The story of a missing Syrian rebel who may or may not have defected to al Qaeda just got more interesting, thanks to a video obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast which purports to show the first sign of him since his variously explained disappearance in northern Syria this week.
On Tuesday, The Daily Beast reported that Maj. Anais Ibrahim Obaid, more commonly known as Abu Zayd, was alleged to have flipped from the U.S.-backed Division 30 rebel group and joined Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s official al Qaeda franchise. Nusra insists he’s gone over to its side, along with the 70 or so New Syrian Forces (NSF) rebels who constitute the Pentagon’s second class of graduates from an embattled train-and-equip program designed to mint anti-ISIS counterinsurgents from a crop of anti-Assad insurgents.
The first class of 54 got off to a rough start when several of its members were kidnapped by Nusra in August. Weeks later, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), sheepishly informed Congress that only “four or five” of the remainder were still left in the fight. Nonetheless, and perhaps banking on the audacity of hope, the second class of NSF rebels crossed from southern Turkey into the Aleppo suburbs this week in a convoy of 4 x 4 pickups armed with mounted machine guns, plus other U.S.-supplied kit—all of which, Nusra boasted both via social media and an interview with The Daily Beast, was now in the hands of their jihadis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitor group, which first reported the deployment of the 70 new rebels, countered that Nusra’s allegation was false and merely a form of psychological warfare designed to scandalize and vitiate a $500 million U.S. program that President Obama now blames his hawkish cabinet officials for forcing him to implement in the first place. (It was later shown that Nusra uploaded images to Twitter claiming to be of a confiscated U.S. rifle—but the photographs were actually taken within Division 30’s own headquarters and simply repurposed as propaganda.)
What made the story compelling, however, was that Abu Zayd himself had posted to his Facebook account on Tuesday that he was now “outside of Division 30 Infantry… [and had formed] an independent faction working on the Syrian lands in isolation from coordination with the international coalition.”
According to Division 30, which said it could not confirm Abu Zayd’s whereabouts or current affiliation, he was not only commander of the 70 rebels who crossed into Turkey, and not only a graduate from the train-and-equip program, but had long been suspected of pro-Qaeda sympathies. Ammar al-Wawi, a spokesperson for the rebel group, told The Daily Beast that Abu Zayd had cleared the U.S. vetting process and received military training in spite of multiple warnings Division 30 had given to the Pentagon about his fundamental untrustworthiness.
Well, on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense categorically denied several things in sequence. First, it said, there was “no indication that any NSF fighters have defected to Al Nusra Front” and “all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters.” Then it told The Daily Beast that Abu Zayd hadn’t received any training for the New Syrian Forces program.
But now a video has come to light showing what is almost certainly Abu Zayd, surrounded by rebels who, analysts say, are very likely graduates of the New Syrian Forces program because of the weapons they’re carrying and the vehicles they’re driving. The video was apparently shot in Atareb, the Aleppo suburb where Abu Zayd vanished a few days ago.
It’s a short clip, fewer than 30 seconds long, but at the 0:24 mark we see a man in green fatigues and a greenish-gray bandana wrapped around his head greeting a local who is part of a scrum come to welcome a small gathering of newly arrived armed rebels. The man looks like he’s in a position of some authority given his prominence in the video and the way he’s regarded. According to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the author of a forthcoming book on Syria’s insurgency, the man is almost without question Abu Zayd.
Lister had earlier posted a portrait photograph of Abu Zayd to Twitter; he has since provided The Daily Beast with their videos, from earlier periods in the war, that also match the appearance of the figure in the Atareb video.
Also noteworthy is the equipment the rebels in the video are shown toting. N.R. Jenzen-Jones of the specialist technical intelligence consultancy Armament Research Services has analyzed the footage. “Whilst the quality and content of the video is not sufficient to make a definitive assessment,” Jenzen-Jones emailed The Daily Beast, “the AR-15 type rifles (likely M16A4 models, at least some with ACOG-type sights), M2 type heavy machine guns, and MAG type general-purpose machine guns (possibly M240L models), along with the characteristics of the trucks, weapon mounts, and other details such as the plate carriers, are broadly consistent with equipment supplied to ‘Division 30’ fighters under the U.S. train and equip program.”
Another source, this one a U.S. military officer who has been involved with the program, agrees: “What I can definitely confirm is that the equipment in that video is 100% consistent with the equipment we are providing. We intentionally selected NATO equipment because we'd be the only ones on the battlefield with it.”
That source also explained to The Daily Beast that just because Abu Zayd has not been trained by the Pentagon does not mean that he wasn’t allowed to command those who were. “We don't train the senior leaders, just the tactical level fighters. But the leaders are vetted and coordinated with, so this isn’t really a distinction with a difference. The commanders are definitely ‘our guys’ without being actual graduates of the training pipeline.” (Shortly after this article was published, a U.S. defense official confirmed: “Certainly [Abu Zayd] has some relationship” with the NSF. “He went through the vetting process.”)
So Abu Zayd can have been a proxy of the United States and U.S. Central Command can have been technically correct to say that he wasn’t “trained.” It certainly wouldn’t be the first Alice-in-Wonderland development out of Syria—or the Pentagon, for that matter.
So what happened to the international rebel of mystery, and where the hell is he?
A well-connected opposition figure in Aleppo says that Abu Zayd did indeed defect from Division 30—but not to Nusra. Rather, he did what he claimed to have done on Facebook and founded his own rebel group. Did he take any U.S.-supplied weapons with him? “It’s likely,” the oppositionist said.
According to Lister, the Brookings analyst, “if Abu Zayd has indeed defected—with or without U.S.-provided weapons and whether to al-Nusra or a new independent faction—this raises serious questions regarding the effectiveness of U.S. vetting procedures, the strategy behind the use of recruitment pool factions like Division 30, and the reliability of sending in trained and equipped foot soldiers potentially under the command of people of questionable repute.”
“Abu Zayd is someone who's been on the Aleppo scene since at least mid-2012, so acquiring an accurate assessment of his character and loyalties should have been a straightforward task. If his defection proves true, we need to seriously question those involved in practically designing this very expensive mission in Syria.”