By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Tom Coghlan
The Kentucky Fried Chicken may be good, but Syrian rebels who graduate from a secret US training programme in Jordan devised to help to overthrow the regime of President Assad are routinely left with limited weaponry and no decisive advantage.
A 20-year-old rebel fighter described how he was taken off a battlefield in southern Syria and sent by his Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander to a training centre in the Jordanian desert where American trainers spent 40 days instructing them.
“I was told we would be trained on heavy weapons and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles,” the fighter, who declined to be named, told The Times. The young man, the only member of his brigade sent to the camp, went to Jordan via co-operation between Deraa’s FSA military council and Jordanian intelligence. He was stunned to find Western military trainers waiting for him.
“We were taught by Americans. We called them by their first names and they spoke English to us,” he said.
The fighter described twice-daily sessions of long-distance running, sit-ups, press-ups and endurance training. Recruits were taught group and solo street fighting: “We learnt how to break into buildings as a team, how to blow up houses held by the enemy and how to free captives.
“We were trained on Kalashnikovs, light machineguns, cannon mortars, antitank mines, and antitank missiles, such as the unguided Red Arrow SPG-9.”
His favourite aspect of the training, and perhaps final proof of US involvement, was the regular supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken fed to the trainees. On the day he left he was also handed $500, though no payments have been made subsequently.
The fighter’s account supports claims by the Free Syrian leadership that US support is inadequate to shift the balance on the battlefield because there is no supply of ground-to-air missile systems or training on them.
“There is a clear request for sophisticated weapons,” said Rime Allaf, adviser to the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the political wing of the Western- supported Free Syrian Army. “The solution is political but we can only reach it if the FSA is able to defend itself against the [government] monopoly of air power.”
FSA commanders contacted by Skype in Deraa said that they had still to receive new supplies of weaponry despite media speculation that they would arrive.
“There has definitely been Saudi lobbying of the US to do a bit more,” said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Doha. He said that the level of US support appeared only capable of ensuring that the rebels “don’t lose”. He added: “It’s not going to end this thing. All are starting to think this is going to take years.”
Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said America appeared intent on keeping “skin in the game” but was concerned about al-Qaeda-linked terrorists gaining access to US-supplied advanced weapons.