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U.S., Turkey agree to Syrian rebel training, but not whom they’ll fight

The United States and Turkey have agreed tentatively to start joint training of Syrian rebel fighters in March but have put off the question of defining the enemy – the government of President Bashar Assad or Islamist extremists – the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Under a memorandum of understanding, the U.S. will send about 100 military trainers to the Kirsehir-Hirfanli base in central Anatolia to train and equip up to 2,000 rebels this year, a senior official told reporters.

Altogether, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are to host training for 5,000 rebels this year and a total of 15,000 over three years, said the official, who declined to be named because this was not an official announcement.

Turkey expects to conclude the deal by late January, but major questions remain open – not only about naming the ultimate foe but also how to choose the rebels and where to base them.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have backed down from his demand that the U.S. support a no-fly zone over northern Syria, something the Obama administration adamantly opposed.

Other differences appeared to have been papered over.

Turkey has been adamant that any force deployed in Syria must have as a goal defeating the Assad government, but the Obama administration has insisted it is interested only in battling the Islamic State. There is no need to define the ultimate target now, the Turkish official said, because rebel forces already are fighting a two-front war, against both the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

Turkey had sought to select rebels from the anti-regime Free Syrian Army umbrella group who have been fighting inside Syria, but the Obama administration would not agree, the official said. Instead, the two sides agreed to select rebels through a joint commission.

Also left up in the air is how the new force will be integrated with forces already fighting in Syria. Rebel officials estimate there are at least 30,000 fighters in southern Syria and 10,000 in the north, and of the total, at least 1,000 already have been trained in Qatar through a covert CIA-directed program.

Top Pentagon aides favor recruiting unit-level commanders for the training and providing them weapons to defend Syrian civilians against the regime’s use of barrel bombs and other unguided munitions, but they have yet to win White House backing, according to an informed Capitol Hill official who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, the top civilian opposition group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said it would not not attend negotiations with President Bashar Assad that Russia has called for in Moscow.

The group elected as its new president Khalid Khoja, a member of the Turkman minority who’s long lived in exile in Turkey. He succeeded Hadi al Bahra, a Syrian businessman. “The dialogue with the regime that Moscow is calling for is out of the question,” Khoja told a news conference. “We can’t sit at the same table as the regime . . . except in a negotiating framework intended to achieve a peaceful transition of power.”

McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed from Istanbul.

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