US-backed rebels handed over equipment to al Qaeda in Syria

15-09-25 Al Nusrah in Aleppo

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.

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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  • Lisa says:

    I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of plan here to use Al Nusrah to help bring down Assad.

  • paul says:

    search for moderate muslims continues………….!

  • Paul says:

    Stop all arming & funding immediately.

  • Comment: You are using as most media do the term “rebels”, but since they are not allowed to rebel against the regime of Bash Al-Assad, I don’t think the term is accurate. Since day one it was evident to some that the program was flawed in its concept, as it does not respect the Syrians’ priorities but imposes US ones. A scheme to create from scratch a “moderate opposition” (to whom?) parallel to the Syrian national opposition coalition and the FSA was doomed from day one.

  • Paddy Singh says:

    All the West and the US had to do was support the secular Assad, but also force him to the table with the opposition. They did not and created this mess. The foreign policies of the US and UK are planned by people who probably have never seen the inside of a school.

  • David says:

    It would be amazing if this didn’t happen. We are sending well-equipped men into a very hostile environment in a very piecemeal fashion, a platoon or two at a time. Al Nusrah is in a bitter confrontation with its rival, needs every bit of equipment it can get, and has been systematically absorbing smaller groups, often by force, as part of this struggle, and to ensure it dominates post-conflict Syria. Why wouldn’t it jump any well-equipped small force that walks into Syria, let alone a force that is sponsored by a hostile power?

  • mike merlo says:

    beyond disconcerting. The Fumblelina’s in the US Intelligence Community once again demonstrate that their collective incompetence, ignorance & stupidity is boundless along with the present US Administration. No matter Putin will lance these boils of idiocy with his own straight forward steadfast approach to the GWOT. Along with Putin there are obviously many other Nations that see the GWOT for what it is. Albeit some of those Nations relationship with the USA is tenuous at best but with this contagion spreading unabated its difficult to fault their concern(s) let alone criticize them for actions the USA could have had ‘still birthed’ had the US Administration following the 2000-2008 Administration involved themselves in the areas in question responsibly. There is no doubt that the conspirators of 9 11 pushed the world to the edge of the abyss tottering it on its precipice. There is no doubt that the invasion of Iraq was a significant contributor to further loosening the cork to the genie’s bottle but it was its follower lazy, neglectful, cavalier, pompous, etc., drunk on its own vision of false pride & self importance that left this ‘bottle’ loosely buried beneath the sands unattended for any freebooter to loose its contents upon the Region.

    This present group of Fumblelina’s along with the Administration of “Hope & Change” have managed to string together a series of Bays of Pigs with absolutely no end in sight. The debacle in Vietnam in no way compares to what is presently taking place, “Domino’s” did fall in the aftermath of the US withdrawal in South East Asia & in other parts of the world. The same has taken place in the Middle East with the irresponsible withdrawal from Iraq. What many have failed to appreciate with “The Domino Theory” is that geographical locales not abutting a particular conflict ‘zone’ are also vulnerable. “Dominos” don’t readily crumble in some kind of proscribed format that is readily predictable as evidenced in the so-called “Arab Spring” which quickly matriculated into “The Winter of Discontent.” A “vacuum” doesn’t necessarily need be present for a particular locale to succumb to the vicissitudes or designs of those seeking otherwise(say hello to the Sandinistas!). A building doesn’t necessarily fall just because part of its foundation has been compromised but without a doubt other parts of the structure are that much more susceptible to applied pressure. This is a core principle of world order. I am very much looking forward to the coming days weeks & months.

  • Evan says:

    Where are the FREE MEN of SYRIA ? Are there ANY?
    Are there any men in Syria that love liberty and freedom more than they love tyrants and terrorists? Are there any men in Syria that want their children to live free, to get an education, to make SOMETHING of themselves? Al Nusra, AQ, IS, are NOT Syrian, they’re interlopers from a far that have co opted the Syrian people’s revolution, so congratulations to all of the people in Syria, you let the wolves in, rather than become sheepdogs yourselves, and now you will forever more be SHEEP….

    On an interrelated note, what in the world happened to ” no matter where they hide, no matter how far they run, WE WILL find and KILL ALL of them?” What happened to that?
    Now we’re supposed to believe that well these terrorists are bad, but theses terrorists are worse, and the bad ones? Well, we can get something out of them, so we’re not going to target them, infact, we’re going to provide air support to them while they fight the worse ones? WHAT?!?!?

