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Pentagon Reportedly Preparing to Overhaul Syrian Rebel Force

FILE - Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Al Rahman legion run to avoid snipers on the frontline against the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria July 27, 2015.
FILE - Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Al Rahman legion run to avoid snipers on the frontline against the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria July 27, 2015.

The New York Times says U.S. defense officials are drawing up plans to revise the training of moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State in Syria following “significant shortcomings” in training and tactics.

The assessment comes as Washington asks Greece to close its airspace to Russian supply flights to Syria amid concerns of a Russian military buildup in Syria.

The newspaper, citing four senior Defense Department and Obama administration officials, says the proposed changes follow a July 31 attack on 54 Syrian rebel graduates by members of the al-Nusra Front (NSF), the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida.

According to classified assessments, the Syrian rebels were ill-prepared for the attack, were too few in number, lacked local support and were deployed during the Eid holiday, when many recruits took leave to visit their relatives.

The options to improve results of the $500 million program include enlarging the force, shifting their deployments and improving intelligence.

The overt train-and-equip program is run by U.S. Special Forces and allied trainers in Turkey and Jordan. It is separate from a covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Stringent screening

Only dozens have been approved among thousands who have applied. After one year, supporters conceded the program is falling short of the 5,000 trained fighters originally envisioned.

Former Ambassador James Jeffrey, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the program is not serious enough to challenge the thousands of Islamic State fighters, also known as ISIS, in Syria.

"We’ve been arming Syrians in a CIA campaign for years with the mission of going after [President Bashar] Assad. Now, it’s a new mission, going after ISIS, but we never put any effort into it. That’s how we end up with 50 people. This is a half-a-billion-dollar program. It’s supposed to generate 5,000 fighters," Jeffrey said.

At a recent news briefing, U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Kevin Killea, the chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation: Inherent Resolve, told reporters the current classes and training are very promising.

"I think that says a lot to the program itself in that, as the numbers continue, this will be very additive to the anti-ISIL forces that are in northern Syria," Killea said.

The New York Times said that with the White House ruling out sending U.S. advisers into Syria with the trainees, the biggest challenge may be deciding where and how to send the rebels back in.

"We don’t have direct command-and-control with those forces once we do finish training and equipping them, when we put them back into the fight, if you will, with the vetted Syrian opposition and the moderate Syrian opposition force that are in northern Syria fighting ISIL," Killea said.

According to the New York Times, one part of the program worked well: the ability to provide real-time air cover for the rebels. It said Predator drones quickly rushed to help them once their base in northwest Syria came under attack from the al-Nusra Front fighters and killed dozens of attackers.

Russian intentions

Meanwhile, there is growing U.S. concern about Russia’s intentions in Syria. It has asked Greece to ban Russian supply flights using its airspace. The Greek foreign ministry says the request is being considered.

Media reports indicate the Russian activity may be part of a plan to increase its support of the Assad government, or as part of a plan to fight IS militants. Last week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States is aware of such reports of Russian military personnel and aircraft deployed in Syria.

"I will just say as a general matter that any military support to the Assad regime, for any both destabilizing and counterproductive." He added the United States "would welcome Russian support in contribution" ot the fight against Islamic State.

"The United States has also been a leading advocate of trying to reach a diplomatic transition in the political leadership in Syria. And, we certainly would welcome Russia’s positive contribution to that effort as well," Earnest went on to say.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on September 5 expressed concern over reports of Russia's enhanced military build-up in Syria in a telephone call with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The New York Times has reported that Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria. It said the moves included the recent movement of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control station there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said September 4 that his country is providing "serious" training and logistical support to the Syrian army. But, the Russian leader added, it was "premature" to discuss possible direct Russian involvement in military operations against IS in Syria.