The United States will send 400 troops to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring in an increasingly complex battle against IS which is worrying Obama critics that his policies are essentially arming and funding Al Qaeda groups in the region.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. James Brindle confirmed the planned deployment early Friday morning. The U.S. plan was first reported by Defense One Thursday, AP reported today.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law a massive defense policy bill that endorsed his plan to fight Islamic State militants, including air strikes and training Iraqis and moderate Syrian rebels. The law authorized the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels battling the extremists for two years, and provided $5 billion to train Iraqis battling the militants who brutally rule large sections of the two countries.
Yet many worry that the lines between so-called 'moderate' groups and those aligned to Al Qaeda are dangerously blurred and the US initiative could massively backfire, similar to blunders made in the early days of the Iraq campaign in 2003.
There is a large number of websites, politicians and talk show experts in America who fervently believe that Obama is arming Al Qaeda groups with US made weapons – which often make it to mainstream media and cause a hue and cry when 'evidence' of this surfaces, often in the form of YouTube video clips.
The groups are often wrong though.
As far back as December 2013, an arms expert stated on Fox news that Al Qaeda in Syria were using British made 'anti material' sniper rifles, used by Navy seals, following a clip which circulated on the internet. Enquiries made by An Nahar to defence experts debunked the clip, identifying the rifle as a "Chinese knock'off" (copy) of an Accuracy International rifle.But more recent accounts are worrying.
Reports of US supplied TOW anti-tank missiles ending up in the hands of Jabhat Al Nusra, Syria's branch of Al Qaeda have been surfacing in recent weeks on a number of defence/intel fringe websites. The US provided the missiles to CIA vetted Syrian rebel faction Harakat Hazm in May of last year amongst much anxiety about them remaining with the groups who were given them; a similar stir caused more attention in Autumn when White House officials entered into an excruciating debate over how to make 'safe' surface-to-air missiles which it also wanted to supply to groups like Harakat Hazm – 'safe' meaning only able to be used by the same pair of hands which belong to the original owner. A number of ideas were floated which involved nano technology which would either detect if they had wondered beyond a given location or were being used by an individual who was not the original owner, similar to high tech gun devices being showcased in the US now for police weapons.
The alarm was raised over December when a video posted by Al Nusra shows the anti tank weapons being used to take over Syrian military bases, Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh in Idlib province.
Just recently moves by Nusra to sign an accord with IS failed. But if they had gone ahead, and Nusra would have effectively been an ally of the extremists who are being bombed daily by US and an Arab coalition of air powers, then those same weapons might be used one day against the West's allies.
A number of defence experts on social media have raised the flag over the possible nightmare scenario in an attempt to counterweight US media downplaying the entire subject, which might have been a PR coup for White House press gurus: very little of the subject of TOWs being the in hands of Nusra is touched on by either of America's leading broadsheets Washington Post and New York Times with the latter only mentioning deep in an article that Nusra may have used US supplied TOW missiles when it recently captured two Syrian military bases.
TOW missiles in the hands of Nusra rebels though poses a number of incendiary questions for both the Obama administration as well as the entire operation supported by a number of EU giants like Britain and France. The chief one is whether Nusra took these weapons from Harakat al Hazm – or one of ten other ?'moderate' groups on the US approved list of 'rebels' - or were the weapons simply given to them.
Currently Harakat al Hazm are united with Jabhat al Nusra, in Handarat Aleppo, and are jointly fighting the Syrian Army. The Nusra fighter using the TOW missile in the video, shows clear proficiency in its use, indicating only one thing: that he has directly or indirectly benefited from US training in how to use the anti-tank weapons which are already proving to be a real 'game-changer' on the Syrian battlefield.
Defence analyst and blogger Elliot Higgins is the UK based founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. He believes the TOWs are indeed supplied by the US and not captured from Lebanon this year, as was earlier speculated.
"It's notable that the markings on the rear of the missile tube indicate it's the 71E-1B model, the same type as provided to vetted opposition groups, and the thee stripes on the legs of the launcher are black, not yellow as seen in the photographs of the TOW ATGMs captured by Jabhat al-Nusra from Lebanon".
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