Why is the train-and-equip program delayed?

Why is the train-and-equip program delayed?

Uncertainty dominates the program to “train-and-equip” moderate elements of the Syrian opposition that Ankara and Washington were said to have agreed on months ago. Statements from the two sides are not exactly in tune with one another.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoğlu suggested weeks ago that the program was about to start and came close to giving a date. Statements from the American side, however, indicate that negotiations are continuing. 

Matters became more confusing after Çavusoğlu recently told daily Sabah that Ankara and Washington had also “agreed in principle” to provide air support to fighters sent to Syria after their training in Turkey is completed. This indicates an advanced position for Ankara, implying it that U.S. jets taking off from Turkey will bomb targets in Syria. 

However, on May 27, Hürriyet cited U.S. officials who indicated that there was nothing new to report concerning the train-and-equip program, and said negotiations with Turkey on the program’s details were ongoing. This does not belie what Çavusoğlu said of course. 

But the “agreement in principle” he referred to is a flexible term. It does not suggest anything definite. The bottom line is that one does not see any urgency to implement this program despite important developments in Syria where the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is advancing against the Syrian army.

Çavusoğlu’s remarks also suggest that Turkey now sees ISIL and the Assad regime as equal threats. This gives the impression that Ankara has stepped down from its previous position of prioritizing the demise of the Assad regime. There is nothing to confirm this though. 

But if we look at remarks coming out of Washington, the U.S. priority is still to fight ISIL and al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda linked group fighting the Syrian army) and not the Assad regime. Washington says, of course, that it opposes Assad “in principle.” 

But there are signs that the US is veering towards a formula were the Syrian regime is kept intact, even if Assad goes, in order to not leave the field to ISIL and other groups. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey remains opposed to this idea. 

Turkey’s formula for Syria is a simple one. It wants elections in Syria, knowing that the Sunni majority is more than likely to produce a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood who the AKP feels an affinity towards. Given all that has transpired in Syria, though, this appears unlikely to happen at this stage. 

The AKP’s formula for Syria is not one that the regional powers headed by Saudi Arabia also welcome, given they are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone how the West may feel about it.  

There are also indications that Ankara and Washington may not be on the same page with regard to the train-and-equip program too.  One problem concerns how the “moderate forces” to be trained are to be selected to ensure they will not include people who can easily switch to the side of radical Islamists. 

It is also not clear who Ankara and Washington want these fighters to be deployed against in the first instance. Turkey clearly wants this to be the Assad regime while the U.S. wants them to target ISIL.

Meanwhile, the news that ISIL got hold of the equipment left by the Iraqi army it defeated in Ramadi recently will also increase concerns in Washington that weapons given to the Syrian opposition could end up in wrong hands.

The different priorities of Ankara and Washington in Syria appear to be the real reason why the train-and-equip program and related military arrangements are being delayed. 

Meanwhile it is ISIL and al-Nusra who are gaining from this, as seen recently in Iraq and Syria. Washington is clearly unhappy about this. Having bet on Assad’s downfall, it is not clear if the AKP government is also disturbed by it, which is probably another contentious point between the two countries.