United States officials conceded Thursday that there is little the they could do in Syria to protect CIA-vetted rebels, the very people the American government trained and armed, who are now coming under fire from Russian airstrikes.
The military isn’t willing to intervene on behalf of the rebels, given the potentially disastrous consequences of an escalation with Russian forces, U.S. defense officials and top lawmakers told The Daily Beast. No one wants to accidentally touch off a showdown between superpowers.
“We are not going to shoot Russian airplanes. We are not going to hit their airfields [in Syria]. And we are not going to equip [rebels] with MANPADs,” one U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast, using the acronym for shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles. Previous programs to hand out those weapons have sometimes gone disastrously wrong.
The rebels attacked by Russian forces on Wednesday and Thursday were in western Syria, alongside al Qaeda affiliates and far from any ISIS positions. That suggests the rebels were not there to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as the Obama administration called the top priority. Instead, they were battling the Assad regime as part of a still-active CIA program for rebels which has run in tandem with the disastrous and now-defunct train and equip Pentagon program.
As strange as it sounds, the U.S. actually has two separate proxies in Syria. While American spies cooperate with their regional counterparts to covertly provide training, weapons, and ammunition to vetted factions of Free Syrian Army still battling the Syrian Army or pro-Assad militias, the Department of Defense has attempted to train up a counterterrorism strike force to hunt and kill ISIS, known as the New Syrian Forces. The two don’t necessarily work at cross-purposes; in fact, they’re meant to complement each other.
The Obama administration has emphasized that its main fight is against ISIS, but since 2011 it has been calling for Assad’s negotiated “transition” from power. The administration realizes that it’s in a much stronger position to facilitate that transition if it underwrites the application of mild to moderate military pressure on Damascus—not enough to topple the regime but enough to keep it on the defensive. Russia, unsurprisingly, has decided to rob the U.S. of that leverage by attacking the anti-regime rebels. And Putin has calculated, with good reason, that the U.S. will do little to nothing to defend these proxies from Russian bombs.
“We don’t believe that [Russia] struck [ISIS] targets. So that is a problem,” Army Col. Steven Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic militants, explained to reporters Thursday.
But if ISIS was not in the area, why were U.S. vetted fighters there, hundreds of miles away from ISIS strongholds and in the same garrison as al Qaeda affiliates?
“This should give us a strong impetus to clarify our strategy, if not for the rest of the world, then at least for ourselves,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s a mess. It’s been a mess for a long time but it is becoming an increasingly risky mess.”
The CIA-trained fighters were located alongside members of Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate and a longstanding enemy of the U.S. (Members of a veteran al Qaeda unit called the Khorasan Group were living with al Nusra fighters last year and plotting ways to sneak explosives onto airplanes, U.S. intelligence officials have said.)
The rebels who were attacked are part of a CIA-trained group of hundreds of fighters that is different from the handful of forces that have been trained and put on the battlefield by the U.S. military.
Throughout the military’s own training effort, U.S. officials vowed to come the rescue of their fighters. Those promises were key to recruiting rebels who would then fight ISIS, knowing they could count on U.S. help.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said, “I think we have an obligation to help them when we equip them,” referring to U.S. military-trained forces, but never said how.
Later that month, the U.S. did just that. Roughly 20 U.S.-trained fighters came under attack while at their headquarters, killing five of the rebels. During the fighting, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes.
But Wednesday’s Russian airstrike was the first known instance in which the U.S. confronted such questions about CIA-vetted fighters. U.S. officials were largely silent on what damage the Russians had done, with some privately saying they suspected the Russians had attacked the fighters in part to embarrass the United States.
The rebels themselves, however, were outspoken, and left little doubt that they’d been deliberately targeted by Russian forces trying to keep Assad in power.
Russian forces launched at least eight airstrikes Wednesday and another 30 on Thursday, largely in the western Syrian province of Homs.
The Russian Air Force has struck al-Lataminah in northern Hama three times, targeting the Free Syrian Army’s Tajammu al-Aaza, a rebel group backed by the CIA and a rare recipient of U.S.-provided TOW anti-tank missiles.
