U.S.-backed Syrian Rebels Surrender to al-Qaeda

The U.S. and Coalition nation’s effort to destroy the Islamic State in Syria took another hit over the weekend. The moderate rebels in Syria that the U.S. has been arming and training to fight Islamic State, aka ISIS or ISIL jihadists have surrendered to al-Qaeda. Two of the main rebel groups receiving weapons and subsequent training from the U.S. and other coalition nations, known as the Harakat Hazm (Hazm Movement) and the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) were overrun and surrendered to al-Qaeda forces in northern Syria. The U.S. was depending on them to become part of a ground force that would attack the Islamic State or ISIS/ISIL terror Army in Syria and Iraq.

For close to a year, the Hazm movement and the SRF had been receiving heavy weapons from the U.S.-led coalition, including the BM-21 GRAD multiple launch rocket system and TOW anti-tank missiles. However, over the weekend, first on Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered its military bases and weapons supplies to al-Qaeda in Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, aka the al-Nusra Front, when the al-Nusra fighters stormed villages Harakat Hazm controlled in Syria’s northern Idlib province.

This development came a day after al-Nusra dealt a death blow to the SRF, storming and capturing the town of Deir Sinbal, and also the hometown of the SRF group's commander. The attack forced the group to surrender after it had already lost its territory in western Syria near Hama to al-Qaeda. As a movement, SRF is effectively finished. The collapse of the SRF and attacks on and capitulation of Harakat Hazm have dramatically weakened the presence of moderate rebel fighting groups in Syria, which, after nearly four years of conflict is increasingly becoming a battle ground between the Syria’s Assad regime and multi- jihadist organizations -- al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra, ISIS/ISIL, as well as Hizb’allah, backed and supported by Syria and Iran.

U.S.-supplied weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda is a realization of a nightmare. It was not immediately clear if the U.S. supplied TOW missiles were among the stockpile surrendered to al-Nusra on Saturday. But several al-Nusra members were on various social-media sites and announced triumphantly that they had captured the sophisticated weapons.  

In Aleppo, Syria, where Harakat Hazm also maintains a presence, the group, while it has survived, was forced to sign a ceasefire agreement with Jabhat al-Nusra, and give up weapons and some of their checkpoints to al-Nusra. Al-Nusra also circulated the ceasefire document on social media, as well.

The loss of a group that had been held up to the international media as being exemplary of the Obama Administrations efforts in Syria and Iraq is a humiliating blow at the time that the U.S. is increasing its military involvement in the region to counter ISIL/ISIS, with both air strikes and training of the local rebels.

Al-Nusra, according to reports, attacked the two groups in part because of personal skirmishes between the organizations, because of their ambition to build an Islamic emirate that rivals that of ISIS/ISIL, and in part because they feared that the groups' closeness to the U.S. would pose a threat to al-Qaeda’s efforts in Syria.

While the U.S. has been extremely cautious in how it supplies weapons to Syrian rebels in the civil war, it is that caution that has hampered efforts by Syria's moderate rebels, and ultimately resulted in dominance of well-funded jihadist groups. President Obama recently announced a new program, run by the U.S., Turkey and other allies to train and equip 5000 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS/ISIL. However, rigorous procedures to vet Syrian candidates for the arming and training programs mean it will take many months before military training can get under way, and perhaps up to one year, if not more, before they have a force capable of fighting effectively against ISIS/ISIS jihadists.

In October 2014, the U.S., State Department said the U.S. would move quickly to initiate the program by sourcing fighters from groups the U.S. had already worked with, including Harakat Hazm and SRF, but that it would still be months before the initial program got under way. There have been about 16 groups, with Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front noted as being the most promising. Events over the weekend mean that the training process is likely to take even longer, if it progresses at all. In the meantime, in addition to a lack of training, scarce weapons supplies have rendered other so-called moderate groups on the ground in Syria largely irrelevant.

Past efforts to build a fighting force on the ground that were originally focused on fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapsed in skirmishes between the various rebels over the very limited weapons supplies. The effort was also hampered by nations backing the opposition, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who would circumvent the military council established to supply arms and instead directly back the rebel groups they believed were most loyal to them, creating further divisions.

While these efforts have since been revamped with new operations coordination centers in Turkey to manage the northern areas of Syria, Jordan, and in the south, including the critical suburbs of Damascus, it will take time. The operational coordination centers are manned by representatives from Turkey, the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and perhaps Qatar, which was initially thrown out over reports that it had been helping al-Nusra, but is about to rejoin the effort.

Strategically, in the face of infighting between rebel groups, and a weakened moderate opposition, the Syrian regime, heavily backed by Russia and Iran, has and will continue to be able to bombard territory and maintain regional control -- including key civilian neighborhoods -- with impunity. It also means that any fighters trained by the U.S. and coalition nations to fight ISIS/ISIL will be battling both al-Qaeda and ISI/ISIL backed jihadists, whilst also contending with attacks by the Syrian regime -- it has been and continues to be, as I have been referring to it “a multi-tiered/multi-dimensional” conflict and challenge. 

As for the future strategic and operational plans, with the essential demise of two of the most prominent groups of the U.S.-led efforts in Syria, follow-on efforts to cultivate, train and deploy a capable moderate fighting force to take on ISIS/ISIL in theory may have worked, but in reality appears to be a flawed strategy that was really too little, and too late.

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel and career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer . He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terrorism from 2004-2007.  He is a former White House National Security Council staffer, and former Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council (think tank), in Washington, DC. 

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