Syrian rebel commander vows to defeat IS militants

WASHINGTON- The commander of moderate Syrian rebels vowed Thursday that his forces would crush Islamic militants who have gained a foothold in his war-torn country, in a direct appeal to US lawmakers.
The US administration is planning to boost training and equipment for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), set to be the cornerstone of the battle against the Islamic State group inside Syria.

And in Iraq, a US-led coalition is to boost air strikes against the Islamic State group in a two-pronged approach to destroy the militants who have gained control of a swathe of territory in both countries.
But US lawmakers have openly voiced doubts about whether the FSA is capable of taking on both IS militants and the well-equipped forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with rebel forces increasingly stretched in the stalemated three-year conflict to oust Assad.
In a statement sent to the House foreign affairs committee, the Syrian Supreme Military Council's chief of staff, Brigadier General Abdel Ilah al-Bashir, vowed his forces could take on a double threat to Syria.
"I hereby reaffirm the Free Syrian Army's continued commitment to removing the twin terrorists Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from Syrian soil," he said in a statement, referring to the leader of the Islamic State group.
"The heroes of the Free Syrian Army have sacrificed thousands of brave souls in the fight against the imposter Islamic State over the past year," Bashir wrote in a statement read to the committee by leading Democratic member Eliot Engel.
"We fully plan to continue this fight until Baghdadi's complete and utter defeat," Bashir added.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told the committee it was hard to give precise figures of the ranks of the moderate opposition, but stressed they were a "legitimate force."
"We now have tens of thousands of people who are, by the way, the principal bulwark against ISIL in Syria today," Kerry said, referring to the IS jihadists.
- Raising morale -
Pressed for details on exactly who the US intended to arm, Kerry referred to a "conglomerate of armed groups that were formed to defend local communities from regime attacks and it includes secular as well as some Islamists."
He said each group's size varied, with several thousand fighters in each organization, such as the Hazem movement, which has loose ties to the FSA.
"There are other groups, at least seven groups with somewhere between a couple of thousand and 4,000 fighters each," he told the lawmakers.
"But that's not all of the moderate forces by any means. And what's important is all of these forces have a solid record of fighting ISIL. They've been fighting ISIL."
The top US diplomat also stressed the United States had no intention of working with Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which has been branded a terrorist organization by Washington.
Kerry suggested one focus could be the northern city of Aleppo, which has been under an intense bombing campaign by Assad's forces since December.
"ISIL's trying to gain control of some border crossings. But helping those units right now around Aleppo actually could help us secure supply routes from Turkey and raise the moderate fighter morale in significant ways," Kerry said.

Friday, September 19th 2014

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