The United States will send 400 troops and hundreds more support personnel to train vetted Syrian rebels fighting against both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Pentagon confirmed the planned deployment early on Friday, after the Defense One website earlier reported that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had offered to host the training.
The U.S. military estimates it can train more than 5,000 recruits from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the first year and plans to vet brigades to make sure that they are not part of groups sympathetic to ISIL. The U.S. says up to 15,000 troops will be needed to retake areas of eastern Syria controlled by ISIL.
The announcement came just days after senior U.S. officials met Syrian opposition and civil society leaders in Istanbul to discuss the program.
The latest training program is part of President Barack Obama's multi-year plan to halt ISIL, including air strikes and training Iraqis and Syrian rebels who do not share ISIL's goal of creating a religious state. Syria's neighbor Jordan already hosts a small and ostensibly covert effort by the CIA to equip and train small groups of fighters opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Critics in Congress have said the Pentagon program will not aid Syrian opposition forces fast enough, and question whether it is too small to influence the course of Syria's multi-pronged civil war. "So far it's been slow, and it will continue to be slow, and it certainly won't be sufficient to stop the Islamic State," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told The Daily Beast late last year. "It's probably necessary for success in the long term, but it's far, far, far from sufficient."
It is also unclear how rebel forces would be compelled to focus their efforts on ISIL — the U.S.’s priority — when the main goal of their uprising is toppling Assad. When it fits their strategic needs, FSA factions have been known to work alongside Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as with other hardline groups.
Abdelnasr Farzat, a top commander of FSA forces in Aleppo until last year, told Al Jazeera in October that while his organization was the group “best able to manage the dual crises” of Assad and ISIL, the FSA’s raison d’etre is and always will be toppling the Assad regime, which it holds responsible for the rise of armed groups like ISIL in Syria.
The Syrian civil war, which began as an uprising against Assad's rule more than three years ago, has devolved into a bloody and protracted sectarian conflict killing more than 200,000 people. More than 3 million people have become refugees after fleeing the violence, with many more internally displaced.
ISIL has seized large swathes of land in Syria and neighboring Iraq, and battles both regime forces and rebel groups for control of territory. In June last year it announced the establishment of a "caliphate" straddling the two countries, with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its de facto capital.
Michael Pizzi contributed reporting, with wire services