US, Turkey Near Deal to Train Syrian Rebels Ahead of Riyadh Anti-ISIS Talks

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Published Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The United States and Turkey have reached a tentative agreement to train and equip so-called moderate Syrian opposition fighters and expect to sign the pact soon, US and Turkish officials said on Tuesday with Ankara predicting a signing in days.

The agreement comes ahead of talks on Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh between military chiefs participating in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Tuesday’s announcement put an end to months of difficult negotiations between allies Washington and Ankara on how to train Syrian rebel forces to eventually take on ISIS.

Last month, the Pentagon said it would send nearly 1,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar as part of the effort to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters per year for three years under the plan.

More than 400 trainers would be backed by a similar number of support troops who will provide help with logistics, communications and intelligence, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

"Negotiations have been concluded and an agreement text will be signed with the US regarding the training of the Free Syrian Army in the coming period," Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday.

"We will share all the technical details ... when the text is signed, but it is anticipated that this will happen in the coming days," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed an agreement with Ankara in principle.

"As we have announced before, Turkey has agreed to be one of the regional hosts for the train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian opposition forces. We expect to conclude and sign the agreement with Turkey soon," Psaki told reporters.

The Free Syrian Army is seen by Turkey as a key actor in Syria's kaleidoscopic conflict, but the group has been riven by divisions and suffered setbacks at the hands of government forces and other rebel factions.

The US government hopes the effort can begin by late March, so the first rebel forces trained can be operational by year's end, according to the Pentagon.

Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against the insurgents, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200 kilometer (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria.

But it agreed in principle to train and equip Syrian rebels and is already training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. Ankara has signaled that it is ready to extend similar assistance to the Iraqi army and send arms.

The US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed several months after ISIS swept across northern Iraq, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria.

Military chiefs of US-led coalition gather in Riyadh

Meanwhile, military chiefs from "all the countries that are involved" in the coalition will gather in the Saudi capital on Wednesday for a two-day meeting to assess the battle against ISIS, diplomatic sources said.

"I think it'll be sort of a general appraisal of where we're at, what needs to be done," one of the sources said.

Another diplomatic source said the meeting is "more an exchange of information" and a chance for coordination, rather than a forum for major decisions.

Ahead of the meeting, Saudi Arabia's King Salman held talks in Riyadh Tuesday with Qatar's emir, in what an analyst sees as part of a regional effort to strengthen ties against ISIS.

Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is the latest Gulf leader to visit Riyadh this week, after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait.

Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, said the visits continue efforts begun under Saudi King Abdullah, who died last month, to reconcile Egypt and Qatar amid the rising ISIS threat.

"I believe they are trying to push Qatar and Egypt to talk together," he said.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are the main financial backers of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, having pledged around $12 billion (10.5 billion euros) to it since he came to power.

Diplomatic relations between Egypt and Qatar soured after the Egyptian army deposed President Mohammed Mursi in 2013 and launched a crackdown on his Doha-backed Muslim Brotherhood. This triggered a crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE but the three nations have since reinstated their envoys to Doha.

The talks among defense chiefs and their deputies coincide with the rise of ISIS in Libya.

Arab states have intensified their bombing of ISIS targets since the jihadists in early February claimed to have burned alive Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, whose plane went down over Syria last year.

Jordan's information minister on Monday said Bahrain had deployed fighter jets in the kingdom to support the anti-ISIS air campaign. Also Monday, the state news agency in the United Arab Emirates said its Jordanian-based warplanes hit oil refineries run by the jihadists.

The same day, Egypt carried out its first announced military action against ISIS in Libya, after the militants released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has since September been participating in the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Aside from that, the oil-rich Gulf Arab countries participating in the coalition, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have long cracked down on dissent and calls for democratic reform, drawing criticism from human rights groups.

In late September, The Washington Post published an editorial directed to US President Barack Obama that highlighted the dismal track record of some these monarchies and warned that partnership with them could force the US to soften “pressure on regimes that responded to the Arab Spring’s demand for democratic change with brutal repression,” adding that “alliance with repressive Arab regimes ultimately does more harm than good to US strategic interests.”

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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