U.S. to Give Syria Rebels Pickup Trucks Equipped with Machine Guns, Radios to Call For Airstrikes

B-1B-WSJ

After training, moderate rebels to get pickups with gear to call for American B-1B bombers

Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous report: The U.S. has decided to provide pickup trucks equipped with machine guns and radios for calling in U.S. airstrikes to some moderate Syrian rebels, defense officials said. But the scope of any bombing hasn’t been worked out—a reflection of the complexities of the battlefield in Syria.

Military officials point to U.S. airstrikes, called in by Kurdish fighters, that helped drive Islamic State fighters from the city of Kobani as the model for the new campaign.

“We were getting information from the Kurds from our command and control element. We were getting information quickly enough for the purposes of what we were trying to achieve: target ISIL fighters and their positions.”

— Lt. Col. Sumangil

Still, there are significant differences with what the U.S.-trained rebels will face. In Kobani, a larger and more-cohesive Kurdish force was fighting from a fixed position against a single enemy—Islamic State—without having to worry about the Syrian regime or other rebel groups.

U.S. officials also are confronted with the fragile nature of the international coalition assembled to fight Islamic State, the uneasy peace with Iran inside of Iraq, and questions about whether U.S. warplanes can or should target the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The plan comes as the U.S. prepares to start training moderate rebels, who are waging a two-front fight against the extremists and the Syrian regime. Defense officials said the training will begin in mid-to-late March in Jordan, with a second site due to open soon after in Turkey.

At the same time, the threat is spreading. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called on Tuesday for the United Nations to endorse an international military campaign against Islamic State in Libya, a day after he ordered cross-border airstrikes in retaliation for the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by the extremist group. The U.N. Security Council was to meet in emergency session on Wednesday, but the U.S. and several other council members called in advance for a political solution.

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The Obama administration has been facing growing pressure to step up support for the moderate Syrian rebels from Republican hawks in Congress and from some allies, as well as conservative critics.

The first training sessions are to last between six and eight weeks. The training will focus on helping the rebel forces hold territory and counter Islamic State fighters—not to take on the Syrian army.

After that the U.S. will consider introducing what it is calling “the new Syrian force” onto the battlefield, officials said.

A team of four to six rebels will each be given a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup, outfitted with a machine gun, communications gear and Global Positioning System trackers enabling them to call in airstrikes.

The fighters will also be given mortars, but the administration hasn’t decided whether to provide the teams with more sophisticated antitank weapons.

The Central Intelligence Agency began a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in 2013, providing ammunition, small arms and antitank weapons to small groups of trusted fighters. While that program continues, some officials and administration critics say it has fallen well short of its aims.

Officials said air support will be critical if the military-trained rebels are to have a more dramatic impact on the battlefield than the CIA program did. But a final decision on under what circumstances the U.S. will provide air support to the rebels hasn’t been made, according to Pentagon officials.

The U.S. has begun screening some rebels to join the program. While the U.S. hopes to train 3,000 fighters by the end of the year, officials wouldn’t say how many have been selected so far.

The U.S. hopes to step up the training next year, to approximately 5,000.

But officials say the moderate forces will never outnumber Islamic State extremists or regime forces. Reflecting that, the Pentagon believes…(read more)

WSJ



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