• Bloomberg


Turkish authorities have started vetting candidates for a beefed-up Syrian opposition force under a joint initiative with the U.S., according to a Turkish official with knowledge of the process.

The program will train as many as 5,000 fighters, another official said. The training will take place at a Turkish base near the central Anatolian city of Kirsehir before the recruits join the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details aren’t public. It’s unclear when the training will start.

The program has been the subject of extensive talks, and its introduction comes as the rebels backed by the U.S. and Turkey have lost ground on two fronts, against militant groups such as Islamic State as well as the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that toppling Assad should be the focus of any U.S. strategy for Syria, while the U.S. has made defeating Islamic State its priority. Turkey has pressed for the creation of no-fly zones over much of Syria, a measure opposed by the U.S. on the grounds it would lead to conflict with Assad’s army.

While U.S. defense officials said the agreement to allow limited training of Syrian rebels on its soil is a positive step, they cautioned that it’s not likely to make any significant change in the battle against Islamic extremists or the Turkish-backed effort against Assad.

One U.S. official, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss the issue, said it would take months to recruit, vet, train and equip even 2,000 volunteers. Already, the official said, the U.S. is having difficulty identifying recruits who are unlikely to defect to extremist groups.

“In a chaotic environment where religious and ethnic motives are driving forces behind warring groups, the moderate FSA has no appeal,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said in an interview. “A few thousand rebels can’t change the tide of war in Syria and there is no willingness from the allies for a broader undertaking.”

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