Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria says it captured US-backed rebels

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has released a statement claiming that it has captured US-trained rebels belonging to a group called “Division 30.” The statement, seen below, was released today on one of the group’s official Twitter feeds.

15-07-31 Al Nusrah statement on capturing Division 30 fighters

It is not clear how many fighters have been supposedly captured, but Al Nusrah says they are part of an American scheme that is opposed to the interests of the Syrian people. Al Qaeda’s branch claims the men entered the war “a few days ago” after “completing the training program” and accuses them of trying to form “the nucleus” of a “national army.” Al Nusrah blasts America’s attempt to bolster the “moderate opposition.”

The group alleges further that the fighters were coordinating their efforts with the US-backed coalition, which simultaneously bombed Al Nusrah Front positions, leaving “a number” of jihadists dead and wounded. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has independently reported that coalition war planes bombed an Al Nusrah Front headquarters. SOHR’s reporting also lends credence to Al Nusrah’s description of the rebel faction, saying that “50 members of the Division 30 entered Syria in July…after finishing from a training course by western countries in Turkey.”

There has been much confusion concerning the fate of the US-backed rebels. Earlier this week, a statement attributed to “Division 30” was posted online. The message’s authors accused Al Nusrah of capturing their leader and some of their fellow fighters.

The Pentagon refuted these claims, saying that no members of the New Syrian Force, as the US-backed fighters are called, had fallen into al Qaeda’s hands.

“While we will not disclose the names of specific groups involved with the Syria Train and Equip program, I can confirm that there have been no New Syrian Force personnel captured or detained,” Defense Department spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said, according to Reuters.

However, Al Nusrah’s new statement is sure to generate additional inquiries into the matter.

Al Qaeda’s arm portrays the US as being on the side of Bashar al Assad’s regime, pointing out that the US has refrained from bombing the government’s positions.

The Syrian people are wondering about the US government’s policy, Al Nusrah claims, especially after the group was added to America’s list of designated terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda is attempting to build popular support for its cause in Syria, and the designation is supposedly a sign that the US is acting against the people’s cause. In reality, the designation is completely consistent with the West’s counterterrorism efforts. Al Nusrah belongs to al Qaeda’s international network and is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri.

Al Nusrah also calls on members of “Division 30” to abandon the “American project,” or they will otherwise find themselves in the jihadists’ crosshairs.

Concurrent with the release of the statement, Al Nusrah reportedly launched an attack on Division 30’s headquarters in Azaz, a city north of Aleppo. A separate statement attributed to Division 30 and published online earlier today said that al Qaeda’s jihadists began their assault early this morning. Several Division 30 rebels were killed in the fighting, according to the message.

The Al Nusrah Front has consistently resisted the West’s meager attempts to build a reliable opposition force. Late last year, the Al Nusrah Front 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.

Earlier this year, Al Qaeda’s arm took the fight to Harakat Hazm (the Hazm Movement) outside of Aleppo. Despite receiving Western support, Hazm had also 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 weaponry, including anti-tank TOW missiles, fell into al Qaeda’s hands as a result of the battles against the SRF and Hazm. The weapons have been used during the jihadists’ successful assault on Idlib in March, as well as during other key confrontations with the Assad regime.

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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