“The attack [Wednesday] targeted the main headquarters of Tajammu al-Aaza,” Major Jamil al-Saleh, once a defector from the Syrian Arab Army and now the commander of the rebel brigade, told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
“There were two airstrikes yesterday, then two more last night, and two this morning. So far, we have 14 wounded fighters but no fatalities,” al-Saleh said. He said four Russian aircraft flew in formation and conducted five circular sweeps over northern Hama before striking.
“We thought these were drones at first, because drones have been hovering over the area for a week now,” he said. “There was actually one drone ahead of the jets, which we knew were Russian because they were white and flying at higher altitudes than the regime’s planes.”
“We have been fighting for four years in north Hama,” al-Saleh said, “and there is nothing called Daesh or ISIS in this area. The closest ISIS position from us is 100 kilometers.”
Also struck Wednesday was a Free Syrian Army-aligned group, the Homs Liberation Movement. The outfit’s commander, Captain Iyad al-Dik—like al-Saleh, a defector from Assad’s military and a rebel since 2012—was killed. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Homs Liberation Movement, “like a lot of the battle hardened opposition remaining in Homs, is an Islamist brigade that is a military ally of Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.”
Many civilians were reportedly killed in Homs. Meduza, a Russian news portal affiliated with the anti-Putin opposition, interviewed a local resident named Firas al Said, a native of the Talbiseh town struck yesterday.
“They released eight rockets,” he said. “These strikes were made on civilian quarters of the city. As a result of the strikes, 16 civilians were killed. Three of them were children, two were women.”
The Russians may have also targeted the Damascus suburb of Daraya, according to the Southern Front, a 30,000-strong anti-Assad umbrella group backed by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate and the CIA.
Isam el Rayyes, the Amman-based spokesman for the Southern Front, yesterday said the rebels were fighting Assad’s military in the southwest governorate of Quneitra, trying to establish a corridor into the Western Ghouta district of Damascus. Then the jets came.
“These strikes were different from before,” el Rayyes told The Daily Beast. “There were special rockets used and the explosions were huge. Syrian aircraft can’t target anything with 100 percent accuracy, but this hit was very accurate. Clearly there were professionals flying those planes, although we can’t say for sure if it was the Russians.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has denied that its jets bombed Homs and has called U.S. confirmation of those attacks “part of the information war” against Moscow. Yesterday, as The Daily Beast reported, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria estimated that as many as 36 people were killed in the province from Russian sorties.
In response, there may not be much that the U.S. military can do.
To even threaten to take action against Russian forces now would be perilous as the U.S. has opened talks with Russia about “deconfliction,” referring to crafting military methods to protect each country’s pilots and forces on the ground from being struck. On Thursday, Pentagon officials held an hour-long video conference call with their Russian counterparts in what Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook called “initial steps.”
Cook repeatedly refused to answer whether the U.S. would come to the aid of either CIA-vetted or U.S. military-trained Syrian rebels, calling the prospects of Russian airstrikes “hypothetical,” even after other government officials had confirmed such attacks a day earlier and reports from rebels made clear what was happening.
And if Russia eliminates the rebel groups fighting Assad, that potentially leaves Syria with only two outcomes: a country dominated by ISIS or by Assad.
On Capitol Hill lawmakers were dumbfounded about how to proceed under the current circumstances. Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-in-command among Senate Democrats, has long favored the creation of a U.S.-backed “safe zone” in Syria. But with Russia now conducting airstrikes in the region, there was little appetite for confrontation.
“We’ve got to continue this conversation with the Russians in terms of deconflicting,” Durbin told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to escalate the situation… until we have more information and a report back from the administration from that effort.”
While there was plenty of criticism from the Republican side, there were no ideas on how the U.S. could proceed—Republicans said that the Obama administration had missed opportunities to help bring the long Syrian civil war to a close.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker. “We are getting to a place where there are very little, if any, options left. This administration has frittered away most opportunities—to the point that I know that they’re not going to be in direct conflict with Russia, and Russia knows that.”
Added Sen. Jim Inhofe, previously the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The answer is not ‘Go after Russia and start World War III.’ I just don’t know what the [solution is]—that’s what we’re working on now.”
—with additional reporting by Shane Harris