Report: American-supplied arms fell into al Qaeda’s hands

Buried in an interesting account by The Wall Street Journal is this nugget of information (emphasis added):

The Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Idriss, has been the focus of U.S. efforts to bring a command-and-control structure to rebels–but has now lost to the Islamist extremists most of its ability to operate in some parts of the north.

ISIS fighters recently raided a council arms depot filled with lights [sic] weapons and ammunition, funded by the Gulf states and funneled to the council with the guidance of the Central Intelligence Agency, council members said.

The ISIS is, of course, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of two al Qaeda affiliates fighting in Syria. The other is the Al Nusrah Front, which continues to fight alongside its ISIL brethren despite a dispute between the two affiliates’ emirs.

The rest of the WSJ article (“Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Seizes Syria“) is well worth a read and describes how some Free Syrian Army commanders and units are trying to counter al Qaeda’s growing influence. Other outlets have published similar details. This is good news in the sense that it may make it easier to identify specific parts of the FSA that are worth supporting.

The bad news is that al Qaeda’s affiliates dominate significant parts of northern Syria. FSA units that challenge al Qaeda are, by and large, unsuccessful. And as unnamed members of the Supreme Military Council itself have conceded to the WSJ, arms intended to support the most friendly side in this “three-front war” have ended up in one of the wrong side’s hands.

There are a few other pieces of information worth noting in the WSJ account.

First, “ISIS fighters have adopted a strategy of dropping back–taking rear positions–as rebels with the FSA alliance leave for front lines to fight government forces, allowing ISIS to build a presence in towns and villages left without security or services.” In other words, the ISIS is willing to let some FSA rebels die, taking some Assad allied forces with them in the process. All the while the al Qaeda affiliate deepens its roots into rebel-controlled strongholds. Much of those same rebel-controlled areas are already dominated by al Qaeda and its extremist allies.

Second, the WSJ notes that “[e]stimates on the size of ISIS range from 7,000 to 10,000 fighters.” This estimate doesn’t include the Al Nusrah Front, the Mujahireen (Migrants) Brigade, and various other jihadi groups associated with al Qaeda that are fighting inside Syria. Truth be told, no one really knows how many fighters are in each group opposed to Assad. There is an awful lot of guesswork in the public estimates and widely-used terms such as “moderate” and “extremist” are not precisely defined. Moreover, al Qaeda’s affiliates and other groups do not post rosters for the rest of the world to see.

Some, including an Israeli general, have tried to claim that only one fighter out of every 10 is a “radical Sunni jihadi” or an “extremist.” No empirical evidence has been provided to support this argument. And it defies common sense.

If al Qaeda and its allies were really so outnumbered, then unfriendly rebels would have an easier time ejecting the ISIL and Nusrah from rebel-controlled territory. The fact that non-extremist rebels can’t do so is a strong indication that the “extremists” — that is, al Qaeda’s affiliates and their “local” extremist allies — account for far more than 10 percent of the rebellion. The central role al Qaeda’s affiliates have played in much of the fighting throughout the country, not just in the north, suggests their influence goes far beyond the minimalists’ claims as well.

Third, the WSJ reports: “Al Qaeda militants from central command in Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban fighters have also set up operational bases in northern Syria, people familiar with their operations said.”

They have done so because the fight for Syria has become of one al Qaeda’s top priorities. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are devoting talent and resources to the fight.

Some arms in the hands of FSA commanders we can trust (as opposed to FSA brigades we cannot), will probably fail to stem the tide of the al Qaeda-led coalition’s advances in the north. And that is assuming those arms stay in the “good” rebels’ hands, which isn’t always the case. Supporting some rebel forces is something the US and the West must pursue, but it is also easier said than done.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Joseph says:

    Not surprising at all.
    It seems the infighting between ISIL/AQ and FSA forces has intensified lately. Is that because they both realize now no one is going to blow up Assad’s air force and their margins for victory have slimmed?
    I fear what happens if Assad manages to push out all the foreign rebels who go home to Europe and North America disgruntled, bitter and well trained.

  • donowen says:

    It’s time to begin significant drone strikes on our enemy Al Qaeda (ISIS) in Syria. FSA agents can certainly use target designators. There are apparently lots of targets.

  • gb says:

    And this is to no one’s surprise, of course this was part of the CIA’s overall strategy to destabilize Assad…where the hell else would the weapons go?

  • David says:

    Arming the Syrian rebels is a lot less dangerous if we avoid sending them dangerous new types of weapons, and concentrate on ensuring their supply of basic weapons such as small arms and RPGs. If a few, or even a large number, of these weapons fall into Al Qaeda’s hands, it doesn’t really increase their abilities that much, as they already have lots of AKs, etc.
    What it does do is even up the ammunition supply advantage that Al Qaeda has now.

