Syria's 'Moderate Rebels' Say They Are Willing, But Need Weapons : Parallels The Free Syrian Army has been outgunned in the country's multi-sided civil war. But they say they have fighting experience, and if the U.S. provides arms and training they could play a key role.
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Syria's 'Moderate Rebels' Say They Are Willing, But Need Weapons

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Syria's 'Moderate Rebels' Say They Are Willing, But Need Weapons

Syria's 'Moderate Rebels' Say They Are Willing, But Need Weapons

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The international coalition to fight the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is slowly moving toward trying to evaluate and train ground forces to do battle in both countries. Past efforts to arm a moderate Syrian opposition sometimes saw weapons flow to the radical Sunnis who are now fighting with ISIS. In southeastern Turkey, NPR's Peter Kenyon spoke with one member of the Free Syrian Army who hopes things go differently this time.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: This part of Turkey is no stranger to epic battles or religious fights. This park in the shadow of the Urfa fortress features ponds full of carp. Legend has it that here, the pagan king Nimrod ordered the prophet Abraham to be burned. But God turned the fire into water and created a lake.

Here is where 29-year-old Ahmed Askar recounts his brigade's experiences in Deir Ezzor where Free Syrian Army, or FSA, fighters initially drove ISIS out but were eventually overwhelmed by superior weapons and numbers. Askar brings a street-level commander's perspective to the problem of defeating ISIS. He says if the coalition gathers, the FSA units that fought ISIS with only light weapons - earning hard-won battle experience in the process - in a matter of months they open new fronts at three strategic border crossings with Turkey - Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad and al-Bab.

AHMED ASKAR: (Through translator) If we start with a few thousand men on these three fronts with real weapons, you would soon see success because there are also a lot of fighters inside ISIS controlled territory. They are waiting for a reason to get into the fight against ISIS.

KENYON: But as always with the Syrian opposition, it's complicated. Judging by the images flashing around the world from the border town of Kobani, it would seem the toughest fighters combating ISIS at the moment are the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, linked to Turkey's Kurdish militants, the PKK. But Askar says, in his opinion, the unpopular decision by the Turkish government to oppose arming the Kurds is absolutely right - not just for Turkey but for Syria as well.

ASKAR: (Through translator) That's right because the PKK and the YPG want their own state. They don't think about Syria as one state. If we win against ISIS, the Kurds will be no help in fighting the regime.

KENYON: And the Arab Kurdish division pales beside the conflicting agendas of some of the main regional players in the anti-ISIS coalition. President Obama's envoy, retired general John Allen, told reporters in Washington this week that the infighting that has plagued every phase of the effort to find and support a moderate Syrian opposition has to end.

JOHN ALLEN: They need to begin to build and work together to create a coherent political superstructure. And so when you have a strong political superstructure and it's tied to a credible field force, which is our hope to build, that political portion and the military portion creates the moderate Syrian opposition as the force to be dealt with in a long-term in the political outcome of Syria.

KENYON: Allen emphasized long-term and said while Syria is important, Iraq is the priority. Askar says he's not seeing any coming together yet. He singles out past Syrian opposition coalition head Ahmad al-Jarba as just one example.

ASKAR: (Through translator) Every country has their favorite Syrians - Qatar wants this one, the Saudis want that one, the Americans want this other one. The Saudi guy in Syria is al-Jarba. And al-Jarba is just a stupid guy without any real experience. But it seems the Saudis don't care about competence. They just want people loyal to them.

KENYON: What Askar doesn't say is that the Turks and the Qataris are strong boosters of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood - until now, a strong presence in the FSA. Faced with problematic benefactors all around, Askar and his Deir Ezzor fighters are going with the Turks for now. But they have few illusions that the effort to bring Syria a future dominated by neither radical Islam nor the Assad family dictatorship is, if anything, harder than ever. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, southeastern Turkey.

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