“Dogs!” the bearded fighters shouted.
“No to the Christian coalition!”
“Down with America and all the countries that side with America!”
These were just some of the choice epithets hurled at U.S.-backed Syrian forces—and U.S. advisors among them—as their convoy passed through the border town of al-Rai in Aleppo province earlier this month.
An unnamed man in a black mask threatened, “We are going to slaughter you. You will not have a place among us. We will kill those who are fighting with you.”
A video of this incident—which pitted the shouting partisans of an anti-Assad Islamist rebel group known as Ahrar al-Sharqiya against the passing convoy of a rival rebel brigade backed by the U.S.—was posted on YouTube on Sept. 17. It quickly got picked up in both English and Arabic language media. And it seemed to show the humiliation of the United States and its chosen paladins in the war against ISIS.
The BBC, no less, wrote that “Free Syrian Army rebels” appeared “to chase U.S. special forces out of the northern Syrian town of al-Rai, calling them ‘infidels’ in Arabic.”
There have been so many embarrassments for America’s proxy warfare in Syria, and this looked like another one. Given the overheated U.S. political season, and at a time when the Syrian war is sinking into ever deeper circles of hell, this smelled like a potent symbol of Obama administration failure.
But a fortnight later, both U.S. Central Command and a rebel eyewitness in al-Rai have told The Daily Beast that, far from being run out of Dodge, the U.S. commandos were hardly even aware of the demonstration, much less threatened by it. And further analysis suggests it may have been a set-up with backing from Washington’s ostensible allies, the Turks.
According to the eyewitness, the entire spectacle was staged to brand an American-backed Sunni Arab militia as hirelings of a despised superpower.
The Daily Beast has seen photographs showing U.S. Special Forces embedded in al-Rai with rebels belonging to the Pentagon-backed Liwa al-Mutasim.
“What I can tell you is these [American] forces did conduct a routine planned movement which followed a meeting with partnered force leadership in the area,” U.S. Army Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, told us. He noted that Ahrar al-Sharqiya never posed any violent or physical threat to those soldiers.
“On the second day of the offensive, in the morning, we passed by one of the main streets of al-Rai,” said the Free Syrian Army fighter who saw the protest and has asked to be called “Abu Faris” for this article.
“This was where the video you saw was filmed,” he said. “It showed a rally of rebels with a passionate hatred of the Americans. We tried to explain to them why the Americans were there. ‘We are fighting ISIS,’ we said. ‘They are our biggest enemy.’ But it didn’t work. There is absolutely no trust of the Americans now.”
That Washington is not popular in Aleppo province is a fact. But what was the scale of this event?
The video shows over a dozen Ahrar al-Sharqiya members taunting an inscrutable convoy—but not, curiously, any U.S. Special Forces or Turkish soldiers. In fact, Abu Faris said, “the Americans didn’t really know what was going on. They were removed from the rally. There was no violence or gunfire. Just shouting.”
After the protest, Mutasim returned to the scene and asked Ahrar al-Sharqiya to leave. They did. Al-Rai, as of this writing, is held by multiple U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebel groups, including Mutasim, whose role is providing logistical support to Turkish tanks and target-scouting for U.S. warplanes.
“Ahrar al-Sharqiya tried to get a lot of media attention,” Abu Faris told The Daily Beast. “And the Arab media helped them along. It’s just a game they’re playing.” And the central player has a very dubious history.
According to Charles Lister, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, Ahrar al-Sharqiya is a “front for the broader ambitions” of a man named Abu Mariya al-Qahtani,” a former ISIS operative from Mosul who joined the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra after it split from its former Iraq-based patron organization two years ago.
In August 2015, Qahtani was marginalized from Nusra, which recently rebranded itself, implausibly, as an ex-al Qaeda franchise. When Qahtani and his Nusra cohort were forced out of the southeastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, which is now largely in ISIS hands, “he fled south and allegedly sent some of his ‘opposition’ followers north to embed themselves in Aleppo dynamics,” according to Lister.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya, then, is more accurately described as a jihadist spinoff than a moderate or mainstream Free Syrian Army faction.
