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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Spiraling Refugee Crisis

Hiroshi Shimazaki

Sep. 4, 2015

A photo taken on a beach in Turkey sent shockwaves around the world. It showed a dead Syrian refugee boy washed up on the shore. The multitudes of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean pose an increasingly serious problem for Europe. More than 350,000 people have arrived this year, and an estimated 2,600 died on the way.

With the Middle East and North Africa torn apart by conflict, Europe is struggling to cope with a huge influx of migrants and refugees. Their number is increasing faster than ever.

Koichiro Tanaka, an expert in Middle East affairs with the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan joins Sho Beppu in the studio to discuss the situation.

Beppu: We know a large part of the refugees are coming from Syria but what explains this sudden surge of numbers? Do you think it’s a reflection of the situation on the ground?

Tanaka: This is a reality. The ongoing conflict in Syria and also in Iraq has generated a lot of refugees and internal displaced persons (IDPs) and eventually they have found their way out of the countries and reached parts of Europe.

Beppu: As we just heard, a vast number of Syrians are fleeing the war in their country. The United States, meanwhile, is mounting a campaign against Islamic State militants.

In Syria, a three-way civil war is being waged among the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, anti-government forces and the Islamic State group. The United States is providing the anti-government forces with military training, weaponry and equipment. This is part of America's strategy to degrade the Islamic State group's combat capability. Our coverage has found that this policy has run into trouble.

An image posted on the Internet stunned U.S. government officials.

U.S.-trained members of a team expecting to fight with the Islamic State group had apparently been captured by other Islamic militants.

"We have stopped the U.S. interference," an Islamic militant said.

The U.S. drafted a plan in September 2014 to train and arm more than 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels each year to fight the Islamic State group. The budget was 500 million dollars.

"We came together today to pass an important component on our strategy for dealing with this terrible terrorist organization known as ISIL," U.S. President Barack Obama said.

But less than one year later, some shocking figures came to light.

"We are currently training about 60 fighters. This number is much smaller than we had hoped for at this point," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

We recently spoke to one of the leaders of anti-government forces whose members had participated in the program.

He said some Syrian rebels share a similar extreme ideology with the Islamic State group. That means candidates for training must undergo vigorous screening. Very few pass, which severely limits the number of trainees.

"Trainee candidates must never have belonged to a radical organization such as the Islamic State group," Mohannad Al Tala, a Free Syrian Army Commander said. "Some of them have failed the psychological test."

To make matters worse, the U.S. and the rebel leaders don't agree on how graduates of the program should use their new-found skills and weapons.

The rebels are demanding that they be allowed to take on their main enemy, the Assad regime. But the U.S. wants to avoid more conflict with Assad. It insists that the Islamic State group be the sole target. This glaring difference of opinion is causing trainees to drop out of the program.

"The U.S. side has made us pledge that we will not fight Assad,” said Mostafa Sejari, a Coordinator of the Syrian rebel group.

"But we cannot abandon our desire to topple the Assad regime."

The U.S. military's goal of destroying the Islamic State group may become the latest casualty of Syria's ongoing civil war.

Beppu: America’s key strategy was to train local forces but apparently it is not moving well. Do you think there was some overly-optimistic planning for this key strategy?

Tanaka: I think they were looking for moderate forces that would be capable of taking on ISIL on the ground. But I think the evaluation from the beginning was wrong. It was very hard to find such people on the ground. Usually people over there, who are opposed or fighting against each other, are looking after a sponsor that would support them in fighting against Assad rather than ISIL. So this was the issue that was there for a very long time. I believe if the United States is still trying to look after the same bunch of people they will never get the result they want.

Beppu: And recruiting locals from the very beginning not only in Syria but in other countries hasn’t worked out well.

Tanaka: Yes, take Afghanistan for example. They tried to train the Afghan national forces. Of course the forces are there but they faced a severe setback when they found out there was infiltration from the enemy side that have gained a position in the army itself which is very dangerous. People call that “Green on Blue” meaning that Islamists are there within the Afghan national forces so this is a bad experience.

Beppu: And air strikes itself, they have been continuing this campaign for a year now and occasionally we hear announcements that they were able to target senior leaderships in the militant group but apparently it’s been going on for a year and we don’t really see the organization to be completely weakened. What’s been going on?

Tanaka: I think basically the U.S. is pounding positions like Raqqa or Dayr az Zawr where the Islamic State is relatively strong but as you can see the result that they have gained so far was to stop or slow the expansion of ISIL rather than taking it on and destroying it.

Beppu: Recently, Turkey announced they will take on a more proactive attitude for this fight. Do you think that will change the game?

Tanaka: I think their involvement is more helpful rather than just taking a “wait-and-see” position. But as you can see they have also pounded Kurdish forces that are fighting against ISIL in Syria.

Beppu: But the Kurdish forces are a very important factor for the American strategy. They are the ones who will fight against ISIS.

Tanaka: Yes, so there is a complication you can find there and this is not working.

Beppu: The other thing is this long border between Turkey and Syria and we know that people, money and weapons are crossing it. Why can’t Turkey just completely block it?

Tanaka: I think the Turkish government is looking after its own interests and agenda in Syria and other locations in the region. They consider that Islamists are capable in taking down the Assad regime so I think they consider them as an asset rather than an enemy or foe, so I think as long as this attitude and policy and strategy continues there is no way that we can see a diminishing ground for ISIL.

Beppu: It seems there is a difference between which enemy you will target. Which is the priority enemy? For America it is the Islamist groups but for Turkey and the Gulf States they have a different priority.

Tanaka: I think every country is looking after its own agenda or has an agenda in Syria and in the region. As you can see countries like Saudi Arabia and others have considered now using some Al Qaida affiliated forces to tackle ISIL and they consider an in-fight among the Islamists will be to their benefit but this is a very dangerous tactic if they are really after this.

Beppu: Do you think the U.S. administration is ready to shift their current strategy?

Tanaka: I think if they are really looking at going after ISIL they have to reconsider their position and they need to somehow work along with Assad not in direct communication but they need to have some coordinated strategy on the ground.

Beppu: And now we are seeing this huge influx of refugees. The photograph of this toddler was particularly shocking for many people. But if this war goes on do you think similar strategies will go on?

Tanaka: I think we are stuck with a dilemma here. President Obama has admitted that it will take time to degrade and destroy ISIL on the ground. But as long as this conflict carries on it will mean that it will generate more refugees and IDPs, and eventually we are going to see the same disastrous situation across the region.