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Free Syrian Army Struggles To Maintain Control In Two-Front War

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Beside the air campaign, President Obama's plan to combat ISIS involves training and equipping what he spoke of as the Syrian opposition to take part in the fight. That was a reference to the loose array of rebel groups called the Free Syrian Army. How strong a fighting force are those rebel groups? How do they stack up against ISIS or against the Syrian army? Why Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group follows the Syrian war and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NOAH BONSEY: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first can we speak of a coherent force called the Free Syrian Army?

BONSEY: Well, no. As you alluded to there's no single organization that we can really call the Free Syrian Army. It's an array of rebel groups and organization among them varies from place to place. However when people in Washington talk about supporting the Free Syrian Army what they generally are referring to is to moderate or non-ideological groups within that wide array of rebel factions. And those very much do exist and their power has steadily risen, relative to more Islamist rebels over the last few months.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you this. I know this is a very tough question. The CIA yesterday upped its estimate of how many fighters ISIS or as they say ISIL has, it's over 30,000 now they say. Do you have any idea of how many fighters there are in the more moderate rebel groups that the U.S. would want to aid?

BONSEY: Well, talking about numbers is always difficult. What we can say, I mean, if you break it down by area in the areas that remain under anti-ISIS rebel control they're the dominant force. But what they're struggling to do is maintain control of areas they have, while fighting a two front war against both the regime and ISIS. So one place we see that, especially - dramatically is the crucial battle for Aleppo right now. Where you have regime forces seeking to encircle and eventually besiege rebels inside the city of Aleppo. Meanwhile the same rebel groups are fighting ISIS just roughly 15 miles to the north. And it's in places like that were rebels are fighting this two front war at the very same time, that you see the most struggling for resources - short of resources.

SIEGEL: When they say they don't have enough - we've been hearing for a couple of years now that these rebel forces don't have enough arms - what is it that they don't have enough of? What kind of weapons is it that they lack.

BONSEY: Well, one key thing they lack if we're talking about the fight - that's relevant to the fight against both ISIS and the regime are anti-tank weapons. They have some and that's the change we've seen in 2014, the United States has allowed American made anti-tank weapons to be provided to vetted rebel groups and that has made a difference. However they need more of them and they also need more ammunition, more cash which can purchase ammunition and weaponry on the black market. So it's a matter of quantity - it's also a matter of quality. The rebel fighting force is often less than the sum of its parts because of the disorganization within its ranks, poor training. There's a role for the opposition's backers, including the United States, to help improve the organization of these forces. That will require an improvement of coordination among the opposition state backers themselves, you know, between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States primarily.

SIEGEL: Should the U.S. assume that the moderate Syrian rebels whom it intends to train more and assist more, will inevitably be working in concert with say, the Nusra Front, which we describe as being related to al-Qaeda - that is, are we just one ally away from al-Qaeda in Syria at this stage?

BONSEY: For now in certain parts of the country, on certain fronts, we can expect even moderate rebel groups to continue to cooperate with al-Nusra, especially where they're fighting the regime and ISIS in the same place at the same time. But over time one would expect that through increasing and improving support to moderate rebel groups one could wean them off of their dependence upon collaboration with al-Nusra. But that's not something that will happen prior to improving support to these groups.

SIEGEL: Well, Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group, thanks for talking with us.

BONSEY: Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.