    Ahem….um, NO! KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL EM’ ALL!

  • Evan says:

    One more thing, and I hate to do this, but hey, credit is due…

    So, anybody can watch the videos online that these terrorists post to the internet, they’re pretty much roughing it, they don’t have a lot of equipment, they don’t have the worlds superpower backing them, but they have the will to fight, and that is in itself, worth SO MUCH more.

    What does the supposed NSF have? Well, they’ve definetly got some pragmatic leaders, but no ones really being honest about this situation.
    As long as we send in 50-100 men at a time, AQ will continue to poach them and they’re equipment, WHY? Because they CAN. 50-100 people, even well trained people, dropped into Syria, unsupported and untethered, with no heavy weapons, no supporting units, are easy pickings for a group like AQ that has a serious network built up in the country over years.
    If we want to stop this, and actually do something worth doing, we need to link up with the SRF, and funnel them fighters and gear, by the 1000’s, not the 50’s. And then target EVERYONE ELSE….

  • irebukeu says:

    Great article.
    Many of my comments (complaints) about the funding and backing of Syrian rebel groups over the years has been that there has been no mention by the authorities (Clinton, Kerry, McCain) or media about who the moderate rebel groups are (or were, as it would seem reasonable that the 2013 and 2014 groups amounted to nothing and are gone).They were spoken about as if they actually existed in some force. They actually, in reality, existed only in some farce.
    More wasted money.
    In the end I don’t think the pentagon will have any success in creating any real and operable and sustainable groups that can gain or hold territory without a Western air umbrella. They will have no problem however in finding people to take their money, smoke their cigarettes and talk a talk. Eventually a dozen or so acronyms for the next dozen failed groups will emerge (this last one-Non Sufficient Funds-‘NSF’ will not be the last). Everyone along the chain will get paid and plenty of money will be unaccounted for. As a taxpayer you can be assured of that.
    Russian movements have made the idea of an air umbrella very problematic in Syria. This alone might reverse the trend of intervention. That could save the US taxpayers billions right there.
    When will we realize that proxy forces cannot be created but only co-opted and expanded? It is very rare that people will fight for a losing cause without some vested stake in the fight. The enemy will seek to counter any overtures with crafty moves and guile.
    We have seen many times how al qaeda holds out the hand of rapprochement. They, in my opinion, will continue to do so. I would be very interested in seeing the correspondence between al qaeda and these defeated western backed groups, either before their defeats, or after.
    We know that islam stresses unity- we know that al qaeda frequently reaches out the hand.
    An offer to join with the victor is often the only path of survival for the loser or to switch sides even before any fight when the opportunity is given one last time for those who find themselves on the side with declining fortunes.

    Here is a real world example of how it is done.

    In 1842 The British Kabul garrison in Afghanistan was destroyed by various Afghan groups for various Afghan reasons. Many of the tribes had been brought over or bought over if you will, by the British and their re-installed, returned stooge-Shah Shuja al-Mulk and did not join the insurrection. Many of the Shah’s supporting tribes stood by while the British were defeated and then stood by again while the British were besieged at Jalalabad next. The son of Dost Mohamed Khan- Akbar Khan skillfully maneuvered these tribes that supported Suja away from Suja by claiming that this was only a Jihad against the kafir and that any muslim that supported the kafirs would be considered an apostate. As more and more tribes joined against the English, to not take a position and action would not be tolerated.
    To Saiyed Ahai-ud-Din, one of the supporters of the English and Shah Suja, Akbar Khan wrote in January 1842;
    “…Rest assured of this: if you have any apprehension in consequence of having been forced to form connections with the Firingis, I beg of you to dismiss all fears on this account from your heart, for you acted as the time required. Everyone great and small has been obliged for the sake of his own interests to connect himself more or less with the Firingis. But now…” (after the Kabul garrison destruction and the siege of Jalalabad begun)…”that the ranks of islam are firmly united together, what can be the reason for you withdrawing yourself? I write to beseech you that abandoning all alienation, and as considering my house as your home, you will return without delay that we may meet each other and the ties of friendship be drawn even closer. I trust that you will start in this direction immediately.”

    Saiyed Ahai-ud-Din started in Akbar’s direction immediately.