Into this confusing morass of affiliations and multiple loyalties stalks the Obama administration, which, as Abu Faris put it, faces an inordinate amount of “hatred” in northern Syria from jihadist and non-jihadist Sunni Arabs owing to its empowerment of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG.
The YPG is a wholly own subsidiary of the Democratic Union Party, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a blacklisted terrorist organization, according to the United States itself (which has chosen to ignore this awkward fact in the war against ISIS).
“There is unlimited [U.S.] support to the Kurds against the Arabs and Turkmen of Aleppo,” said Abu Faris.
Lately, the YPG militias have fought under the broader and supposedly more ethnically integrated banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, although Kurdish political predominance and numerical superiority within that outfit remains.
All of which makes Liwa al-Mutasim, one of the few Sunni Arab proxies of the United States, widely perceived by Syrian revolutionaries as the local equivalent of Uncle Toms. The brigade was recently made the subject of a death sentence fatwah by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. And long before that, it had a tempestuous relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense, as The Daily Beast has chronicled in detail.
Eighteen months ago, Mutasim’s then-future political director Mustafa Sejari told The Daily Beast that he and about 1,000 loyalists were ready to withdraw their application from the Pentagon’s train and equip program owing to the contractual condition that any skills or armaments they might receive would only be used in the coalition war against ISIS, and not against the regime of Bashar al-Assad or his manifold, Iranian-built proxies.
Then came news that the faction was facing imminent overrun by ISIS, which had besieged the Aleppine town of Marea in June, prompting CENTCOM to airdrop ammunition and materiel to an Arab proxy for the first time since Operation Inherent Resolve, as it’s called, got underway. That resupply proved decisive, and Mutasim was able to fend off an advancing column of around 1,000 ISIS jihadists, plus sack a few more ISIS-held villages in Aleppo.
Finally, Sejari told The Daily Beast that as a result of middling and intermittent American backing even after the breaking of the Marea siege, Mutasim was considering an offer made by the Russian Defense Ministry—likely via Turkish intermediaries—to switch sides in the conflict and become an asset of Moscow. That interview caused the brigade no small amount of aggravation from both anti-Assad rebels and activists, who assailed it as traitorous in opposition media circles. It also led to a moratorium on U.S. resupplies and salary payments to Mutasim’s vetted conscripts, according to brigade insiders.
Now, however, following Turkey’s unannounced invasion of northern Syria a month ago, which apparently blind-sided Washington, the Obama administration is evidently looking to rehabilitate its disillusioned counterinsurgents. The hope is that they will partner with Turkey, a wary and often-antagonistic NATO ally, fresh off a near-run coup attempt.
So far, Turkish soldiers, abetted by various rebel groups, have cleared about 90 kilometers of Syrian borderland, expelling the landlords of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and depriving ISIS of its transnational land crossing. And the Turks are poised to press farther into southern Syria in order to establish a “safe zone” for rebel rule, which not coincidentally would also rob the Kurds of the SDF of their capacity to construct their own semi-autonomous statelet, known in Kurdish as “Rojava.”
Marginalized Arab allies, such as Mutasim, are therefore an indispensable credibility marker—one might uncharitably call them a fig leaf—for U.S. efforts to curry favor with the Turks and ensure that its march on ISIS continues unabated, particularly in the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election in November.
It is widely assumed that President Barack Obama is looking to deliver a major hammer blow to the jihadist menace fanned out across two countries in the region before Americans go to the polls and his presidency is rendered lame-duck.
A source within Mutasim told The Daily Beast that salaries were paid again for the first time on Aug. 29, contingent on the rebels’ participation in clearing an ISIS-held village in Aleppo called Tal Alin. Mutasim lost 10 fighters in that operation, including its chief battalion commander, Abu Ali. The battle for Tal Alin ended on Aug. 26; three days before the U.S. reactivated payment to Mutasim fighters, though the same source said that new stocks of ammunition have yet to arrive.
At times baited or strung along by Washington, as U.S. needs must, still Mutasim faces frailty within and hostility without.
