support would likely go to groups who, among other qualifications, are already fighting or will fight Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
According to Ghanem, aid would be coordinated through the Supreme Military Council. The body has been the US’s primary armed partner for non-lethal aid so far. SMC head Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir accompanied Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmad Jarba on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., a move that was seen as a potential solidification of US support for the SMC.
Two major groups named by Ghanem as likely participants in the new DOD program were the Hazm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The Hazm Movement recently received US-made anti-tank weapons and has been described by American analysts as “model for the type of group the United States and its allies can support with meaningful, lethal military assistance.” The group’s spokesperson, Ahmad Atareb, told NOW that the Movement hoped Assad’s latest crimes would push the US government to implement the train-and-equip program as quickly as possible.
The Syrian Revolutionaries Front, whose 14 brigades are largely Idlib-based, would provide a balance to Hazm’s mostly southern-based groups. “Clearly, the SRF was formed to add some extra muscle to the SMC,” wrote Syria expert Aron Lund in December 2013, at the SRF’s founding. The SRF has led some fighting against ISIS in Syria’s northern provinces, and both SRF and Hazm have reportedly positive relations with the SMC.
But that might not mean much, said Dan Layman, director of media relations at the DC-based pro-opposition Syrian Support Group. He told NOW that the SMC represents a “safe option” as a partner for the US, even more so now that the structure has been folded under the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). “But it isn’t the most practical option,” Layman told NOW. “The SMC hasn’t had meaningful control over very many fighters for a long time now.” He added that the vast majority of fighters who used to be grouped under the SMC “no longer answer to or receive aid from the SMC,” which he described as “more of an idea than an actual tangible force.”
Nevertheless, members of the Syrian opposition are thrilled. “This is a momentous occasion and is the first stop in clearly defining the convergence of American national security interests with strengthening the Free Syrian Army, which is actively fighting Al-Qaeda and actively fighting Iranian-backed international terrorist forces in Syria,” said Oubai Shahbandar, strategic communications advisor for the SOC.
“This is a first,” Ghanem told NOW. “This is something that we wanted to happen last year… The fact that it happened now means a lot to us.”
Rebels on the ground, however, have a different view. Fighters have previously decried US announcements of increased aid, saying that the US’s many “broken promises” had eroded the credibility of these kinds of announcements.
Even Ghanem admitted that groups on the ground had become jaded when it came to announcements by the American government. “Syrians take everything this administration says with a whole shaker of salt, not just a grain,” he said.
Asked whether the announcement of increased American aid had come too late, Ghanem said yes.
“Yes, it’s definitely too little too late,” he said. “But it’s badly needed.”