Following the news that the Obama administration, in a sudden about-face, is asking Congress for $500 million to train and equip “vetted” members of the “moderate” Syrian opposition, The Associated Press yesterday published a list, headlined “Syrian rebels likely to receive US aid.” The list raises more questions than it answers — two of the listed groups have been designated by the US as terrorist organizations.
The five groups listed as potential recipients of the additional US military aid are, in the order in which they appear: the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council; breakaway factions such as Harakat Hazm, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front led by Jamal Maarouf a. k.a. Abu Khaled, and the Islamic Army headed by Zahran Alloush; the Islamic Front; the Al Nusrah Front; and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).
We can breathe a sigh of relief as at least, according to the AP article, the US won’t be giving the aid to Al Nusrah, or, although the article doesn’t expressly say so, to the ISIS. But that relief is short-lived if you look at the rest of the list.
The Free Syrian Army has been in considerable disarray for months, and yesterday The Telegraph reported that Syrian National Coalition prime minister Ahmad Tomeh announced that the SNC has “decided to disband the Supreme Military Council and refer its members to the government’s financial and administration committee for investigation.” Brigadier General Abdelilah al-Bashir, the FSA’s chief-of-staff, has been sacked, and the SNC has called for its “revolutionary forces on the ground” to thoroughly revamp the FSA’s command structure.
As for breakaway groups such as Harakat Hazm, Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and Islamic Army, all of which are fairly recent creations arguably established in part to put a more “moderate” face on the Syrian rebels, there is no evidence that they can be relied upon to operate independently of, or avoid sharing arms and supplies with, the hardcore Islamist forces that dominate the rebel ranks on the battlefields.
And there is evidence to the contrary. The Harakat Hazm works with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, whose leader, Jamal Marouf, has admitted to sharing weapons with Al Nusrah and said that fighting al Qaeda is “not our problem.” [See LWJ report, The shadowy flow of US weapons into Syria, and Threat Matrix report, Chief of Syrian Revolutionaries Front says al Qaeda is ‘not our problem.’] Zahran Alloush, a Salafist leader in the Islamic Front whose forces have flown the black flag of al Qaeda, is not known as a moderate. His Army of Islam faction participated with Al Nusrah in the sectarian attack on Adra in December, in which as many as 40 civilians were massacred.
And finally, with regard to the Islamic Front, described by AP as “an alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative rebel groups that merged in late November,” the article states that some of the aid could go to factions within the Islamic front, but likely “not to ultraconservative factions such as Ahrar al-Sham.”
The problem with wishful distinctions like this is that they ignore the realities on the ground. As the most powerful of the Islamic Front’s constituencies, Ahrar al Sham would likely be free to take any supplies it wanted from those given to other factions within the Islamic Front. And similarly, but in a larger sense, the battlefield alliances of the Islamic Front, which fights in all of Syria’s provinces, are both fluid and varied, embracing both FSA rebels and uncompromising Islamist fighters from groups such as Al Nusrah, with which it frequently partners. Indeed, the only group with which the Islamic Front seldom, if ever, collaborates is the ISIS.
Perhaps you read to the end of the AP article with the wistful hope that some other deserving groups might appear on a subsequent page. But that was the end of the list.
And if you have been following the war in Syria closely, you probably also recognize that indeed, there are no significant independent, moderate fighting groups in Syria to support at present. Those that do exist must coexist with the prevailing Islamist forces, with all that entails.