    It is a powerful argument calling forth a defeated foe to join under a common banner, forgetting past grievances.
    Like the winner of a fist fight helping the loser up and buying him a drink- it is a very strange and odd thing to expect or to witness but it is real.
    We should expect the unexpected in Syria.
    We should expect all jihadist groups to join together, at some point, under the banner of Jihad against all ‘infidels’.
    We should intervene less.
    We should confine ourselves to fighting the islamic state through proxies and drone support in Syria and fighting al qaeda there with drones except in special circumstances.
    Coordination should be done with Syria and Russia as to avoid incidents.
    Agitation against the Syrian Government should stop.
    In Iraq we should coordinate with Iran as to get the best fizzle for our ever wasted dollar.
    We are 18 trillion in debt. Obama has managed, with all the money he has spent and all the money Bush spent in advance for Obama, to get the deficit down lower than at any point since before the collapse-he is still not very serious about paying down our debt or even balancing the budget.
    A point for consideration; Since the collapse of the US economy and the bankrupting of its government through constant, distant and unsustainable conflicts was the stated goal of bin Laden and his circus of hate, isn’t it time we really started fighting back?

  • pbill says:

    How could American intelligence consistently be so wrong? The Dems say we were lied into Iraq but when they are in charge the intelligence is just as bad if not worse.

  • mike merlo says:


    much validity for what you’ve singled out. As long as the USA & those aligned with them continue to apply Standards Of Measurement that don’t constructively connect & understand the cultures, societies & ethnicities they’re ‘engaged’ with the present malaise & its accompanying violence will continue to shadow & define this affray.

    “Coordination should be done with Syria and Russia as to avoid incidents.
    Agitation against the Syrian Government should stop.” I couldn’t disagree more. “Coordination” twixt the protagonists(?) & antagonists(?) is already taking place & has been since the get go. So the need for more, if much at all, is non sequitur. It should also be noted that the Iranian’s are as much partner to the Syrian Government as the Russians are if not more. Not to mention Turkey, along with their GCC stakeholders, Jordan, Egypt, Israel & Lebanon all have varying levels of participation in this Regional War.

    “In Iraq we should coordinate with Iran as to get the best fizzle for our ever wasted dollar.” Best to let the Iranians wallow in their incompetence & ignorance. Right now they’re getting hammered by ISIS/ISIL/IS with no favorable results readily apparent so let them ‘bleed.’ Besides the Iranians have as ‘much’ vested in Syria as they do in Iraq, if not more not to mention whatever has been squandered to date in Yemen, so best to watch them muddle along, strengthen our hand with Kurds & be available for the likes of an Allawi.

  • Verneoz says:

    Like that which has been said all along, Obama & Kerry have no strategy or an end game. They are only showing token efforts, and blowing smoke avoiding any political damage until Obama’s term ends. Then, this mess will pass to the next president, just like Clinton gifted Bush with 9/11 (the hijackers lived, trained, and partied in the US for 2 years before Bush took office).

  • Verneoz says:

    The Fumblelinas should not carry the blame for most of this debacle. Obama does not want the US to be in there, period. He is handcuffing the intelligence analysts and military advisors, and the mission is only to show a token effort is being made giving Obama cover until his term runs out.

  • mike merlo says:


    the Fumblelina’s in Intelligence Community are just as much to blame as President Obama & the rest of the ‘Keystone Cops’ in his Administration responsible for the charade masquerading as Foreign Policy & International Affairs.
    “Obama does not want the US to be in there, period.” That’s totally unadulterated nonsense. President Obama is a prima donna who never misses an opportunity to show case himself. A big part if not the most important part of being President of the USA is being anywhere but where one wants to be. The World Leader of a Superpower does not have the luxury deciding who what where when etc.,. Anybody who says or believe’s otherwise knows nothing of the last few centuries geopolitics & leadership. Unless of course one is of the mind the President of the USA should begin conducting himself as if he or she is the Prime Minister of Liechtenstein. President Obama wants to be everywhere he can except on his terms & his terms only.

    Its obvious based on President Obama’s latest appearance at the UN, with every World Leader of Consequence present excepting perhaps Bashar Assad for obvious reasons, he has neither the fortitude nor ‘appetite’ to lead, commit or command. Even the Prime Minister of England, David Cameron, publicly called out President Obama remonstrating him on his tepidness & unwillingness to speak honestly, factually & openly/publicly as to what exactly it is threatening the world ‘today.’ As opposed to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who is synonymous with Appeaser President Obama has become the ‘poster boy’ for Capitulator.

