Gaziantep, Turkey (CNN)This is what a Syrian rebel looks like after nearly $1 million of training and equipment provided by the United States.
Pro-U.S. — and fiercely anti-Assad regime — fighter Abu Iskander is one of just 54 moderate rebels painstakingly vetted, expensively trained and equipped with fancy new weapons — at a cost of $41 million.
He and his “classmates,” known as the New Syria Force, are a key part of the U.S.’s anti-ISIS efforts. But there aren’t nearly enough of them to worry ISIS — yet.
The U.S. wants its train-and-equip scheme to help create a moderate and well-disciplined force to counter the Islamic radicals on the ground and assist moderate societies in finding a foothold in war-torn Syria.
In the first interview by a member of the New Syria Force, Abu Iskander appealed to the U.S. to speed up the scheme, from which another 70 rebels are due to graduate shortly.
“Nearly 17,000 Syrian men want to join, but the training is very slow,” Abu Iskander said. “We need it to be faster — 30 days instead of 45 days. More trainees — for example, our training in Jordan did 85 — we should have been 500 there and another 500 in Turkey.
“We are thankful but it needs to happen faster.”
Sophisticated weapons, big risks
Speaking by Skype from inside Syria, he gave CNN an exclusive look at photographs of his team members and the rare and sophisticated weapons provided to them by the U.S. program.
At least five of the New Syria Force’s graduates were recently captured by al-Qaeda affiliate al Nusra after clashes inside Syria, leading to calls from critics that the program is unsustainable.
Abu Iskander said their smaller unit and other allied rebels held off a far larger 300-strong group of al Nusra fighters.
The incident meant that just 40 members of the group remained together, while others were scattered inside Syria. Some of the detainees seized have since been released by al Nusra.
Intelligence from the front line
Despite the capture of his colleagues, Abu Iskander’s enthusiasm for the fight against ISIS and the U.S. program remains undimmed.
“The training program was a dream,” he said. “We have since the beginning of our revolution demanded the Free Syrian Army be equipped. We are not sectarian, we want to equip the army and strengthen it to end these dark powers — ISIS and its allies.
Abu Iskander says much of his work involves providing targeting for U.S. airstrikes, explaining how his American contacts are able to keep track of his movements using GPS devices on his wrist and in his armored vest.
“I go to the front line against ISIS, and I give locations for the warplanes to bomb,” he said. “We have developed communication devices using satellites that can target from any place on the front line whether we see it or not.
“There are daily drone flights and they’re in the sky as I talk to you now. I speak to the Americans every hour, a total of four hours a day.”
The focus of the U.S. program is the fight against ISIS, and many rebels have publicly complained that they do not wish to endure the lengthy vetting process if they cannot attack the Syrian revolution’s primary adversary, the Assad regime.
Yet Abu Iskander is clear he and his men will fight against the regime, making an appeal — regularly heard among rebels — for a no fly zone over Syria’s north.
“The second rule in the training project is that we fight whoever fights us,” he said. “The Assad regime is fighting us. We will control new areas from ISIS and we will have to face Assad, shall we stay sitting without fighting Assad?
“Make a no fly zone in Syria, then we won’t flee to Europe [as refugees], but will stay in our homes. We don’t want to cry [as victims] on your TV screens, instead we want the Assad regime to be stopped.”
Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, CENTCOM, declined to confirm whether Abu Iskander was a member of the New Syrian Forces “as a matter of policy.”
“The Coalition does remain in contact with New Syrian Forces elements who have graduated from the program, who have expressed their eagerness to continue the counter-ISIL fight,” he said, adding they were being provided with “defensive fire support to protect them.”