Rep. Smith backs US training mission in Syria

Anne Wernikoff

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Thursday called upon U.S. forces to begin military advise and assist missions for Syria's rebel factions but noted that it would take more than American intervention to end the civil war in the country. 

"Its a chaotic situation and it will be for awhile ... we need to be mindful of our limited ability to force [an] outcome," Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a speech in Washington. 

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The biggest threat to U.S. national security in the region is that the ongoing war between Syrian President Bashar Assad and anti-government rebels will spill over into countries allied with the United States, like Turkey and Jordan. 

One key to keeping the conflict within Syria's borders would be a "very limited train and equip role" for U.S. military in the country, according to the Washington Democrat. 

American military training and partnership missions have been an "effective way to advance our interests" from U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere, according to Smith.   

"Obviously we have some people in there that we can trust, and we need to work with them," he said. 

"This is going to be a projected crisis ... [and] we need friends there," the House lawmaker added. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey raised the same idea of an American training mission in Syria in October. 

While the four-star general was quick to point out discussions on a U.S. training mission in Syria are still preliminary, he noted that military advise and assist missions have been a staple of U.S. operations for the past decade. 

“We’ve got incredible experience at building partners and building military and police formations," Dempsey said at the time, referring to U.S.-led advise and assist missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

The effort, if given the green light by the Pentagon and White House, would likely be focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

The group is considered the largest and best organized faction among the patchwork group of rebel fighters in the country. 

In September, U.S. intelligence officials began funnelling small arms and munitions to Syrian rebel forces, including the FSA. 

President Obama ordered the CIA to begin setting up distribution points in Jordan and Turkey to start providing American arms to rebel forces in June. 

That said, U.S.-led security assistance operations in preparation for a post-Assad Syria is a "valid concept to be thinking about," according to Dempsey. 

However, some inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill are wary of providing that kind of support to the Syrian rebels. 

Opponents argue that U.S. aid and equipment could end up in the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that have worked their way into the rebels' ranks. 

Jabhat al-Nusra, elements of al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed Hezbollah have already established a presence inside the anti-Assad movement. 

Smith admitted that finding reliable U.S. allies within the Syrian rebel movement is a difficult proposition, but not an impossible one. 

"I will grant you they are not all easily identifiable, but some of them are," Smith said. 

"If it is a group that is fighting against both al Qaeda and Hezbollah, I think that is a rather obvious side to pick," he said. 

But the risks involved in taking a larger advise and assist role in Syria outweigh the risks of letting radical militant groups slowly take over the rebel movement. 

"The less we help these groups, the less likely they are to survive," the ongoing war, leaving a vacuum for al Qaeda or Iran to fill, Smith said. 

"Syria is on the game board, without question" in terms of the country possibly becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda, on par with Yemen, Pakistan, Mali and other sanctuaries across the globe, he added.