Critics of President Obama’s latest pledge to arm the moderate Syrian rebels are trumpeting a report of a supposed deal between the opposition forces and ISIS, but Syrian opposition leaders are fighting back with what they say is overwhelming evidence that no truce exists.
The September 12 Agence France-Presse report stating that that moderate and Islamic rebel brigades in the southern Damascus suburbs had signed a “non-aggression” pact to focus efforts on fighting the Assad regime are not only false but are easily disproved by evidence that ISIS and the moderate rebels are still fighting each other in that region, according to rebel commanders on the ground and activists supporting the Syrian opposition.
“The only report we have received on anything resembling a ceasefire was that ISIS and Sons of Golan, an FSA brigade outside Damascus, halted fighting for 24 hours to collect bodies before hostilities resumed. However, this report also confirms that there is substantial fighting between the two groups that is leading to fatalities,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, director of government relations for the Syrian American Council, a Washington NGO that works with the Syrian opposition and the FSA. “It is fantastical to think that rebels outside Damascus would expend lives and resources to rout ISIS from the Damascus suburbs; besiege the group for over a month; wait until two days after Obama announces he will aid the rebels to fights ISIS; and then sign a deal with ISIS (the first ever) while the group was besieged in its last holdout.”
The Syrian American Council collected public statements from several of the rebel commanders on the ground near Hajar al-Aswad, the town where the supposed ceasefire was reported to take place. All of the rebel leaders on the ground issued statements to deny the report, according to the group.
“The threat of ISIS is omnipresent across Northern Idlib and is a threat to the Syrian people, the region, and the international community at large,” said Jamal Maarouf, the head of the FSA-linked Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, in a statement. “SRF remains committed to combating the terrorist threat of ISIS wherever it may be found in order to liberate the Syrian people from all threats, whether foreign or domestic.”
One YouTube video shows Maarouf talking to his troops and repeating his declaration of war against ISIS. The Syrian American Council said the video was shot three days before the purported truce with the terror group. Other videos sent by the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front to the Syrian American Council purport to show Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front brigades fighting against ISIS in Hajar al-Aswad in July.
The joint regional command center for opposition groups in that area is led by Jaish al-Islam, known in English as the Islamic Front, a coalition of fighting rebel groups that are not supported by the United States but often fight alongside the FSA against ISIS and the Assad regime.
Islamic Front spokesman Islam Alloush released a statement Monday saying categorically that the Islamic Front did not and will not sign on to any truce or non-aggression pact with ISIS.
“This truce that [ISIS] is attempting to establish can serve only to temporarily halt the fight, allowing them to recover and return to the treacherous and treasonous behavior we have grown accustomed to,” he said. “We also call on our fellow fighters not to fall for the policies of tricksters and traitors like [ISIS], because stopping the fight against them—even for a few hours—provides them a chance to lick their wounds.”
The denials from Syrian opposition leaders are not new; there were attempts to dispute the initial ceasefire report over the weekend. But lawmakers continued to regurgitate the truce reports Monday, especially those who opposing arming any Syrian rebels, raising the level of concern both inside the administration and on Capitol Hill.
“I would say one insightful piece of news from the last week is, some of the moderate rebels, so-called moderate rebels have now signed a cease-fire with ISIS,” Sen. Rand Paul said on CBS Monday morning. “So really their enemy is really Assad. They don’t really care what ISIS does.”
Paul has long opposed arming any Syrian opposition groups and has conflated the moderate opposition groups with ISIS and al Qaeda for over a year.
Oubai Shahbandar, communications adviser for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast that the Kentucky senator simply doesn’t have his facts straight and is muddying the debate over working with the opposition by misleading the American public.
“The Free Syrian Army has been fighting ISIS since January and continues to do so at great cost and risk. Thousands of Syrian freedom fighters have died fighting this terrorist threat,” he said. “Sen. Paul says it's a ‘mistake’ to arm vetted Syrian rebels, but the real mistake is to idly stand by as these moderates hold the line against international terrorist forces, while Assad drops thousand-pound barrel bombs on bakeries, apartment buildings, and schools.”
Paul did get one thing right: The moderate rebels do see Assad as their main target and ISIS as an obstacle toward the real goal of toppling the regime. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said September 12 that the rebels should be armed but that they will definitely use those arms to fight Assad first and foremost.
“To say they are not there, that there isn’t much to work with, that’s just completely wrong. It’s bad analysis,” Ford told the Center for American Progress. “That said, their No. 1 priority is not the Islamic State…Their priority is not the Islamic State, it is the Bashar al-Assad regime. We need to know that going in.”