Anti-ISIS fighter training in Aleppo, Syria
Nese Idil

ISTANBUL â€" The program to train and equip the "moderate opposition" in Syria, as long planned by the United States alongside Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ended in utter failure. What led to this global diplomatic fiasco that has left the future of Syria looking so grim?

The chain of problems began with the most basic difficulty of finding such "moderates" in Syria eager to be trained for war. Add to that the fact that the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, known as the al-Nusra Front, made a showdown with moderate forces a priority of its strategy, ultimately leading to the secular rebels turning their weapons over to the Islamists. Even those moderates who were trained and equipped by international forces criticized the strategy, stating that they did not want to fight al-Nusra, but rather the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It was back in June 2014 when U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for a budget of $500 million to train and equip militia forces to combat the even more powerful Islamist forces of ISIS. Obama asked Congress in September 2014 for additional authority and resources to train and equip the fighters.

The program, however, was met with criticism due to the uncertainty of how the "moderates" would be chosen. Questions remained, such as whether the trained men would work with al-Qaeda or other jihadist groups after returning to Syria. Turkey and the Gulf states made it clear they wanted the "moderates" to focus their fight against Assad's regime, while the U.S. never commented on that issue.

Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith announced in January that 400 trainers would be placed in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of the program. Turkey and the U.S. declared on Feb. 19 that they had, "in principle," come to terms on the train and equip mission.

Self defense

A 15,000 strong "moderate army" was supposed to be created over the coming three years, with plans for 5,400 graduates from the program this year, including 2,000 trained in Turkey. But only once the program has actually started in May, was it clear that the scale of the ambitions were impossible to obtain. The U.S. news website Daily Beast reported back in May that up to 1,000 volunteers would be leaving the program because of restrictions that they only fight against ISIS, and not target Assad forces. Then in June, the Associated Press, reported only 1,500 out of the 6,000 volunteers had been accepted and all but just a few dozen were later removed from the program for not matching qualifications.

Propaganda photo of ISIS fighters in Syria â€" Photo: Ho/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Criticisms peaked when U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on July 7 that only 60 Syrian militia were in training. Carter"s explanation for the remarkably low number was that they had very high standards on the recruits, which fed the claims that finding "moderates" in Syria was no easy task.

Real trouble started when the first group, the 30th Division, entered Syria on July 12. Soon after, al-Nusra abducted 18 members of the division, including Turkmen commander Colonel Nadim al-Hassan and his lieutenant. Al-Nusra confiscated their weapons and vehicles. Al-Nusra later assaulted the group a second time; killing five, wounding 16, and abducting eight others. The Telegraph reported that the "moderates" did not want to fight “brother” al-Nusra forces, but rather focus on not only ISIS, but also Assad and his proxies.

More trouble has since followed, with reports that the second group entering Syria had defected and handed their weapons to Syrian authorities. This claim was officially denied but photographs appeared on social media featuring rebels with American-made weapons.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, insists that the program is not over, even if the past months and weeks make the future of train-and-equip-the-moderates as bleak as Syria itself.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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