KUWAIT CITY — A senior member of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime says Canada’s time, effort and money would be better spent training ground forces to retake territory from the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, rather than on a bombing campaign.
Brig.-Gen. Hussam Alawak, who heads up intelligence for the Free Officers Movement — one arm of the Free Syrian Army — also warned in an interview with The Canadian Press that new anti-aircraft weapons threatening coalition jets come from looted stockpiles in Libya and more potent weapons may be on the way.
Alawak, who defected prior to the Arab Spring uprising, says the current U.S.-led bombing campaign will not dislodge the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and may drive up recruitment to the group.
Operations involving Canadian fighter-bombers continued over the weekend with two CF-18s dropping bombs on ISIL targets near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, but the air force refused to provide updated details on the mission other than to say all aircraft returned safely to base.
Chinese-made FN-6 heat-seeking missiles — known as Manpads — have begun appearing in Iraq. Alawak claims they come from a cache of thousands weapons provided by Qatar to anti-Gaddafi fighters, which fell into the hands of Libya’s top extremists following NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign.
They were transferred to Syria through a warehouse belonging to extremists in Turkey, he said.
Alawak, who was a senior intelligence officer in the Syrian air force before opposing the Assad regime, says the air campaign will be “almost useless” in grand scheme of things and that the main effort should be put towards forming armies of liberation.
“If Canada wants to continue in a useless thing, then it’s up to them,” said Alawak, who spoke through a translator after returning to Cario.
He praised the Harper government’s strident anti-Assad rhetoric and Canada’s efforts to accept Syrian refugees, but pointed to the recently concluded military training mission in Afghanistan as an example of something more effective that Canadian forces could be doing.
Prior to the departure of Canadian warplanes, the country’s top military commanders acknowledged that Washington had sounded out its partners about contributing to such a program in Iraq only, but underlined it was something the Harper government had not considered.
There is a need “to get Iraqi security forces on their feet and be able to conduct ground operations” against enemy militants, Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country’s domestic and overseas operations commander, said on Oct. 17.
“This indeed will take an effort — a training effort. That the U.S. is looking to trusted partners — amongst whom are NATO — to consider this is not unexpected.”
There were published reports in the U.S. that NATO had been approached by Washington to organize it, but a spokesman for the military alliance’s senior commander said the formal request would have to come from the Iraqi government.
Lt.-Col. Jay Janzen said the allies agreed at the leader’s summit in Wales that if the new government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad asked for capacity-building help, “including building more effective security forces,” the alliance would consider it.
“To date a request has not been received, but our offer stands,” he said in an email last week.
The U.S. policy in Syria is to recruit and train opposition force to defend territory, rather than to seize it back from the Islamic State, according to administration officials who spoke to the Washington Post on Oct. 23.
Characterizing it as a defensive posture seems aimed at not provoking a wider conflict involving Iran and Russia, which both back Assad.
Alawak says his group recently held talks in Jordan with the U.S., France and Britain and made it clear they will not participate unless they get to choose who is trained because they know better who is and who is not an extremist.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said they want to build an “effective opposition force, not just a hit-and-run group of rebels,” but Alawak says he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.
He is also suspicious of who the Americans are courting as potential partners in the region.
“I hope the American intelligence — the CIA — should be more selective in choosing opposition figures, and (should not) choose just anyone. They should choose reliable persons,” Alawak said.
“What will make Assad survive is the divide of the American administration and he is depending on such division.”