John Allen, the retired Marine general in charge of coordinating the U.S.-led coalition’s response to the Islamic State, confirmed Wednesday what Syrian rebel commanders have complained about for months – that the United States is ditching the old Free Syrian Army and building its own local ground force to use primarily in the fight against the Islamist extremists.
“At this point, there is not formal coordination with the FSA,” Allen told reporters at the State Department.
That was perhaps the bluntest answer yet to the question of how existing Syrian rebel forces might fit into the U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State. Allen said the United States’ intent is to start from scratch in creating a home-grown, moderate counterweight to the Islamic State.
For most of the three years of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. ground game hinged on rebel militias that are loosely affiliated under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA. Their problems were no secret: a lack of cohesion, uneven fighting skills and frequent battlefield coordination with the al Qaida loyalists of the Nusra Front.
This time, Allen said, the United States and its allies will work to strengthen the political opposition and make sure it’s tied to “a credible field force” that will have undergone an intense vetting process.
“It’s not going to happen immediately,” Allen said. “We’re working to establish the training sites now, and we’ll ultimately go through a vetting process and beginning to bring the trainers and the fighters in to begin to build that force out.”
The Syrian arena is important, Allen said, but to the U.S., “the emergency in Iraq right now is foremost in our thinking.” There will be a simultaneous training-and-equipping campaign for Iraq, where the U.S.-trained military collapsed during the Islamic State’s summer offensive.
Allen said the new training program is “for those elements of the Iraqi national security forces that will have to be refurbished and then put back into the field,” with the ultimate goal of reclaiming Iraqi territories seized by the Islamic State.
Allen sounded confident that the United States and its allies could juggle two massive training efforts even as the Islamic State has shown itself to be resilient under weeks of coalition airstrikes.
“We have the capacity to do both, and there is significant coalition interest in participating in both,” Allen said of the twin force-building efforts in Iraq and Syria.
But, as he stressed repeatedly in his remarks, “it’s going to take a while.”
Ahmad Tomeh, who was just re-elected prime minister of the Syrian opposition's interim government, told McClatchy that Allen met six leaders of the political opposition during his trip to Istanbul last week, but had no talks with any of the ground commanders, including the vetted, trained commanders the U.S. has been supporting. They asked for increased help, Tomeh said, but got no commitment.
Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.