By Kristina Wong - 08/18/15 11:05 AM EDT
A member of the U.S.-trained Syrian rebel forces says he expects to fight forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, even though they pledged only to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in order to participate the Pentagon program.
"The second rule in the training project is that we fight whoever fights us ... The Assad regime is fighting us. We will control new areas from ISIS and we will have to face Assad, shall we stay sitting without fighting Assad?" said Abu Iskandar, one of the 54 U.S.-trained rebels who currently make up the New Syrian Forces, in an exclusive interview with CNN on Tuesday.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder declined to confirm to CNN whether Abu Iskander was a member of the U.S.-trained rebel force, citing a policy not to identify them.
Abu Iskander's comments show the difficulty the U.S. has in trying to only support rebels who want to fight ISIS, and not the regime, in its bid to train 15,000 rebels over three years.
The attempt to delineate the two stems from a concern that the U.S. will find itself in a war with regime forces when trying to protect the rebels in combat.
To that end, the U.S. has said it will provide only "offensive" airstrikes against ISIS but will protect the rebels with "defensive" airstrikes against anyone that attacks the rebels, including regime forces.
But the U.S. has declared what some have called "ISIS-free areas," where rebels plan to operate and regime forces are warned from entering.
Abu Iskander, who uses a nom de guerre, also complained that the training program is too slow and training too few rebels compared to a similar program run by the CIA.
"Nearly 17,000 Syrian men want to join, but the training is very slow," he said. "We need it to be faster — 30 days instead of 45 days. More trainees — for example, our training in Jordan did 85 — we should have been 500 there and another 500 in Turkey.
"We are thankful but it needs to happen faster," he said.
It took approximately three months to produce the first class of 54 rebels. There are two classes currently in training, according to Centcom. Seventy will graduate soon, according to CNN.
Abu Iskander showed CNN how he was able to call in airstrikes — using GPS devices on his wrist and in his armored vest.
"I go to the front line against ISIS, and I give locations for the warplanes to bomb ... We have developed communication devices using satellites that can target from any place on the front line whether we see it or not.
"There are daily drone flights and they're in the sky as I talk to you now. I speak to the Americans every hour, a total of four hours a day," he told CNN.
Although the first class of trainees was immediately attacked by al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, leaving one dead and at least five others kidnapped, Abu Iskander remained enthusiastic about the program.
"The training program was a dream ... We have since the beginning of our revolution demanded the Free Syrian Army be equipped," he said.
"We are not sectarian, we want to equip the army and strengthen it to end these dark powers — ISIS and its allies."