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Opinion: An Empty, Token Gesture | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A rebel fighter from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) sits on a barricade as he holds a position on a front line in the northern city of Aleppo on October 1, 2014. (AFP)

During a hearing in the US Congress dedicated to discussing Syria and the war on ISIS, some congressmen were surprised that the American government military training program for the Syrian opposition will begin next spring and end a year later in the spring of 2016! “What are we supposed to do until then? Bomb marginal targets while the training plan continues?” they asked.

The promised training program itself is only worthy of attention on political grounds because it expresses an American stance in support of the opposition and the toppling of the Assad regime. It’s only a political position, and one that should not be seen as carrying much weight, and could be contradicted in the White House morning summary statements.

The number of members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who will be offered training is so small that it does not exceed a quarter of the number of ISIS’s terrorist fighters, or one eighth of Bashar Al-Assad’s troops. 5,000 FSA fighters are supposed to spend one year in American training camps, and it will probably be two years before any of them can fire a bullet on the battlefield. This is due to bureaucracy and lack of urgency about the implementation of the program. Even when they become trained soldiers, what will they do in the face of jets dropping barrel bombs or cannons shelling from afar? Nothing, because they will not have the kind of weapons they need to fight back.

Despite this, Syrians will continue to resist whether they are trained or not, or armed or not, because war is not a matter of choice today and it cannot be put on hold while Syrians wait for a political solution or until the military training program is completed. There are nine million displaced Syrians inside and outside Syria, and they cannot accept the simple provision of blankets and bread and continue to sleep in the open every winter. This is why the war will continue. Many Syrians are fighting dressed in rags and using simple weapons. Even those who are tired of this cannot go home except through force. This is their only hope. The next two years may pass with the regime staying in Damascus while still depending on the support of its Iranian ally. However, the war will not stop without seeing the end of the regime, whether by war or through a political solution.

We all know that if the moderate opposition possessed advanced weapons, the regime wouldn’t have survived, and the losses of the regime’s allies would’ve exceeded their capability to continue in this bloodbath until today. There is no shortage in the number of volunteers willing to fight the Assad regime. Their number in the south alone is over 30,000, although they are poorly equipped and their arms are limited to simple weapons. It’s neither the US nor the European countries that back the FSA who are training the opposition fighting on the ground. Most of them received limited training from Turkey and the Arab countries who are supporting and helping them.

This is why we tell international mediators and Western delegates that they must understand the new reality on the ground, a reality which bears no relation to the theoretical solutions that they come up with every time in a different language. The secret lies in the nine million refugees, most of who are still in Syria itself. It’s because of them that the war will continue as the Assad regime views them as potential enemies and won’t allow them to return to their cities and neighborhoods out of fear of they will allow the opposition in, or join it. At the same time, we cannot expect them to remain neutral at a time when they’re expelled from their homes. This is exactly why the war will go on until change is achieved. What we cannot foresee today is how new political authorities will be established amongst the refugees, and what their situation will be. Will more of these lost Syrian youths join extremist organizations like the ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front? Or will they join the moderate FSA? It’s difficult to find out from afar what’s happening inside the communities of refugees. All we can say for sure is that they are a huge reservoir of angry and desperate people.