Seventy-five Syrian rebels trained to fight jihadists under a beleaguered US program have crossed from Turkey into northern Syria, a US-backed rebel faction and a monitoring group said on Sunday.
Before the fresh batch of fighters, the US-led train-and-equip program had only managed to vet and train some 60 rebels to fight IS jihadists on the ground.
The US$500 million program run out of Turkey has been fraught with problems.
Shortly after the 54 fighters embedded with Division 30 in July, they suffered a devastating assault by Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front. More than a dozen of Division 30's fighters were either killed or kidnapped by Al-Nusra, which accused them of being “agents of American interests”.
The United States has since used its air power to help Division 30 push back other Nusra attacks and said Syrian troops could be targeted if they attacked the US-backed forces.
US officials have also expressed fears Russia may strike Western-backed rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and ultimately risk a confrontation with forces fighting IS. Moscow has been pushing for a broader coalition of forces to take on the jihadists.
On Wednesday, US General Lloyd Austin (photo) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that only “four or five” US-trained rebels were on the ground fighting in Syria.
The program, which had originally aimed to train around 5,400 vetted fighters a year for three years, has come under fire from US lawmakers.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said the low number of fighters being trained was a “joke”.
Meanwhile, the United States and Russian militaries renewed high-level contacts Friday to discuss their roles in the conflict in Syria, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Britain to discuss the Syrian crisis with Russia.
Cook said U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke by telephone. “The Secretary and the Minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap and areas of divergence. They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-ISIL campaign,” he added, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group,” he added.
In military terms, “deconfliction” means rival armies will talk to one another to avoid accidental encounters between their forces.
Kerry said that Washington hopes that “military-to-military” discussions with Russia on the conflict in Syria will begin very shortly. The White House said Thursday it was open to limited talks with Moscow following what Washington believes is the deployment of Russian troops and heavy weapons to war-torn Syria.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will cooperate with Russia on the Syrian conflict settlement and the refugee issue, Undersecretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer told RIA Novosti on Friday.
The Undersecretary stressed that Saudi Arabia would cooperate with Russia on refugees crisis settlement and expressed hope that Moscow would play a constructive role in solving the Syrian conflict.
Turki claimed that Saudi Arabia had allocated a $700-million financial aid to help Syria since 2011, in particular, for refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the countries that are currently hosting a total of 3.68 million Syrian refugees along with Turkey, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Source: Al Jazeera; AFP; Reuters; RIA Novosti