  • blert says:

    The Mujahireen (Migrants) Brigade is a clone of the International Brigade. (Spanish civil war)
    Consequently, I suggest that ‘International Brigade’ is a more apt descriptor.
    This cadre is an extremely dangerous development.
    For, what happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria when they’re done.

  • NP says:

    Success on the battlefield doesn’t necessarily have to equate to numbers. ISIS and AQ fighters are better organized, experienced, disciplined and leadership. That can be a deadly advantage for any sized fighting force. Doing some math it appears that the regime cannot possibly win in a war of pure attrition. They don’t have the numbers and even with advanced weaponry they would be decapitated. Enter Hezbollah, Quds and WMDs to help tilt the scales or at least level the field. However, I think the realization is that Assads days, months or years are numbered. While losing an arms cache to AQ or ISIS is certainly not a laughing matter it isn’t necessarily a reason to stop supporting more moderate FSA elements because the only other option is the true establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that will serve as a bridge for radical Islam from the Magrem to Pakistan. That’s not an option and we all know that. I doubt that Iran and Israel will be prepared to allow ISIS/AQ maintain a geographical presence there. The risk of more nations entering a war in the Levant grows every day that Assad is in power and moderate FSA elements are trampled by radical Jihadist.

  • Michael Green says:

    “Supporting some rebel forces is something the US and the West must pursue, but it is also easier said than done.”
    Truly remarkable that you would make the above statement. The so called ‘rebel’ forces are completely contaminated with Islamist Jihadist murderers, who have been slaughtering Christian and Alawite Syrians.
    In addition, right here on this Website is an article entitled : Islamists dominate Syrian insurgency

  • Bungo says:

    I completely understand all of the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth regarding the presence of foreign mujaheddin / AQ’s in Syria. We all despise these blighters. What we have to keep in mind, however, is that these extremists will never wind up in charge of an actual nation or government. They simply don’t have that kind of popular support AND they are indeed foreigners who will move on. The worst case scenario is a possible Islamist extremist state for some period of time until social evolution (or some other force) displaces it and institutes a more tolerant, less belligerent government. I know it sounds a little sketchy but I truly believe this is our long view strategy for the democratization of the middle east. It might take some time. It might take a hundred years but I think it has a realistic chance of working. If you think about it a hundred years is a blink of the eye in historical time. All human and financial costs considered I think this may be the best bad idea we have.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Jihadists have other, more powerful means to obtain US-provided weapons.
    REUTERS 9/20/2013.
    In recent days several FSA brigades have pledged allegiance to Al-Nusrah and ISIS (both Al Qaeda outfits in Syria) in North and East of the country. In other words, today Al Qaeda forces have grown several hundreds fighters larger, including all the weaponry these FSA brigades had (most of them presumably payed by Saudi Arabia and funnelled by the CIA).
    Moreover, according to jihadists and syrian “activists” reporting on Twitter, these defections to Nusrah and ISIS are growing by the week, specially in the northern province of Raqqa, and more brigades are expected to join Nusrah in the coming days. Actually, it seems that FSA no longer exist in Raqqa city, with all FSA units being now in Al Qaeda ranks or expelled from the city.

  • . says:

    The US and the world community should be more concerned about Syria’s chemical weapons and who will have future access to them.

  • Knighthawk says:

    Gee who didn’t see this coming?
    If all this wasn’t so serious it would be comical, actually even with the seriousness it’s still comical.

  • Eric says:

    In a way, this development betrays the truth, as the FSA’s efforts to keep U.S. weapons out of AQ’s hands were sincere, and somewhat effective. Al Nusrah and the ISIS will just steal what will not be shared, and you could just go figure whether actionable intel would have made any difference. Anything we ship, when it passes over the border into Syria, even Hezbollah could wind up with it, depending on the fortunes of war. AQ targets assets. They are decidedly good at it, which is resented intensely. A year ago, there were strong reservations on both sides of the US political leadership, and a reluctance to provide even anti-tank weapons, lest they fall into AQ’s hands. Surely those skeptics were well-spoken. The White house sanctioned upping the firepower, but with a keen sense of foreboding. What has AQ actually gotten in these raids? Halal MRE’s, small arms and ammunition, and comms equipment. This one is not a major mud-storm – yet. But loss of a logistical hub from the FSA to AQ is putting a bite in Idriss’ power. Oh, and now AQ is answering the call for a city just over the border from Turkey. Maybe a quick SOCOM raid in-and-out is worth the exposure. AQ down in Damascus fighting Assad may not be fair game, but AQ setting up to play kingdom next to Turkey definitely is fair game.

  • gb says:

    Actually @Eric, Units of FSA have sworn allegiance to Al Nusrah recently, and have officially integrated at least two units under them. I seriously doubt they care as to whether American weapons fall into the hands of fellow terrorists..


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