GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In the past several months, many of the Syrian rebel groups previously favored by the CIA have had their money and supplies cut off or substantially reduced, even as President Obama touted the strategic importance of American support for the rebels in his State of the Union address.
The once-favored fighters are operating under a pall of confusion. In some cases, they were not even informed that money would stop flowing. In others, aid was reduced due to poor battlefield performance, compounding already miserable morale on the ground.
From afar, the U.S.-approved and partially American-armed Syrian “opposition” seems to be a single large, if rather amorphous, organization. But in fact it’s a collection of “brigades” of varying sizes and potentially shifting loyalties that have grown up around local leaders, or, if you will, local warlords. And while Washington talks about the Syrian “opposition” in general terms, the critical question for the fighters in the field and those supporting them is, “opposition to whom?” To Syrian President Assad? To the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL? To the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra?
That lack of clarity is crippling the whole effort, not least because of profound suspicions among rebel groups that Washington is ready to cut some sort of deal with Assad in the short or medium term if, indeed, it has not done so already. For Washington, the concern is that the forces it supports are ineffectual, or corrupt, or will defect to ISIS or Nusra—or all of the above.
Republican lawmakers in D.C. are at their boiling point over the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS strategy, whether it is a failure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, or unreliability with the issue of aid, or the Pentagon’s promised train-and-equip plan for the Syrian rebels.
“This strategy makes Pickett’s Charge appear well thought out,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, referring to the poorly planned and futile Confederate assault at Gettysburg. “We’re about to train people for certain death.”
In late October, al Qaeda’s Nusra fighters routed American-backed militias in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib.
As a direct result, four of the 16 U.S.-approved brigades operating in the northern part of the country had their funding cut off and have been dropped from the list of “ratified” militias, say a State Department official and opposition sources. Since December, the remaining 12 brigades in the region have seen shortfalls or cuts in promised American assistance.The supplies that have gotten through to Syrian rebel commanders have been insufficient, they say. According to The Wall Street Journal, one of the United States’ favored commanders got the equivalent of just 16 bullets per fighter, forcing them to ration. And while the CIA has trained nearly 5,000 fighters in Syria, many have disappeared or defected.
Syrian rebel sources who spoke on condition of anonymity say the 7th Division, which is affiliated with the Syria Revolutionaries Front and aligned to the Free Syrian Army, has not received salaries from the CIA in months, although the State Department has maintained food shipments to the unit.
The secular Harakat al-Hazm, the most favored of the U.S.-backed brigades and one of the very few to be supplied with TOW anti-tank missiles, has seen a severe cutback in the monthly subsidy for its nearly 4,000 fighters. It is now receiving roughly 50 percent of the salaries it was receiving before. Weapons shipments arrived recently but commanders are nervous about whether future ones will come through. And the Farouq Brigade, a militia formed originally by moderate Islamist fighters based in the city of Homs, is getting no money for salaries at the moment.
CIA officials tell rebel commanders that unspecified “other funders” have ordered the cuts, or that Langley just doesn’t have the resources any longer. “What are the fighters meant to do?” complains one rebel commander. “They have families to feed.” Another says, “The idea that they don’t have the money is insulting. I don’t believe this—it is a political decision.”
Syrian rebel groups and their Washington allies argue that CIA funding cuts—explained and unexplained—create relative advantages for extremist groups like al Nusra and ISIS, even as the president heralds the rebels as America’s on-the-ground partners in the campaign to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
“It’s not just that the administration is failing to deliver on committed resources, it’s that they aren’t even communicating with formerly affiliated battalions regarding the cutoff,” says Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group. “This puts our former allies in an incredibly vulnerable position, and ensures that groups like al Nusra will be able to take advantage of their sudden vulnerability in the field.”
The Obama administration says publicly that its support of moderate rebel brigades is not waning: The State Department continues to dispense non-lethal aid, the Pentagon supplies weapons, and the CIA pays salaries to brigades affiliated with the umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army. A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Privately, U.S. officials concede there have been funding changes. But American intelligence sources insist this is not a reflection of any shift in CIA strategy. They talk about “individual case-by-case shutoffs” that are the consequences of brigades collapsing or failing to perform. And these sources dispute suggestions there’s an overall decrease in CIA subsidies, saying they are not giving up on the Syrian rebels—even though the Syrian rebels in the north of the country in the vicinity of the Turkish border increasingly believe this to be true. (Those in the south, near the Jordanian border and Damascus, may fare better.)
