Obama to Press Ahead with Training of 'Moderate' Syrian Rebels

President Barack Obama's administration says it will continue with mission to train Syrian opposition fighters, despite initial failures.

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Syrian rebels (file)
Syrian rebels (file)
Reuters

President Barack Obama's administration on Tuesday vowed to press ahead with a half-billion-dollar mission to train Syrian opposition fighters, despite fears that its initial failures have dented U.S. credibility.

After the routing of a 54-strong force by Al-Qaeda-allied rebels, Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith told AFP there was no plan to pause or scale back the program.

"We are continuing with training," she said, "despite the initial challenges, (the Department of Defense) remains firmly committed to building the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition."

The mission aims to train around 5,400 vetted Syrians each year for three years, to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group, which has brought its severe brand of Sharia law to swathes of northern and eastern Syria.

Several hundred American forces are involved in the training mission and the Pentagon has so far identified more than 7,000 potential trainees from among the Syrian population, according to AFP.

But so far only an estimated 60 personnel have been deployed, amid strict counterintelligence screening.

Many in Washington are mindful of the lessons of the 1970s, when American-armed-and-trained Mujahedeen fighters opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan became key cogs in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Despite the troubled start to this latest train-and-equip mission, the Obama administration has asked -- and looks set to receive -- around $600 million from Congress to fund the program.

Experts say the mission may yet prove critical in fighting ISIS, which sprang out of the Sunni rebellion in Iraq.

The group has proven deft at recruiting Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis disenfranchised by Shiite or Alawite-led central governments.

"Obviously the insertion of the initial trainees was terrible," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"That being said, I don't see an alternative to it. You can't defeat the Islamic State with some Kurds and a what's left of the Assad regime in a country that is majority Sunni."

To bolster the U.S.-trained force, the White House recently announced that American airpower would be used to defend them if needed, a major shift, but one unlikely to transform the conflict.

At the same time the United States and Turkey said they would work together to create an Islamic State-free zone in northern Syria.

For the time being, American trained fighters are likely to be deployed within already cleared zones, or areas under Kurdish control.

AFP contributed to this report.