U.S.-Backed Fighters in Syria May Be Difficult to Control

In this Dec. 11, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army fighters look at a Syrian Army jet, not pictured, in Fafeen village, north of Aleppo province, Syria. Many western nations had hoped that the FSA would become the main opposition to the Syrian government, but more extreme groups have filled that role.
A key part of the White House's plan to fight the Islamic State includes vetting, training and arming a group of fighters willing to wage a ground war in Syria that the United States doesn't want for itself.
The problem is, military and security experts said, that militants in Syria have shown that no amount of U.S. influence will stop them from fighting for their own interests, and there is no way to guarantee that American weapons won't wind up with people they were intended to kill.
The House of Representatives is set to vote Wednesday on whether to fund the Obama administration's plan that requires $500 million to prepare 5,400 fighters for battle against ISIS in Syria, a plan that Gen. Martin Dempsey said could take 8 to 12 months to complete at a Senate hearing discussing the matter on Tuesday.
The ideal version of the strategy calls for the U.S. to vet a group of fighters until officials are sure this band of rebels will only battle ISIS. Americans would then have to set up training camps somewhere nearby to prepare these fighters for war, though setting up shop in Syria is out of the question due to the ever-present danger. Finally, the U.S. would equip those fighters with small arms and sophisticated weapons and send them off to combat.

FSA Anti aircraft

In this Feb. 8 photo, Free Syrian Army fighters sit behind their antiaircraft machine gun in Aleppo, Syria.

But this plan falls on its face when government officials are forced to contend with the realities of the Syrian civil war, according to military and security experts.
For starters, weeding out fighters who won't stick to the U.S. battle plan is close to impossible.
"No group outside the U.S. …is going to adhere 100% under every condition and in every environment to what the U.S. would consider its preferred approach," Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Middle Eastern military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, toldMash.
Some of the more moderate rebels in Syria have already said they will use U.S. weapons to fight the Syrian government, according to The Daily Beast. Syria is littered with different militant factions aside from ISIS, not all of which would be willing to let U.S.-backed fighters pass without firing shots, Nerguizian said.
“You think these people you’re training will only fight against [ISIS]?" Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona asked Dempsey at Tuesday's hearing. "Do you really believe that, general?”

U.S.-Backed Fighters in Syria May Be Difficult... by talkingpointsmemo
Training may also be a difficult proposition.
The U.S. may have to run its camps out of Turkey or Jordan depending on whether those governments are OK with housing the American operation, said Jeffrey White, a Middle East security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank focused on understanding American interests in the Middle East.
Factions inside southern Syria would be able to send fighters to U.S. training camps inside Jordan, White said, and American instructors could also draw on populations from surrounding countries.
The next step would be to arm the trained rebels, but keeping those arms in their hands may become more difficult as the U.S. increases the flow of weapons.

Syrian arms

In this Dec. 14, 2012 photo, Syrian rebels clean an anti-aircraft gun in Maaret Ikhwan, Syria.

“There’s absolutely no guarantee that anything we send in there won’t end up in the hands of somebody we don’t like," White said.
The best the U.S. could hope for is to keep tabs on the more sophisticated weaponry they provide to the fighters, such as heavy-duty missiles. Small arms are more difficult to track because there are more of them and they will inevitably wind up exchanged with other groups or lost on the battlefield, White and Nerguizian said.
“If you’re going to [provide arms], at least understand that this can go sideways in any number of ways," Nerguizian said. “The boring statement that ‘anything can and will go wrong,’ in this conflict, is true.”
The real question, he said, is how the U.S. will react when the plan derails.

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