A State Department official told The Daily Beast that “the CIA has more money now than before and the State Department pie has not shrunk,” but confirms there has been some cutting off and cutting down. The official cited the “poor performance” of rebel brigades in Idlib last October as a primary reason.
When they were up against al Nusra, this official said, “they didn’t fight hard enough.” Several moderate brigades failed to come to the assistance of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, in particular, because they disapproved of its leader, who has been widely accused of corruption. The ease with which al Nusra was able to pull off its offensive angered U.S. officials—as did American-supplied equipment falling into jihadi hands.
That anger was compounded when the members of some U.S.-backed rebel groups actually defected to al Nusra during the offensive. One senior U.S. official admitted that some brigades have been “getting too close for our liking to al Nusra or other extremists.”
On Christmas Day, armed groups formed an alliance for the defense of besieged rebel-held areas in Aleppo, where Assad had launched a major offensive to encircle them. Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya (Shamiyya Front), as the operational alliance is called, includes not only hardline Salafist factions from the groups known as the Islamic Front but more moderate brigades like the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Mujahideen Army and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which also has received TOW missiles from Washington in the past.
Although al Nusra was not invited to join formally, it coordinates with the Shamiyya Front via the so-called Aleppo Operations Room, a joint headquarters for armed factions. It’s an arrangement that Washington does not like at all.
Aleppo-based rebels say they have no choice but to work with al Nusra and the Islamic-Front-aligned factions that are among the strongest armed groups in the war-torn city. Without them, Assad’s forces would overwhelm the rebels.
“What do the Americans expect us to do?” asks a commander in the operations room. “Al Nusra is popular here. It is a perilous time for us—Assad is pushing hard.”
For the Syrian rebels, uncertainties over funding changes by the CIA add doubt to already high skepticism over American policy toward the war in Syria. That skyrocketed when the Obama administration failed to enforce in 2013 its “red line” against Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and the skepticism has merely grown since.
On the ground, the combatants say they suffer from the Obama administration’s inconsistency and argue that all too often they are being left out to dry, like some Syrian version of the Bay of Pigs, but much, much bloodier.
In the coffee shops of the Turkish border town Gaziantep last week, Syrians gathered on the safer side of the frontier listened incredulously as State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki insisted, “We maintain our belief that al Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go.” It was the first such inflexible anti-Assad statement for weeks from a senior U.S. official.
But that wasn’t what they’d heard from President Obama in his State of the Union address a few days before. Gone was the rhetoric of 2013 when he said he had “no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.” Instead, last Tuesday Obama spoke about the administration’s so-called train-and-equip plan to build a force that will target ISIS, and he made vague noises about helping Syria’s moderate opposition.
Those moderates are precisely the men and women on the ground who feel that bit by bit they are being abandoned.
Already, nearly four months after Secretary of State John Kerry announced the plan to train and equip Free Syrian Army units, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi Shia militiamen as anti-ISIS forces, the project appears to be facing major hurdles.
U.S. senators emerged grim-faced last week from a classified briefing on the train-and-equip mission, with some of them predicting disaster from a Pentagon program that will train too few fighters and too slowly to make a difference.
At its best, Republican senators argue, it’s not going to work. At its worst, it will lead to the mass slaughter of the trained rebels.
The number of recruits required for a “strategic change in momentum is years away,” said Graham. “The concept of training an army that will be subject to slaughter by two enemies, not one, is militarily unsound,” and “if the first recruits you train get wiped out, it’s going to make it hard to recruit.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who emerged from the same classified briefing, was tight-lipped: “I think we have a lot to do, and a lot of questions to answer.”
In Syria, few rebel fighters want to join a force focused only on ISIS. They argue that Assad is responsible for considerably more deaths among them and their extended families than ISIS, which is able to draw defectors from their ranks because it pays much higher salaries to its fighters and because it is able to exploit distrust of American intentions toward the Syrian revolution.
U.S. officials now acknowledge difficulties recruiting from insurgent ranks, conceding it is a serious challenge finding enough recruits willing to put off fighting the Assad regime.
So American officials recruiting for the train-and-equip mission are now hoping to fish in the pool of rebel fighters from eastern Syria who disbanded, quit the war and fled to Turkey when ISIS established control of the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The U.S. officials say the anti-ISIS force in Syria will have to be smaller than envisaged initially, but they are hoping early victories on the ground will convince more people to enlist.