    I for one do not subscribe to this notion of “handcuffing.” Last I checked one takes an Oath to Serve The Constitution of the United States Of America not some golem who happens to be President of the USA excepting of course Valerie ‘Rasputin’ Jarrett who slithered her way in via the DC ‘plumbing’ system to become the 2nd most powerful person in the US Government.

    As far as biding one’s time goes that’s just another pundit fabrication by those unwilling, unable or simply beyond clueless as to what does or doesn’t pique’s the Presidents’ interests’. President Obama obviously chooses to ignore whatever doesn’t strike his fancy & indulge himself in pursuits that satisfy a world view at odds with what reality demands, seeks & defends. Seeing himself as some kind of anthropomorphic manifestation of a Patrice Lumumba, Frantz Fanon, Maximilien Robespierre, etc.,. Just a couple of months ago President Obama made a comment of running for a 3rd term & probably winning were it not for the Law. A rather odd thing to say from someone many people write off as someone just biding their time.

  • irebukeu says:

    Thanks for the reply
    Coordinate with Russia so that they don’t shoot down our drones or crash into them. With Syria too and Iran. Am I correct in thinking your desired position for the US government is to topple Bashar and fight IS?
    My position would be to do nothing to Bashar, even if he were to fire a rocket or three along the Golan plateau (Israel will quickly react and deal with that.), perhaps even help facilitate his attacks upon the IS (with intelligence mostly). At this point, with no agreement between the Kurds and the Syrian government that it is in rebellion from, with Russian planes in the skies in Syria, I see no national security threat that should require Americans to fly any manned missions over Syria or to set foot in it in any way. The United States has No business in Syria with the exception of attacks on ISIS and al qaeda since they are one in the same (in the end). With the addition of Russians to the proxy fight and lacking agreements between the US and Syria or Russia, manned flights should stop. Without agreements, manned flights should stop.

  • mike merlo says:

    @ irebukeu

    IMO the opportunity to remove Assad came & went years ago. He is no longer the principal power broker speaking/deciding on behalf of what’s left of Syria. The Russians & Iranians are now the de facto rulers of Assad’s Syria. Assad is here to stay for the short & mid term & probably the long term. The USA shouldn’t waste anymore time on him. Putin called our bluff. So be it. Time for President Obama to move on. I’m quite sure no monkey business will result from Syria, the Iranian’s or their proxy Hezbollah in the targeting of Israel. I’m sure that was the #1 main issue on the table when Netanyahu recently met with Putin seeking assurances. I don’t see the Russians including the Kurds into their bombing/targeting matrix. In fact I see the Kurds coming to terms with Assad with the Russians providing them air cover & even material support. Putin has it in for Erdogan & would like nothing better than to see him exited from the scene. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Putin along with Iran is surreptitiously providing ‘support’ to the PKK. I’m also of the mind that if Putin could somehow manufacture a scenario that would allow him to bring Military Force to bear on Erdogan without dragging NATO into it he would certainly avail himself to the opportunity. Nothing like revisiting history & bringing a conclusion to the Crimean War that satisfies a desired Russian outcome.

    As far as Combat Sorties over the Syrian Iraqi Theater go the USA & Russia have undoubtedly been communicating regularly for quite some time. This evidenced by US Combat Sorties that have been taking place in the Syrian Iraqi Theater over the last year or so. There is a National Security Threat to the USA & the world at large that doesn’t just involve the Middle East as it is presently shaking out but something much broader & darker in the works.

  • Typical dumb American says:

    In early September it was reported 500 million usd was spent to train and arm 4 to 5 moderate rebels, one being named “Todd”.
    Now that Russia is bombing isil, the military industrial complex is complaining that the Russians are only bombing ‘friendly’ territory. They can’t be talking about those 4 or 5 moderate holdouts are they?
    If not those guys, are we finally going to admit we arm and support al Qaeda, AL Nusrah Front, isil, (fill in the sunni group names) over Assad?
    By the way, has any journalist taken the time to research the friends of John McCann who appeared in the promotional photo op a couple years back to try to get more US cash? Let’s do a ‘where are they now’ update and see how many now work for isil or how many retired to the south of France with millions.


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