U.S.-Trained Syrian Insurgent Plans to Fight Assad, Citing Pentagon Training Program

A Free Syrian Army fighter in 2012
A Free Syrian Army fighter in 2012 / AP
August 18, 2015

A Syrian rebel trained by the Pentagon to fight the Islamic State plans to fight forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In an exclusive interview with CNN conducted via Skype from Syria, Abu Iskander cited the U.S. training program when justifying whether or not the pro-U.S. Syrian rebels should engage Assad’s forces.

"The second rule in the training project is that we fight whoever fights us," Iskander explained. "The Assad regime is fighting us. We will control new areas from ISIS and we will have to face Assad, shall we stay sitting without fighting Assad?"

"Make a no fly zone in Syria, then we won’t flee to Europe [as refugees], but will stay in our homes," he added, voicing a plea common among Syrian insurgents for a no fly zone over the northern part of Syria. "We don’t want to cry [as victims] on your TV screens, instead we want the Assad regime to be stopped."

Iskander and the other 53 moderate Syrian insurgents who have received training and been vetted by the United States were required to sign a pledge that their priority will be to fight the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) and not Assad.

The program, which has cost $41 million in training and equipment, is expected to soon yield another 70 properly trained Syrian rebels to help the U.S. fight IS in the region.

No less than five of the U.S.-trained rebels--known collectively as the "New Syria Force"--were recently captured by al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, days after they entered Syria upon completion of training. As such, only 40 members of the New Syria Force remain together, with others split up inside Syria.

Iskander expressed gratitude for the Pentagon program, labeling it a "dream," but nevertheless lamented its "slow" pace.

"Nearly 17,000 Syrian men want to join, but the training is very slow," he said. "We need it to be faster--30 days instead of 45 days. More trainees--for example, our training in Jordan did 85--we should have been 500 there and another 500 in Turkey. We are thankful but it needs to happen faster."

Iskander explained that his work involves providing targeting for U.S. airstrikes and that he wears GPS devices in order for U.S. forces to track him.

"I go to the front line against ISIS, and I give locations for the warplanes to bomb," he detailed. "We have developed communication devices using satellites that can target from any place on the front line whether we see it or not. There are daily drone flights and they’re in the sky as I talk to you now. I speak to the Americans every hour, a total of four hours a day."

A spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command refused to confirm whether or not Iskander is indeed member of New Syria Force "as a matter of policy."

"The Coalition does remain in contact with New Syrian Forces elements who have graduated from the program, who have expressed their eagerness to continue the counter-ISIL fight," Colonel Patrick Ryder said.

The desire among Syrian insurgents to fight Assad could pose a problem for the U.S. as it moves to implement its plan with Turkey to create a Islamic State free "safe zone" along the Syrian-Turkish border. The plan would require the U.S. to rely heavily on Syrian opposition fighters to clear and protect the safe zone.

President Obama has authorized U.S. forces to use air power to defend the Syrian insurgents in the event of an attack by Assad forces or other groups in Syria.