Charles Lister, the Syria watcher, noted that Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which has headquartered itself in the Aleppo border town of Azaz, was one of the few “semi-Nusra” units to remain in the north after Nusra as a whole withdrew in 2015, in protest against impending Turkish plans to establish a safe zone.
Their fitful presence in al-Rai therefore strongly suggests that Ahrar al-Shariqiya “has some level of a supportive relationship with Turkey,” Lister said, as all rebel factions enjoined in Operations Euphrates Shield are, in effect, Turkish proxies.
As if to demonstrate the point in word and deed, a similarly named and closely linked Salafist faction, powerful Ahrar al-Sham, which has often walked a knife-edge between mainstream rebels and al Qaeda, last week issued a fatwah authorizing opposition forces to collaborate with Turkey’s ongoing military campaign—a dispensation that Nusra’s newly formed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has explicitly repudiated.
And while there is no evidence that Ankara might be behind Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s provocation against U.S. forces in al-Rai, which can have been wholly spontaneous and organized by disgruntled jihadists, it would not be the first time since Turkey’s incursion into Aleppo put its own assets dangerously at odds with America’s. When Mutasim, for instance, was in extremity in Marea three months ago, it was actually besieged on two sides: by ISIS from the east, and by the SDF from the west, where Kurdish fighters would not permit ground access, necessitating the airdropped U.S. supplies. Since then, the SDF has fought repeatedly with rebels seconded for Euphrates Shield lead. But this would be the first time that Turkish assets have directly threatened to kill American soldiers.
“Euphrates Shield is a Turkish-led operation and any questions regarding this operation or who they may or may not be partnering with should be directed to the Turkish government,” Maj. Jacques emailed The Daily Beast in response to that question. “However, The United States will remain closely engaged with Turkey, our NATO ally, and with the [Kurdish-dominant Syrian Democratic Forces] and other coalition-supported actors on the ground in Syria to facilitate de-confliction and unity of effort.”
An advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. But the CENTCOM spokesman’s sanguine appraisal belies the animosity that still exists between Ankara and Washington.
Erdoğan is still smarting from the abortive coup against him in July, allegedly conceived and waged by loyalists of U.S.-based Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition and international isolation is not only sought by Ankara but constituted a main plank of Erdoğan’s address Tuesday at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Even before the failed coup, Obama described Erdoğan—who has clamped down on press freedoms and civil society over his decade-long reign and is now engaged in a paranoid dragnet against suspected “Gülenists” in all agencies of the Turkish government—as a “failure and an authoritarian,” in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama’s appraisal stood in marked contrast to his earlier embrace of the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, during the former’s first term in office, as his favorite foreign leader.
Erdoğan has since slighted Obama in kind.
Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria was mounted without so much as a phone call to the White House, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, and its strategic purpose was not only to combat ISIS but to preempt Kurdish designs on establishing a contiguous fiefdom on the country’s southern doorstep, an act which Erdoğan and whatever remains of his military and security establishment consider as much a terrorist threat as the so-called caliphate.
The Anatolian goal is to snare the United States in a joint campaign against both Kurdish and ISIS expansionism in northern Syria. “Turkey is looking for this ‘safe zone’ to be a haven for acceptable opposition actors,” Lister said. “There’s talk of eventually sending in the Syrian Opposition Coalition” the U.S.- and Turkish-recognized representative of the Syrian people, “and interim government figures to establish a de facto political opposition presence in the countryside.”
The next target of Euphrates Shield is said to be al-Bab, the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Aleppo and also the headquarters of its amn al-kharjee, or foreign intelligence branch, responsible for overseeing all acts of overseas terrorism including the Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul massacres. If Turkey can dismember the Kurdish statelet and install friendly Arabs and Turkmen to govern a buffer zone, it will have scored two national security victories in one campaign.
“In a sense, this is proving to be a test of mainstream opposition forces,” Lister said. “Who’s willing to put aside their anger at the U.S. and its perceived failure to protect the revolution, for the sake of short-to-medium term objectives. It’s a gamble, but there’s much to be gained if this all works out.”
And much to be lost if it doesn’t.