While strikes hit ISIS, Syrian rebels’ military needs remain unmet

The Wall Street Journal reports: Moderate rebels in Syria say they are far from taking advantage of the U.S.-led attacks against Islamic State targets because they remain outgunned by both the extremists and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The rebel groups also blame the slow pace of training new fighters for the Free Syrian Army, which is backed by Western and Arab countries.

A $500 million program was approved by the U.S. Congress this month to expand a Pentagon program to train and equip rebels, but it will take at least six months to churn out the first batch of fighters.

“This is the luxury of time we don’t have,” said Husam Almarie, a spokesman for the FSA’s northern factions in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border with Syria. “The programs now don’t cover our needs.”

The rebels are receiving training in several countries in the region including Jordan, where most are being trained in an initiative run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Syrian opposition officials say they were given weapons this month through the Military Operations Command, a CIA-led grouping of Western and Arab intelligence agencies created to streamline support to rebels. But the transfer was mostly light arms, not the antitank missiles that have helped the FSA defend their positions, or the more coveted antiaircraft weapons the opposition has requested for more than three years.

“When they gave us the weapons, they said ‘this is something to stay alive until the new program starts,” said one opposition official who spoke with U.S. representatives at the Military Operations Command. “They’ve been giving us enough weapons to stay alive for three years, but never to progress.”

Adding to opposition frustrations are the civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-led strikes, which have killed nearly two dozen Syrians since the campaign started early Tuesday.

The casualties risk creating a popular backlash against the FSA over their alliance with the international coalition. On Friday, thousands of Syrians came out across the country protesting the airstrikes and chanting anti-American slogans.

“Our fear is that those airstrikes will hurt civilians and create casualties and increase recruits for” Islamic State, said Ahmed al-Eid, a commander for Harakat Hazm, one of the U.S.-backed FSA groups that is fighting in Syria’s north.

No matter how big the international coalition becomes, he said, “it won’t be able to stand in the face of the people if they enraged” by civilian casualties. [Continue reading…]

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