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What Does It Mean To Be A Moderate In Syria's Civil War?


President Obama and Vice President Biden are personally lobbying Congress to authorize a $500 million package to arm and train Syria's moderate rebels. The House could vote as soon as today. The funding is key to the president's strategy to confront the Sunni militants known as the Islamic State or ISIS, but what does it mean to be moderate in Syria's Civil War? For some answers, we go to NPR's Deborah Amos who joins us from Turkey near the Syrian border. And, Deb, the rebels the U.S. are talking about arming and training, how would you describe them?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's more about what they're not than what they are. What they're not are hard-core Islamists - that's ISIS; that's the Nusra Front; that's Ahrar al-Sham - those groups are on the ground here in Syria. But what the White House sends - certainly people working with the rebels here call the moderates - are more non-ideological rebels. They put out these core statements that say that they're for an inclusive Syria. It doesn't mean they're not religious. They're conservative Muslims, as is most of the country, as are the Turks where I am, or Jordan or Egypt for that matter. Also moderates are determined by their battlefield record, and these are the battalions that are already fighting ISIS.

CORNISH: But to what extent did moderate rebels survive the sweep of ISIS?

AMOS: When ISIS first arrived in Syria, they were seen as good fighters; they were heavily armed, and they were welcomed because they were in the fight against the Syrian regime. But opinion has definitely shifted - civilians and the fighters because of the brutality of ISIS, because of the ideology of ISIS that wasn't that well-understood when they first arrived. But many really have joined, often because they don't have a choice. It's kind of, fight or we'll kill you. And this is what happened in the Eastern province of Dier al-Zor when ISIS swept back in after victories in Iraq. And there are many rebels who really did not have a choice and joined them, and their ranks in there have been swelling.

CORNISH: So who's actually left, I mean, when we talk about moderate rebels are we talking about the, quote, "former farmers and pharmacists" as the president called them in an interview back in August?

AMOS: Well, this umbrella term for them - and it's the Free Syrian Army - it's really more a brand than anything that's like an army. But what you have are people who are defected military officers; you have people who understand communications; you have educated people; you do have farmers. Many of them now have weapons, and they got them from overrunning Syrian military bases.

This war's been going on for a while, but you have three main groups that the U.S. is actually already training and giving a limited number of sophisticated weapons. And that's Harakat Hazm; in English it means the steadfast group. They were the first to get TOW or TAO missiles, these wire-guided antitank missiles. You have the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and now the latest group, something called the Mujahadeen Army.

These groups have all been vetted by the CIA for this covert arming program. Now the Syrian government also knows who these groups are. On Tuesday Syrian government warplanes targeted the headquarters of the Syrian Revolutionary Front. Now, we hear reports from activists the commander escaped, but his daughter and his wife did not.

CORNISH: Finally, Deb, do U.S. officials really know any more about these moderate rebels than they did, say, a year ago when they first started talking about arming and training them?

AMOS: They know quite a bit. It's an open secret that U.S. officials work with the rebels in military operations rooms - both in Jordan and here in southern Turkey. U.S. aid agencies work with some of these rebels through moving humanitarian aid over the border. There is a constant vetting project that goes on with CIA agents determining who are the moderate rebels. That process has brought them into direct contact with Syrian rebels. The change in attitude about these rebels seems to be coming from Washington.

CORNISH: That NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Turkey. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.