Syrian opposition forces near Aleppo to receive US training

Syrian opposition forces near Aleppo to receive US training
5 min read
21 February, 2015
Analysis: Fighters from Syrian opposition forces in the Aleppo region will be the first to be trained by the US in Turkey for the fight against the Islamic State group.
Syrian opposition forces with a captured regime tank, north of Aleppo [Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu/Getty]
The agreement signed by the US and Turkey to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces on Turkish territory raises several questions about the factions the training program will involve, and about the nature and goals of the program. Although the Syrian opposition factions in Aleppo recently inflicted a significant reverse on Syrian regime forces, the goal of the training program remains unclear.

The question is whether the program will be limited to training the Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State group (IS) or will include preparing them to fight the Syrian regime. Statements by Turkish officials are increasing uncertainty; they emphasised that "the opposition forces require greater competence to fight the Syrian regime's forces."

Turkey and US sign deal to train Syria rebels. Read more.

US officials insist that "the training of the opposition forces will focus only on confronting the IS."

It seems that Syrian opposition forces fighting Syrian regime troops and the IS in the countryside of Aleppo will be the first to benefit from the training program, which will start next month. The reason is that their fighters had already received training at US bases.

Training opposition fighters from the north

A large number of the fighters from the Hazm Movement, Liwa Fursan al-Haqq (Knights of Justice Brigade), and the 13rd Division of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have received training in the past few months. The fighters were trained in the use of medium and heavy-calibre machine guns, US-made TOW anti-armour missiles, mortars and field guns. They were trained in military bases in Gulf states under the supervision of US Army personnel.

The first stage of the training of the Syrian opposition forces will focus on combat basics.

The Levant Front (LF, known in Arabic as al-Jabhah al-Shamiya), the largest union of Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, is most likely to benefit from the training program, because it protected the Hazm Movement from an attack by the Nusra Front. The LF forces have a significant presence on front lines against the Syrian regime in the city and countryside of Aleppo, as well as on front lines against the IS in the northern Aleppo countryside.

The Syrian opposition forces fighting the IS are a strong candidate for the new training program. These forces are backed by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on the ground and receive air support from the international coalition.

What increases the likelihood of these factions receiving training is that they can enter areas in Raqqa Governorate after they had controlled large parts of the town of Ayn al-Arab (Kobane) and its surrounding countryside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the Syrian opposition forces managed to regain control of 19 towns and villages in the northern countryside of Raqqa. Meanwhile, the international coalition's aircraft are continuing to strike IS forces in the region.

Several FSA-affiliated factions are fighting across large areas in the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside. Among them are the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, one of the largest formations of the Syrian opposition forces in the city of Raqqa. The brigade was obliged to withdraw from after the IS took control of the city early last year. Also fighting in the region are Shams al-Shamal (Sun of the North) Brigades, affiliated with the Dawn of Freedom (Fajr al-Hurriyah) Brigades, a group of brigades whose members hail from the towns and cities of the IS-controlled eastern Aleppo countryside. There is also the Kurdish Front Brigade, a group acting independently of the Kurdish YPG, the majority of whose members come from the eastern countryside of Aleppo as well.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a conference held Thursday, 19 Feb, that the Pentagon chose 1,200 Syrian opposition forces eligible for training as part of a program to establish a force to fight the IS. He noted that "the opposition troops will be vetted first," in reference to "verifying that the members do not belong to factions included on the US terror list."

Basic training

He said that "the first stage of the training of the Syrian opposition forces will focus on combat basics, excluding the training of opposition forces on air traffic control for the international coalition's aircraft."

He explained that "air traffic control is difficult and requires a high level of skill, because it involves communication with aircraft to specify targets."

It is not clear whether the training program will lead to the formation of a new central force of opposition troops.

Kirby did not close the door on the air traffic control issue. He said it was not unlikely the Pentagon might change its opinion later if it found it "useful that the Syrian opposition fighters have the capability to help in specifying targets from the ground."

Kirby's statement came one day after The Wall Street Journal published leaks noting the Pentagon intends to enable the trained opposition forces to ask for air support. Each team, made of up four to six Syrian opposition soldiers, will be provided with a small Toyota Hilux. A machine gun will be mounted on the vehicle, which will be equipped with communication devices and a GPS system. This will help the fighters ask for air support from the international coalition's aircraft.

It is not yet clear whether the new training program, which it was agreed will take place on Turkish territory, will lead to the formation of a new central force of opposition troops. Turkish and US officials talk about training the Syrian opposition forces to confront the IS, without confirming the formation of a new central force of trained members. Such a force, if formed, will guarantee that those troops will not be dispersed and will solve problems of coordination and communication among themselves.

The formation of such a force would correct the mistake of the previous training program, which involved training fighters from opposition factions who later returned to their respective opposition factions without forming a new joint military force on the ground. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier: "The fighters who will be trained and equipped will fight groups threatening Syria's territorial integrity. These groups include the IS and some other organisations, as well as the Syrian regime. All those parties pose a threat to security and stability in Syria, and they all continue to kill civilians in a brutal way."