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US struggles to find ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels to train

AFP/ HO/ SHAAM NEWS NETWORK file picture / Syrian rebels train in Homs on May 18, 2012

The United States has hit a snag in its program to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State (IS) group because of the lack of so-called moderate recruits, with less than 200 taking part in the program so far, the Pentagon said this week.

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"We are trying to recruit and identify people that ... can be counted on. That is, to fight, to have the right mindset and ideology," US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told a congressional committee hearing, saying that many of the potential trainees were either unsuitable or lacked the will to take on the IS group.

"It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria," he said.

Out of the 5,000 forces that the US had envisioned taking part in the $500-million train-and-equip program to prepare participants in their fight against the Islamist militants, the Pentagon said only "100 to 200" volunteers had begun their training at its sites in Turkey and Jordan so far.

“We have enough training sites and so forth. For now, we don’t have enough trainees to fill them,” Carter acknowledged.

Skepticism and resistance

The program, which began in May and was aimed at recruiting fighters who are not affiliated with either the IS group or al Qaeda, has been met with fierce resistance by many of the very rebels it was intended to attract.

While some rebels are incensed by the fact that it would see them abandon their over four-year-long battle against President Bashar Assad’s forces to fight the IS group, other rebels have voiced concerns that, despite the vetting process involved, some participants will simply participate in the training to join the IS group afterwards.

Since its sweeping offensive that began last summer, the IS group has taken control of almost a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq as part of its self-declared caliphate.

Counterproductive alliances

The core of the problem is that since the civil war began in March 2011, there are hardly any "moderate" rebels left in Syria. Although the US-led coalition initially viewed groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Harakat Hazm as reliable partners, their alliances with the US have turned those moderate groups into jihadist targets themselves.

But the setback to the US’s military training program is not just due to a shortage of volunteers, it is also due to the long and complicated process of vetting them. To date, the Pentagon said that around 6,000 Syrians had signed up for the program, of which 1,500 had passed the first phase of the screening process and about 500 had been rejected.

However General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that despite the challenges to find recruits, it is still too soon to give up on the program.

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