December 2, 2014 / 9:16 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. expects some familiar faces among Syria rebel recruits

A rebel fighter runs through dust towards an area damaged by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by warplanes loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Shaar neighborhood November 6, 2014.Rami Zayat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is creating a vigorous vetting process to weed out undesirables among the Syrian rebels it will train to fight Islamic State, but some of the new recruits will be familiar faces requiring far more limited screening.

The program is expected to include a number of fighters already known to the U.S. government who could take as little as a day to initially vet, U.S. officials said.

The United States already has ties with networks of Syrian fighters, including through a clandestine CIA program that has already trained rebels and through U.S. government programs to provide non-lethal aid.

"We (the U.S. government) have a current relationship with people on the ground. We are not starting from scratch," one U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The priority is to screen out human rights violators, spies and rebels who might switch sides.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia offered to host the training program but declined to discuss names of other nations which might also participate. People familiar with the planning told Reuters that Jordan had also offered to host the program. Jordan's embassy declined to comment.

The program, which is expected to start in the coming months, is at the core of President Barack Obama's strategy in Syria, a multiyear plan to field local forces to halt and eventually roll back Islamic State fighters, while keeping American troops off the battlefield.

TRAINED TO ACT ALONE

The Pentagon has estimated that it can train 5,400 recruits in the first year and that up to 15,000 will be needed to retake areas of eastern Syria controlled by Islamic State. It hopes more training sites might allow training of more recruits.

They will face a thorough vetting, including psychological exams and gathering of biometric data, the official said. Candidates' names would be run through U.S. databases and shared with regional allies for checks.

The level of vetting and training will take account of the fact that the fighters will not be accompanied by U.S. troops on missions.

If a recruit was previously known to the U.S. government, the military might need just a day to verify personal data. If not, the checks may take weeks.

Once in the program, all fighters will be monitored continuously, officials said. Many candidates will be drawn from Syrian towns and villages and be put through an initial training course lasting one or two months.

The goal would be to recruit pre-existing units of 100 to 200 fighters from a Syrian group. But in some cases, the U.S. military may recruit individuals from a geographic area.

"You want to get them back on the battlefield as fast as you can," a second official said.

The U.S. military might also recruit fighters outside Syria, including among refugee populations.

PROGRAM FRAUGHT WITH RISKS

Officials say they would like to accelerate the training, but uncertain local conditions in a country gripped by war made this hard. If a village is under attack, for example, potential recruits will not be able to leave their posts to undergo training.

The vetting and training are meant to minimize risks, including infiltration by the Syrian intelligence services, that trained fighters later side with Islamic State or that recruits later turn their weapons on American forces.

The U.S. military has learned hard lessons about the risks of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks in Afghanistan, where an Afghan soldier shot and killed a U.S. general in August.

The goal is to create forces that, in the near term, would focus on defending territory, but some would get special training to help them take the fight to the Islamic State, in what was described by U.S. officials as a "building block" approach.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Storey

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