President Obama has said a key part of his strategy to degrade and defeat Islamic State militants will be working with moderate Syrian opposition groups. He has called on Congress to authorize $500 million to train and arm Syrian rebels to become America’s partners. But who are these groups, and to what degree can the U.S. rely on them?
Members of the extremist group Islamic State are shown in Raqqa, Syria, in this image posted in June by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State.
The U.S. has already begun supporting some of them, sending non-lethal aid as well as covert weapons shipments. These select rebels have been vetted to ensure they have secular and moderate views that satisfy the U.S. But other groups are considered by the American government to be terrorists who pose a threat to the U.S.
Here’s a guide to the armed opposition groups operating now in Syria:
FREE SYRIAN ARMY: This is the group the U.S. already is working with, and which will almost certainly be the sole recipient of any weapons or training mobilized by the U.S. to help defeat Islamic State. The U.S. has elected to form a partnership with the FSA because the group has been deemed moderate and secular. The army is actually a coalition of eight large battalions and many smaller groups, formed to try to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and fight Islamic State. Some of the groups in the Western-backed FSA have received covert training and arming by the United States, including small shipments of American-made BGM-71 TOW antitank missiles. In theory, the FSA is under the leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, but in effect it operates independently. Though FSA groups have denounced the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, Nusra Front, in reality they continue to cooperate with it on the battlefield.