The Russian government is trying to poach Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the United States for the war against ISIS, according to the political leader of a prominent Pentagon-backed brigade in Aleppo—and the rebels are strongly considering Russia’s offer.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Mustafa Sejry of the Liwa al-Mu’tasim Brigade said that he met personally with a Moscow representative the Syrian-Turkish border 10 days ago and was offered “unlimited amounts of weaponry and close air support” to fight both ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, in exchange for the Mu’tasim Brigade’s transfer of loyalties from Washington to Moscow.
Sejry clearly wants to use the offer to leverage more and better support from the Americans if he can, but that may not be forthcoming. (The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.) And the Russians, meanwhile, are whispering a lot of sweet nothings in the rebels’ ears.
They have expressed concern that by shifting their loyalty (and dependence) to Moscow, they would be joining the most important ally of their sworn enemy in this triangular war. And the Russians have said, according to Sejry, “We’re not stuck to any kind of agenda. What we want to do is go back to 2012 when there was a government and an opposition.”
“Honestly, I would have never ever even thought about working with the Russians after their horrific atrocities against us and their slaughtering thousands of my own people,” Sejry said. “But this change of mindset I blame on the Americans.”
Sejry is now in Istanbul, where he said he is scheduled to have follow-up discussions with the Russians. He also hinted that these are being quietly facilitated by the Turkish government, now on a path of rapprochement with the Kremlin after a period of hostility following Ankara’s downing of an Su-24 Russian fighter jet last November. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently survived a daring coup attempt by senior commanders in his own military, is set to meet with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 9.
Sejry did not want to disclose the name of his Russian contact, he said, for fear of alienating a prospective new ally should he indeed decide to abandon the Americans. But he says he was told that the Kremlin is “more of a friend in fighting ISIS” and that “the Americans are not serious about fighting terrorist groups.”
He’s increasingly coming around to that point of view himself after what he describes as a year and a half of anemic U.S. support and broken promises. He also said his American patrons do not appear particularly bothered by this power play from a foreign government.
Sejry said he relayed the Russian offer to two points of contact in the U.S. military, both Army captains. They had no response for him, which only added to his frustration.
“For a long time, we’ve been asking the Pentagon to talk to real decision-makers, not flunkies,” he said.
As The Daily Beast has previously reported, Sejry’s relationship with the U.S. military has been fraught, to say the least. He and 1,000 other affiliated rebels—then only applicants to the Pentagon’s train and equip program—threatened to withdraw their candidacy over strict conditions being imposed on them by CENTCOM, namely that they not use their training or U.S.-provided weaponry to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its manifold proxies, only ISIS.
Those tensions dissipated, however, as Sejry did ultimately join the program and, against expectation and norm, thrived amidst other institutional failures.
Fellow graduates of the first class of the so-called New Syrian Forces were kidnapped by Jabhat al Nusra, the former name for al Qaeda’s franchise; the vetted but untrained commander of the second class, as The Daily Beast first reported, also sold U.S. materiel to that terrorist group in exchange for safe passage through northern Syria.
The Mu’tasim Brigade, though, remained a more reliable counterterrorism proxy. According to Nicholas A. Heras, in a policy brief for the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation, Sejry is a “rising leader within the Syrian armed opposition” who has adroitly brokered his contacts both among the anti-Assad insurgents and the anti-ISIS coalition to make the Mu’tasim Brigade one of the most reputable in the country—and therefore a valuable prize for the Russians.
Based in Marea, the brigade had been made to wait for crucial U.S. resupplies as the town in Aleppo province was besieged by ISIS in June, and all ground access was either interdicted by the jihadists or controlled by a separate albeit hostile U.S. proxy, the Kurdish-predominant Syrian Democratic Forces. So, in a first for CENTCOM, U.S. planes airdropped ammunition and supplies to the Mu’tasim fighters, enabling the brigade to break the siege and mount a moderately successful counteroffensive against ISIS in other outlying villages.
Sejry had hoped that 11th-hour bailout, attended also by U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions around Marea, would set a precedent for more constant and steady support. Instead it appears to have been a one-off.
During the entirety of their year-and-a-half enlistment with the United States military, Sejry claims, his fighters have been paid infrequently and sporadically. “We’ve received only one month worth of salaries in the last three months.”
Furthermore, a promised bonus, after the first six months, never materialized. “When we signed our contract with the Americans, we had initially asked for $500 per fighter in addition to getting support for injured and killed soldiers. They agreed to $250 for the first half year, and said that we’d get an additional $250 per man after six months. We only ever got $250 and never any money for our injured or killed. And that’s when they did pay us, which was rare.”
Since breaking the ISIS siege two months ago, the Mu’tasim Brigade hasn’t received replacement hardware for what it lost battling the jihadists. “We lost a lot of vehicles and mounted machine guns. We can’t fix or replace broken ones.”
For these reasons, Sejry says, Russia’s proposal is enticing. “We feel betrayed. Now other options are on the table.”
In spite of a tentative U.S.-Russian agreement for collaborated targeting of designated terror groups in Syria—an agreement that is reportedly the brainchild of President Barack Obama but has met with intense skepticism among Middle East analysts and State Department officials—the Russians seem to have no qualms about disparaging their American counterparts as they try to purloin U.S. assets.
“They said, ‘We are more reliable and trustworthy. Just look how we stood with Assad all this time. And look at the Americans. They are not truthful, they’re not supporting you guys. We’ll be 100 percent with you.’”
A former U.S. diplomat stationed in Moscow during the height of the Cold War laughed when The Daily Beast reached him for comment. It was all too familiar, he said. “The Soviets were always trying to flip U.S. assets, particularly in the Third World, where competition for influence was fierce. Look at Angola during the civil war. The Russians used weapons, money, and anything else at their disposal to lure our assets into the Moscow orbit.”
One difference, the diplomat noted, was that this used to actually upset the Americans, who fought assiduously to prevent it from happening and also did the same thing to the Soviets.
“What we used to see in Hollywood movies where the United States stood by the oppressed all ended up being entertainment and not real,” Sejry said. “With the Americans, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of future.”