• Reuters


Syrian rebel commander Abdulaziz says U.S. military training helped his men kill at least 15 Islamic State fighters in a recent battle near Aleppo. Three months earlier, a similar engagement had gone the other way, with two of his men slain.

But his group, the Mujahideen Army, does not know if more of its men will be sent for training, such is the uncertainty surrounding plans for expanding aid to the “moderate” rebels who the United States hopes will take the fight to Islamic State militants in Syria.

The 50 fighters were the first from their group to attend the training in Qatar, part of an ostensibly covert CIA program to offer military support to vetted factions in opposition to President Bashar Assad.

“We felt the difference. Even the (Islamic State fighters) felt the difference. I knew this because this time they withdrew,” said Abdulaziz, 32, describing the daylong battle in October and giving only his first name.

“There has been an improvement in those 50.”

Their monthlong course in September included training on how to fire mortar bombs, heavy machine guns and American-made anti-tank missiles, in addition to battlefield tactics, and interviews aimed partly at assessing any radical leanings.

“We returned as one unit,” said Abdulaziz, speaking at the Mujahideen Army’s office in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, a short drive from the Syrian border. “The guys feel they are fighters at least. Their morale is higher.”

But while the support has been useful, it falls short of what his group says they need to advance on the battlefield where they are outgunned by both government troops and the Islamic State group.

His men returned with anti-tank TOW missiles, the hallmark of rebels vetted in the year-old CIA program. But like others, they say the support is insufficient.

“My message is: support the fighters properly, with ammunition and salaries. If they support us properly, they would not need to send the warplanes,” Abdulaziz said, referring to U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State militants.

Mainstream rebels say the failure of the United States and its allies to support them adequately is what has allowed radical groups such as the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front to dominate after 3½ years of war.

Loosely defined as the “Free Syrian Army,” these groups have suffered heavy losses fighting both government and jihadi forces.

The Mujahideen Army is one of the biggest mainstream groups left in northern Syria. It says it has 6,000 personnel.

Northeast of Aleppo, its fighters are helping to hold a front line at the western edge of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate” after militants advanced west toward Aleppo this summer before halting in September to attack the Kurdish town of Kobani.

The risk of Islamic State fighters resuming their westward march makes the need for more support all the more acute. But more than two months since the U.S.-led alliance began airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, such moderate groups do not know how or if they will fit into the new training plans being set up by the Pentagon.

The U.S. military says an opposition force of 12,000 to 15,000 is needed to retake the east from the Islamic State group. A Pentagon spokesman said on Nov. 4 there had been progress in setting up the curriculum, readying the sites and securing trainers from the United States and other nations. But the vetting process has yet to begin, suggesting it may take several more months to start.

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