Obama asks Congress for $500million to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to stem rise of the ISIS extremists more brutal than Al-Qaeda
- Obama plans to arm moderate rebel groups in Syria to combat rise of ISIS
- Had warned against arming groups, fearing guns could fall into wrong hands
- But security fears over the rise of ISIS appears to have trumped concerns
- Russia opposes arming rebel groups calling it a ‘big risk’ and ‘a waste’
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $500million to arm and equip moderate rebel groups in Syria in the latest effort to combat the sudden rise of ISIS.
Obama has previously been reluctant to arm rebel groups amid fears that weapons could fall into the wrong hands, but gains by ISIS militants in the past weeks now appear to trump those concerns.
A lighting-fast offensive by ISIS saw the fundamentalist Islamic group seize huge swathes of territory in Iraq to add to the land it already controlled in Syria.
The group now controls most of the country’s northwest, including all border crossings with Syria, and is fighting in Fallujah, just 40 miles from capital Baghdad, prompting fears the country’s security forces could be overrun.
The train-and-equip mission would be overseen by the Pentagon and would mark a significant expansion of previous covert efforts to arm moderate rebels fighting both the extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moderate groups fighting in Syria include the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, and the Islamic Front – though it is feared this group could collaborate with more extreme groups.
Officials say the U.S. has grown increasingly confident in recent months about its ability to distinguish the moderate rebels from the more extremist elements that include the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the military assistance ‘marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIS who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels.’
The president’s cautious approach to Syria has come under increased criticism as the civil war, now in its fourth year, spills across the border into Iraq, with White House opponents arguing that Obama’s reluctance to arm the rebels gave ISIS space to operate.
Like the more moderate Syrian rebels, ISIS is seeking to push Assad from power, aiming to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
With ISIS gaining strength, U.S. officials say Assad’s forces launched airstrikes on extremist targets inside Iraq on Monday.
Obama has ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But he has dispatched nearly 600 U.S. forces in and around Iraq to train local forces and secure the American Embassy in Baghdad.
Officials said the administration would coordinate with Congress and regional players on the specific types of training and assistance the U.S. would provide the opposition. One potential option would be to base U.S. personnel in Jordan and conduct the training exercise there.
In addition to the covert train-and-equip mission, the U.S. has also provided nearly $287million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition.
The military program would be supplemented by $1 billion in assistance to Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq — to help them deal with an influx of refugees and the threat of extremists spilling over their borders.
The Syria program is part of a broader $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday.
The package includes $1 billion to help stabilize nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war.
It also formalizes a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe amid Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine.
The Russian ambassador to the United Nations criticized Obama’s announcement, saying it would just drag out the conflict and that it was ‘moving things in the wrong direction.’
‘I think that this is an extremely big risk, and frankly a waste,’ Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at the U.N., saying weapons and money could fall into the hands of the ISIL.
He said the U.S. and Russia, which has been Assad’s most powerful international backer during the war, should be focusing on restarting political negotiations to end the conflict.
The instability in Iraq comes as Obama continues to grapple with a crisis in Ukraine, with Russia widely believed to be backing pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukrainian cities.
Russia’s threats have stoked anxiety among U.S. allies in the region, who are seeking deeper military assistance from the U.S.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY: WHO IS FRIEND AND WHOS IS FOE IN SYRIA
Obama has previously cautioned against arming rebels in Syria amid fears that weapons could fall into the wrong hands, but the threat of ISIS now appears to have changed his mind.
According to reports, the U.S. is increasingly confident in its ability to tell the more moderate groups from the fundamentalists – so who is likely to get the weapons and who will they be used against?
Supreme Military Command
The SMC was created as an umbrella group to unite the various elements of the former Free Syrian Army as the West called for united leadership among Syria’s rebels at the end of last year.
Fighters for the SMC come largely from army deserters based in Turkey, led by Col Riad al-Asaad.
The group has backing from Western powers such as the United States, as well as Turkey and Gulf Arab countries, but has never been able to shake the impression that it is being lead from abroad.
While still functioning nominally, the SMC was dealt a heavy blow by the formation of the Islamic Front alliance in November 2013, which deprived it of some of its largest members and allies.
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army – now the Supreme Military Command – pictured in Aleppo in 2012
Syrian Revolutionaries Front
This alliance of rebel units helped to launch the Syrian campaign against hardline ISIS fighters.
The backbone of the group is the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, a once powerful group from the northern province of Idlib led by Jamal Maarouf.
Unlike most other rebel formations, the group does not appear to have strong ideological leanings. The SRF is believed to receive funding from large Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. It has poor relations with the Islamic Front but has expressed support for the SMC.
This recent formation of eight Syrian militant groups was announced early in January and almost immediately launched a campaign against ISIS, leading many observers to believe it may have been formed by Gulf Arab backers to challenging the radical Islamist group.
The Mujahideen Army, which claims to have 5,000 members, is seen as moderately Islamist. This relatively new group, along with the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, spearheaded the campaign against ISIS.
An amalgam of six major Islamist groups, this alliance is believed to be the biggest rebel army working in Syria.
Its formation last November gutted the Western-backed Syrian Military Council, depriving it of some of its main members.
Analysts say the number of fighters brought together by the Front is between 40,000 to 50,000.
The Islamic Front has been involved in fighting with ISIS, making it a possible target for U.S. weapons, but many of its members are hardline Sunni Islamists who want Syria to become an Islamic state.
ISIS was formed by breakaway elements from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, which joined with Al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch.
The group is headed by the Iraq branch’s leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
ISIS is the most hardline of all the Islamist forces in Syria and has made enemies of several rebel groups since it seized many towns and checkpoints in opposition areas.
It aims to create an Islamic Sharia state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran, and stepped closer to that objective this week after seizing all border crossing between Syria and Iraq.
ISIS militants launched a bloody offensive on Iraq from Syria attempting to establish a Sharia state spanning both countries
This powerful rebel group is comprised of both Syrians and foreign militants and has been formally recognized by the central leadership of al Qaeda as its franchise in Syria.
The group was one of the first to use techniques such as suicide attacks and car bombings in urban areas. Despite this, it is seen as more tolerant and less heavy handed in its dealings with civilians and other rebel groups in comparison with ISIL.
The Nusra Front, estimated at around 7,000 to 8,000 members, has worked with most rebel factions fighting in Syria but follows an austere version of Islam and calls for the creation of an Islamic state.