If he had the chance, he says.
He fears that restrictions on the kind of weapons he’ll receive and
the training he’ll get under a $500 million White House proposal to
arm moderate Syrian rebels will make his job impossible.
“We don’t really need more training. And we have enough soldiers.
What we need are quality weapons,” said Wawi, a commander in the
Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of moderate rebels fighting
both the Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
“We need anti-aircraft weapons. We need anti-tank weapons. If we
don’t get those, we can’t win, no matter what the United States
Under the current legislation in Congress, Wawi is unlikely to get
what he wants, highlighting a dilemma for Obama after he authorized
last week U.S. air strikes for the first time in Syria and more
attacks in Iraq in a broad escalation of a campaign against the
Islamic State militants who have seized a third of both countries.
A significant part of Obama’s plan hinges on congressional approval
of $500 million to train and equip Free Syrian Army rebels to
“strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the
extremists,” as Obama put it on Wednesday, and to prevent U.S.
troops from “being dragged into another ground war”.
But the administration has resisted providing powerful weapons
requested by the rebels such as surface-to-air missiles due to fears
they could be captured or used against America or its allies. Those
concerns have been amplified since the downing of the Malaysia
Airlines passenger jet over restive, rebel-held eastern Ukraine in
The $500 million plan, announced in June a month after Obama said he
would work with Congress to ramp up support to the moderate Syrian
opposition, was initially limited to training about a 3,000-man
force over an 18-month period and then slowly expanding those
It reflected the priorities of a president reluctant to get
entrenched in another Middle East conflict. It was intended to build
on a covert CIA-led effort that was based mostly out of Jordan and
would be run by the Department of Defense. Each rebel would need to
be vetted by U.S. officials to screen out hardline Islamists, a
time-consuming process that would further limit how many fighters
could go through the training.
The goal, say officials and former officials briefed on the original
proposal, was not to empower the rebels to prevail in their
two-pronged battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces
on one side and Islamic State militants on the other, but to enable
them to hold ground they already have.
“From what we know, that was all just about keeping the war going,
giving us just enough to keep the fighting going, but not enough to
win,” said Wawi.
In Washington, some say it’s not just a matter of weapons. They
contend that while rebels could provide crucial intelligence for any
U.S. air assault, they are too undisciplined a force to be taken
seriously, a rag-tag army of disconnected militias responsible for
too many neighborhoods.
Some say it could be difficult, if not impossible, to build the
fledgling FSA into credible ground force.
“I simply don't think there is much raw material there,” said
Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official involved in
preparations for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“It is divided. It is weak. Any effort to build it up would take
years, and I don't think we'd have much to show for it,” said Haass,
currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
EXPANDING REBEL TRAINING
The “train-and-equip” program, however, is supposed to change that.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said it was raised in
talks with Gulf Arab foreign ministers at a meeting in the Saudi
Arabian summer capital of Jeddah on Sept. 11, though it was not “the
focus of the conversation”.
“It’s also been the subject of ongoing discussions between U.S.
officials and their counterparts in various countries in the region
over a period of weeks and even months,” said the official,
requesting anonymity. “We see this as a facet, as a component of the
overall holistic anti-ISIL campaign,” the official added, using
another of Islamic State's acronyms.
Saudi Arabia has offered to host a U.S.-run training facility for
the rebels, say U.S. officials. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s White House
counter terrorism adviser, clinched the agreement on a visit to the
desert kingdom last week, a U.S. official told reporters in
Washington, calling it a crucial component of the president’s new
The facility is expected to be able to handle as many as 10,000
fighters, but details are still being worked out, including how long
it would take to vet so many fighters and how much that would cost,
say U.S. officials. More than 5,000 Syrian fighters are expected to
be trained in Saudi Arabia in the first year, according the
A senior State Department official said on Sunday countries other
than Saudi Arabia agreed to host training but declined to identify
[to top of second column]
Jordan has been considered a top choice due its close security
relationship with Washington, proximity to neighboring Syria and
pool of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. But Jordan, like other
Gulf Arab countries, has expressed fears of violent retaliation if
its territory is used for overt training.
Wawi, an intelligence officer in the Syrian army before joining the
rebels in August 2012, says he believes Syria’s government tacitly
supports Islamic State fighters, or at least exploits them to
undermine or fragment the opposition.
“When we fight Daash, the Syrian regime hits us with air strikes.
They drop barrel bombs,” he said, calling Islamic State by an Arabic
Fred Hof, a former State Department official involved in formulating
Syria policy before he joined the Atlantic Council think tank in
2012, said the presence of Islamic State was “promoted almost
deliberately by Assad as he has sought over the past three years to
try to change the nature of the opposition to his regime.”
Diplomats said Assad helped the rise of Islamic State by releasing
from his jails its most dangerous leaders. Those leaders set up
links with other radical leaders in Iraq and waged a ferocious
military campaign against other rebel groups.
Assad’s strategy, they say, was to reinforce his narrative that his
rule was facing an al-Qaeda style terrorism.
U.S. military officials have privately expressed reluctance to
equipping the rebels with surface-to-air missiles, concerned such
weapons could undercut the U.S. aerial advantage if they fall into
the hands of Islamic State. However, they said there is support
within the Pentagon for supplying the rebels with weapons beyond
small arms and ammunition, including battlefield artillery,
anti-tank rockets and mortars.
It is unclear, however, if more American weapons and training can
shift the battlefield balance toward the U.S.-backed rebels, who are
badly outgunned by Islamic State, other militant groups and Assad's
Wawi is skeptical of American training. He went through it, he said,
in Qatar for 15 days in July last year. “They only taught me how to
use Russian weapons like Kalashnikov rifles,” he said. “I didn’t
find it very useful.”
That could change. David Schenker, a former Pentagon adviser on
Syria during President George W. Bush’s administration, said the
United States may decide to offer anti-tank guns. Such weapons would
require more sophisticated training. Hof and others, however, say
it’s unclear if such expanded training could be covered by $500
"This $500 million, even it were appropriated tomorrow, or after
tomorrow, it is not in the greater scheme of things a whole lot of
money. And the appetite for the American taxpayer and the American
Congress to get deeply into this in terms of monetary commitments,
that appetite is under control,” said Hof.
"This is where some of our partners who do have resources readily
available — Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Emirates — this in part is
where they come in."
Wawi, a balding 37 year old, looks a decade beyond his age. He
joined the rebels after witnessing brutal government crackdowns over
2011 on anti-government protesters, including thousands in his home
town of Jabal al Zawyeh.
A regular presence on YouTube and Arabic-language TV, Wawi was in
Saudi Arabia seeking talks with Saudi leaders, he said. He describes
himself as the secretary-general of the Free Syrian Army, though his
exact position in the leadership is unclear.
Speaking to Reuters over dinner in Jeddah, he says the biggest
threat facing the rebels are barrel bombs, which have been dropped
by the army on densely populated neighborhoods in defiance of a U.N.
Security Council resolution banning the indiscriminate and deadly
“The biggest enemy we have right now is the air force that is
killing civilians, that is dropping the barrel bombs. We need to
stop this. We need strategic weapons that can save us from these,”
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick in
Washington; reporters in Beirut; editing by Janet McBride)
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