The U.S. Defense Department said Friday that several hundred U.S. troops would start moving to the Middle East in the next four to six weeks to help train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group.
The program to train the rebels could involve about 1,000 U.S. trainers and support personnel moving into facilities in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are still being prepared.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said U.S. troops could receive orders to leave for the assignment as soon as next week and would start moving to the training areas within the next four to six weeks, and he said they wouldn't be alone.
"In addition to some countries hosting the training — which, again, we're grateful for — we expect that there will be countries that will also contribute trainers to this effort [to] complement ours," he said. "So it's not just going to be a U.S. effort."
Kirby said the training could start as early as this spring and put trained rebels back in Syria by the end of the year.
He says the program for the Syrians will be similar to that under way for Iraqi forces. "Opposition members aren't a uniformed army the way they are in Iraq, so the baseline will probably have to start at a much lower level of military skills and development," he said, "but it will be a building block approach."
Kirby said the opposition forces would learn to defend their own towns inside Syria against extremist groups like Islamic State. He said they would later learn to go on the offensive against those groups and eventually serve to aid a political solution to Syria's civil war.
Training plans for Syria's moderate opposition have moved slowly as officials struggle to coordinate specifics of the program and put together a vetting process to identify trustworthy Syrians to receive the training.