U.S. Strategy to Train Syrian Fighters Could Have Succeeded: Rebel Leader

by Marc Smith and Richard Engel /  / Updated 

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An ambitious U.S initiative to train and equip an anti-ISIS Syrian army was flawed from the beginning, a Syrian officer involved in the program told NBC News just before Washington announced that it was scrapping the failed program.

"There were mistakes committed on both sides. Wrong decisions were made when choosing the leadership and the troops that were trained," said Capt. Ammar Al Wawi, who was the spokesperson for the first fighters to participate in the troubled "train and equip" program.

Related: Pentagon Ends Program to Train Syrian Rebels

Al Wawi, a former Syrian Army officer who defected in the early days of the revolution, was a member of Division 30, the first contingent of the US-trained forces deployed in Syria.

Image: Captain Ammar al Wawi.
Captain Ammar al Wawi.Grimson, Matthew (206451766)

He says he had been critical of the $500 million program from its inception, citing the small number of trainees and the lack of funding provided for fighters’ salaries as key issues.

The total number of Division 30 recruits to enter the fight in Syria stands at just over 100, a far cry from the 5,000 that the U.S. had projected to graduate by the end of 2015 and few, if any, of these recruits ever actually took on ISIS on the battlefield.

"This is a huge humiliation to the Americans," al Wawi said. "We did not expect this weakness in this project — we expected 1,000 Syrians to be trained."

Al Wawi said recruits were paid $200 a month — a wage that was, "not enough for food, family, and kids," and that paled in comparison to that earned by extremists fighters.

Related: Russian Aggression Complicates Obama's Options in Syria

"ISIS pays $500, up to a $1,000 dollars, for each fighter and $5,000 dollars for their leaders," he claimed.

The two Division 30 classes to see action in Syria — the first comprised of a mere 54 men and the second of 72 — were both involved in disastrous and embarrassing incidents.

In late-July of 2015, the first group was the target of an attack from the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, resulting in the deaths, capture, or injuries of many of the Division 30 fighters. Only a handful escaped unscathed.

A second group was sent into Syria in mid-September. A week later, according to the pentagon, members of the group handed over 25 percent of their equipment to al Nusra in exchange for safe passage, which was "a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines," according to a U.S. Centcom statement.

Not only did al Nusra receive supplies from the US-backed forces, they gained manpower as well. Many of those involved in that exchange now fight for the extremist group, according to al Wawi.

Even with all these obstacles and missteps, al Wawi still believes that the program could be salvaged and placed pressure on the U.S. to act, saying it could be a "successful project if the Americans who are in charge of the project rethought the work on this."

But the Pentagon now intends to replace the "train and equip" strategy with a far less ambitious plan to assist rebel commanders with logistical and tactical training.

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