An Al Nusrah Front flag is seen in Aleppo, Syria.
US-backed rebels in the so-called “New Syrian Forces” (NSF) have turned over at least some of their equipment and ammunition to a “suspected” intermediary for Al Nusrah Front, US Central Command (CENTCOM) conceded in a statement released late yesterday. The coalition-provided supplies were given by the rebels to Al Nusrah, an official branch of al Qaeda, in exchange for “safe passage within their operating area.”
The “NSF unit contacted Coalition representatives and informed us that on Sept. 21-22 they gave six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected Al Nusrah Front intermediary, which equates to roughly 25 percent of their issued equipment,” CENTCOM spokesperson Col. Patrick Ryder said. “If accurate, the report of NSF members providing equipment to Al Nusrah Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines.”
While Ryder left open the possibility that the report is not accurate, he did not offer any explanation for why the NSF unit would lie about giving the equipment to Al Nusrah. The admission further jeopardizes the unit’s ability to receive American arms in the future.
Rebels belonging to Division 30, a group supported by the US, suffered losses immediately upon entering the Syrian fray earlier this year.
More than 50 members of Division 30 were sent into Syria in July. But Al Nusrah quickly thwarted their plans, even though the US-backed rebels intended to fight the Islamic State, Al Nusrah’s bitter rival. A number of Division 30 fighters were captured or killed within days of embarking on their mission.
Al Nusrah released a statement at the time saying that Division 30 is part of an American scheme that is opposed to the interests of the Syrian people. Al Qaeda’s branch accused the group of trying to form “the nucleus” of a “national army” and blasted the attempt to bolster the “moderate opposition.”
Al Nusrah also attacked Division 30’s headquarters in Azaz, a city north of Aleppo. The US responded with airstrikes, killing a number of jihadists, but the damage to the limited US effort was done. US officials said earlier this month that only four or five rebels were left in the fight. Dozens of additional US-supported rebels have entered the war in recent weeks, according to US military officials.
Not only has al Qaeda thwarted America’s first efforts under the overt $500 million train and equip program, which is managed by the US military, it has also taken out rebels who received unofficial support from the US intelligence community.
Al Nusrah Front has consistently resisted the West’s meager attempts to build a reliable opposition force. Late last year, al Qaeda’s branch pushed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), which had reportedly received some support from the West, out of its strongholds in the Idlib province. The SRF’s demise helped pave the way for Al Nusrah and its allies in the Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) coalition to capture much of Idlib beginning in late March.
After being vanquished, SRF head Jamaal Maarouf accused Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, of being a “Kharijite” (or extremist). This was an about-face in the relationship, as the SRF and Al Nusrah had previously fought side-by-side. Maarouf also publicly lamented the limited support he had received from the West.
Earlier this year, Al Nusrah also took the fight to Harakat Hazm (the Hazm Movement) outside of Aleppo. Despite receiving Western support, including US weaponry, Hazm had fought alongside the jihadists in the past and its leaders had praised Al Nusrah. Regardless, it was eventually forced to disband under Al Nusrah’s relentless pressure. Hazm’s remaining members were folded into other rebel groups.
It is suspected that American-made anti-tank TOW missiles fell into al Qaeda’s hands as a result of the battle against Hazm. The weapons were used during the jihadists’ successful assault on Idlib in March, as well as during other key confrontations with the Assad regime.
Recent events demonstrate that the US is consistently underestimating al Qaeda’s presence and capabilities in Syria, and does not have a true strategy for the multi-sided conflict. The rebels who have gone through the train and equip program are supposed to fight the Islamic State and not, according to public accounts, Al Nusrah. But it is Al Nusrah, which has been seeded with al Qaeda veterans in its upper ranks and is openly loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, that has interfered with the US effort.
The US apparently did not anticipate Al Nusrah blocking Division 30’s first foray into northern Syria in July. The al Qaeda branch did so not to support Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men, but because it is opposed to any US presence in the country. The US has targeted individual al Qaeda commanders in Syria, especially those believed to pose an immediate threat to the West, but has not sought to degrade the Al Nusrah-led wing of the anti-Assad insurgency. However, the Jaysh al Fateh alliance, which is led by Al Nusrah and its closest jihadist allies, has captured more territory from Assad’s regime this year than the Islamic State has.