For the past few years, and almost since the start of the civil war in Syria, the US has been quietly attempting to support the Syrian opposition by supplying aid to “vetted,” supposedly moderate rebel groups. The operation, which is run by the CIA and relies on partnerships with US allies including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar, has been cloaked in secrecy and rarely surfaces in the news media.
As extremist groups such as the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda offshoot, rose to dominance among the rebels over the past two years, other rebel groups also have emerged, most notably the Islamic Front, a large Islamist coalition that fights alongside Al Nusrah, and also the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, a smaller, supposedly more moderate rebel group.
At the outset, some basic questions arise: Why is there such secrecy as to which groups are being supplied with Western aid, including weapons? If they are legitimate, shouldn’t they be recognized as such? In Syria, a country roughly the size of Washington State, fighting has raged for over three years now; isn’t it becoming impossible to find “moderate” rebel groups that have not reached an accommodation, if not outright collaboration, with the Islamist forces that are dominating the rebel ranks? And finally, if the groups consist of Islamist extremists who are linked with al Qaeda or fight alongside them, how can the provision of such weapons be justified, and what is the plan if the extremists prevail in Syria?
These questions should be borne in mind when looking at recent developments involving the provision of Western aid to rebel groups in Syria.
On April 11, The New York Times ran a front-page article featuring the commander of the “moderate Islamist” Yarmouk Brigade, which has fought alongside Al Nusrah, complaining about the paltry flow of US weapons to the rebels. The Times article mentioned “an ‘operations room’ in Amman staffed by agents from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States,” called the Military Operations Command, where rebels solicit and receive weapons and funding. Amman, the Jordanian capital, lies a mere 50 miles south of the Syrian border.
The article went on to state that Syria’s “largely stagnant southern battlefield … is heavily influenced by outside powers whose main goals are to limit the rise of extremists and preserve stability in Jordan.” It further claimed that [i]In the south, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, is not a leading power.” [See Threat Matrix report, Arming the ‘moderate’ rebels in the Syrian south.]
But in fact, Al Nusrah has long been active in southern Syria. In September, the al Qaeda affiliate teamed up with the Yarmouk Brigade and the Aknaf Bait al Maqdis (“Defenders of Jerusalem”), another jihadist group allied with al Qaeda, to take control of the border crossing between the southern province of Deraa and Jordan. The Al Nusrah Front in Deraa is commanded by Iyad al Tubasi and Mustafa Abd al Latif Salih, two men with strong ties to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the notorious former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army seize border crossing to Jordan.]
And since the Times article was published, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front have unleashed an offensive in Deraa, bolstered possibly with US-made heavy weapons. According to Agence France Presse, which cited the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the rebel forces are trying to “connect territory they hold in Deraa and the Quneitra region, alongside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.” SOHR reported that “the battle to control over this strategic hills in the southern countryside of Al Qunaytera and the western countryside of Dar’a …has started since this month amid of retreating of the regime forces and progressing of the Islamic battalions and Jabhat Al Nusra.”
On April 18, we reported here at LWJ :”The US has begun supplying advanced antitank weapons to supposedly moderate Syrian rebel groups such as the Harakat Hazm, which works with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, whose leader has admitted to sharing weapons with al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front.” Indeed, Jamal Maarouf, the head of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, said he refuses to fight al Qaeda as it is “not our problem,” and admitted to fighting alongside it. [See Threat Matrix report, Chief of Syrian Revolutionaries Front says al Qaeda is ‘not our problem.’]
Harakat Hazm, founded in January by a merger of 12 groups under Bilal Atar a.k.a. Abu Abdaal Shambilal, has remained loyal to Salim Idriss, the former head of the Free Syrian Army who was dismissed on Feb. 16, according to IHS Jane’s. Earlier this month, the Huffington Post cited an unverified report that on March 6, seven vans loaded with BGM-71 TOW ATGMs destined for Harakat Hazm were waved through a border crossing between Turkey’s Hatay province and Syria’s Idlib province by the Islamic Front.
Four days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that video had emerged showing rebels in the Omari brigade, a southern affiliate of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, firing a US-made BGM-71 TOW missile.
Three days ago, the Daily Beast noted that antitank weapons likely supplied by the US were being used by rebel forces in recent fighting in Deraa, and cited an NPR report saying the CIA was planning on sending more such weapons soon, in a ramped-up covert effort to force the Assad regime to agree to a political transition.
These developments are just a few among others signaling the futility of Western assurances that weapons can be provided in such a way that they do not fall into the hands of extremist groups. Al Nusrah, which while battling the ISIS (a group recently disowned by al Qaeda) continues to lead the fighting in key provinces, has demonstrated an ability to make strategic alliances with other rebel groups. For example, the Daily Star reported on April 26 that the Ahl al-Sham, an umbrella group incorporating Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and the Mujahedeen Army, formed a truce with Kurdish forces in Aleppo to fight against regime forces.
Al Qaeda’s General Command remains keenly interested and engaged in the Syrian conflict. Sanafi al Nasr, who leads al Qaeda’s “Victory Committee,” which is in charge of strategic planning and policy for the terrorist group, is now working with the Al Nusrah Front. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, continues to issue statements supporting the jihadist battle in Syria and urging an end to infighting between rival Islamist factions, particularly Al Nusrah and ISIS.
According to the NPR article, “[a]dvocates of the new American program hope that training the moderates will serve as a counterweight to al-Qaida and could peel away some of those fighters with the promise of more support.” A report in Reuters early this month on the US plan to increase the flow of weapons and other support, including training, to the rebels in Syria provided additional insight into the rationale: “US assistance could improve the chances that if Assad is deposed the United States will have allies among successful revolutionary forces. US and European officials say the most powerful anti-Assad factions are militant groups such as the Al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”
Given the fluid nature of opposition alliances in this conflict, and the possibly divergent interests of the various parties involved, which include nations sympathetic to Islamist ideology, these are misguided and dangerous rationales for an incoherent plan with little or no oversight, transparency, or likelihood of producing a favorable outcome.
The bottom line: The US and other nations seeking to support a moderate, democratic Syria should either go in big and occupy the country long enough to make sure reforms are implemented and the situation is stabilized (for which no Western nations, including the US, have shown any appetite, after Afghanistan); or they should restrict all support to humanitarian aid. The middle path being pursued by the US, of covertly training and arming assorted rebel groups, is likely to perpetuate the conflict, destabilize the region, and accelerate the growth of a new generation of international jihadists.