Train-equip program has started in Turkey

Train-equip program has started in Turkey

“The train-equip program started in Turkey. 300 Syrian rebels already arrived on May 9.” 

These words were uttered by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu this week.

For months we have been questioning if and when the train-equip program for Syrian rebels would begin in Turkey. It was even alleged veryrecently that the Turkish part of the program would be cancelled completely. 

Having the opportunity to have a tete-a-tete conversation with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu last week, this was the question I asked him immediately: Will the program start at all?

Çavuşoğlu replied that the first group composed of 300 rebels arrived on May 9 and their training started last week. He added that the vetting process was implemented together with Turkey and the U.S., which had been in longstanding disagreement on the target of the program. Washington wants the rebels to fight only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while Ankara wants them to struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“Of course at the moment the first and foremost target is ISIL. However they will struggle for the stability, security and peace of Syria. Hence, they will struggle also against al-Assad’s forces. We have reached consensus on that,” Çavuşoğlu says.

According to the minister, Turkey and the U.S. are working together on the technical details, such as how and from which specific area the rebels will enter Syria following their training.

I was able to learn more details from a high level official in Ankara. He started our conversation talking about the three main channels through which the Syrian rebels receive support. The first one is the train and equip program, which is, according to him, the only way Turkey provides help. 

He added the program has been operational in Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a while, was recently started in Jordan and kicked off in Turkey last week. According to him, the vetted rebels are predominantly composed of members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Like the foreign minister, the official underlined the U.S. has no objection anymore to al-Assad also being a target of the program.

The second way of support is applied officially by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the form of direct help to the rebels fighting in the field. According to the official, Ahrar al-Sham is one of these groups. 

“Actually the U.S. is not excited about this group, yet still it doesn’t object [to] them” he said. 

In line with that, last week I shared here the remarks of a former high-level U.S. official who said that “although the U.S. publicly opposes groups like Nusra [the al-Nusra Front], it would not take any steps against them since their current collaboration allows for a more efficient opposition against al-Assad.”

The Turkish official said that the al-Fatah Army (Army of Conquest), a rebel alliance which scored numerous victories in recent weeks against the al-Assad regime, is another group receiving support through this channel.

Yet, he said, Ankara approaches this group with caution. “These groups evolve very rapidly. We don’t know who exactly its members are.” Hence, it is not clear yet if these groups will be included in the train and equip program. Yet he underlined that the al-Nusra Front can’t be part of the program.

Does the U.S. directly support any groups in the field? His reply was brief: “I don’t know.”

According to him, as the third way of support, Gulf countries provide help “on individual terms and through special channels” to the rebels in the field.

The official underlined that Turkey’s views on Syria overlap with the ones of the new Saudi administration much more than the previous one. Accordingly, the new King is much more decisive on al-Assad’s ouster and the two countries are much more in tune on the training of the rebels.

Yet he doesn’t expect an intervention from Saudi Arabia in the short-term.

On the other hand, he stated there is no change in the U.S. position vis-a-vis the foundation of a safe zone in Syria. Therefore the two countries have not reached any agreement on that issue and negotiations are still in progress. 

Apparently Ankara and Washington have not overcome their disagreements. In addition to the issue of a safe zone, last week I shared herewith the diverging views of some American officials on the training of the rebels as well. 

Yet this is exactly what matters: To continue to cooperate despite the gaps. This is needed much more than ever before.