GAZIANTEP, Turkey — North of Aleppo, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army is battling the Islamic State terror group over a vital supply route.
In Washington, the Obama administration is groping for a strategy to deal with a force that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says is “beyond anything we have ever seen.”
But in this south Turkish city, in the office of the chief of staff of the rebel force, not much is astir, and the atmosphere is funereal.
This should be the hour of coordination and brainstorming between the U.S.., its allies in Europe and the Middle East and the leadership of the appointed western-backed fighters. But according to Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, the FSA’s embittered chief of staff, they just aren’t talking.
Since December, when Islamist fighters overran the arms warehouses of the moderate rebel group. the covert U.S. program has been working directly with individual commanders, leaving the leadership structure here high and dry. Some 12 to 14 commanders receive military and non-lethal aid this way in northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups are recipients in southern Syria, al Bashir said. They report to the CIA.
“The leadership of the FSA is American,” says the veteran officer, who defected from the Syrian army two years ago and won respect for leading rebel forces in southern Syria. “The Americans are completely marginalizing the military staff. Not even non-lethal aid comes through this office.”
U.S. officials acknowledge the dysfunction, but blame al Bashir for keeping too low a profile among commanders and for not fully staffing his office. They say his title is a “business card.” Yet the failure to establish a good working relationship also reflects an ambivalence within the U.S. government that goes straight to the top.
President Barack Obama received the opposition leadership in May, and renewed his commitment to the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But in an interview last month, he disparaged the fighters as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth” and said it was a “fantasy” that they could overthrow Assad.
The issue of who hands out the weapons and funds provided by the FSA’s international backers isn’t just a turf battle between the Syrian opposition military leadership and the CIA, which runs the covert supply and training program.
According to al Bashir, the lack of communication and the CIA’s “tactical” approach to Syria prevented a timely response when the Islamic State, using weapons looted from Iraqi bases, rampaged through eastern Syria in July and seized almost the entire region bordering Iraq. One commander told McClatchy that 2,000 rebel troops were killed, along with hundreds of civilians in the fighting. Another 750 members of the Shueitat tribe were executed last month after a tribal revolt against the extremists, al Bashir said.
He said that if military aid had been distributed through the institution of the rebel Supreme Military Council, which stays in touch with all fighting fronts in the country, “the situation would be different. Terrorism and Daash” _ a pejorative for the Islamic State _ “would not have spread as they have today. “
“So I put the responsibility on the Americans for the spread of terrorism now on a larger scale than before,” he said. “And now the Americans are trying to combat terrorism and forget the regime at a time the regime itself is the source of this terrorism.”
A senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record said the U.S. “will never forget about the atrocities carried out by the regime. The food, medical supplies and equipment we provide to the Free Syrian Army is sustaining the fight against the regime every day.”
But al Bashir said he doesn’t know what the American strategy is.
“You have to ask them. They are not contacting me,” he said, but that he thought the U.S. aim was tactical _ to counter the Islamic state _ and not the strategic goal of toppling the Assad regime, which allowed the Islamic State to plant its roots on Syrian soil.
In Reyhanli, some 120 miles southeast of here, close to the main crossing into Syria, FSA commanders tell a different story. About a dozen Free Syrian Army commanders of fighters, many in groups larger than 2,000, are receiving weapons and material aid from the U.S. and other supportive groups. They’ve sent forces into Ikhtrin, north of Aleppo, to reinforce the positions of the FSA fighters now in intense battle against the Islamic State.
Col. Jamil Radoon, also a defected Syrian army officer, is based in Hama province, but has 2,400 fighters on different front lines throughout the country.
(Asked about Obama’s put-down of the rebel force, Radoon said that his fighters are “country people,” but more than half are defected government troops and three-quarters have high school or college degrees. Among the 2,400 are 16 doctors, three pharmacists and an unknown number of farmers. They are led by 38 defected officers.)
Troops reporting to him have received military training outside Syria _ Frontline, the PBS documentary series, has reported that the facility is in Qatar _ and use U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles with a very high kill rate, Radoon said. And with help from supporting groups in more than 100 countries, he’s able to pay fighters a salary of $150 a month.
“Confrontation,” Radoon said, was the only way to deal with the Islamic State.
Radoon doesn’t report to the staff of the Syrian Supreme Military Council, but to the Americans and other “friends of Syria” in the Military Operations Command established in Reyhanli. He says he works with the rebel military leaders, but notes those groups never regained control of the border posts they lost in December. The arrangement doesn’t appear to lend itself to developing a clear, cohesive strategy.
“If we need any military advice or information, (the U.S. and supporters) offer it,” said Capt. Iyad Shamsi, a defected officer whose Asala and Tanmiah Front has 2,400 troops scattered around the country. “This enables us to be more professional. The most important thing is that they provide training.”
U.S. officials won’t say how many Syrian rebels they’ve trained, or even how many Syrian rebels they’re helping to equip. But extrapolating from the size of the units claimed by two commanders and the U.S. official’s comment that some are smaller and some larger, it appears that as many as 40,000 rebels are now receiving support from the U.S. and other supportive groups.
Al Bashir said 25,000 fighters are in both the north and south, while Nour Kholouf, the acting defense minister in the transitional government, speaks of 100,000 FSA fighters, only half of them armed.
“I understand why al Bashir doesn’t like” the current arrangement, the senior State Department official told McClatchy. “He doesn’t get the authority and credibility from the commanders that he would have gotten if he had food and medical supplies and equipment to distribute...We recognize that that’s not perfect from his point of view. It is perfect if what we’re trying to accomplish is to get equipment to the commanders rather than risk losing the stuff. We haven’t lost anything since we started doing business differently.”
Another major risk of the current distribution system is that it tends to produce warlords, each responsible for a small part of the country, and in rivalry with each other. The U.S. official called that a “valid concern,” but said that’s why it’s important for the anti-Assad forces to develop a better command structure.
Efforts are under way now to give the transitional government a new high profile, steps that if endorsed by the White House, could heal the breach and establish the nucleus of an American policy for Syria. The newly elected head of the Syrian opposition leadership, Hadi al Bahra, has proposed moving the ministries of the transitional government into Syria.
“We are working on the execution of our plans. We are discussing all the possibilities with our friends,” Bahra told McClatchy, which could include restructuring the military leadership and distributing foreign-donated arms through it.
Going “back to Syria,” as he calls the plan, carries major implications for U.S. policy. If air cover is not provided by the United States and its allies, or if the U.S. continues to block providing air defense to the rebel government _ which its leadership pleaded for at every stop in Washington, including the meeting with the president _ they will be targets for Assad’s air force. It has employed missiles, artillery and barrel-bombs _ barrels loaded with explosives and shrapnel _ to attack the towns and cities under rebel control.
“For sure, we will not risk the life of the people,” said Bahra, “but we will be sharing the same risk as they have.”
U.S. officials agree that the exile leadership cannot move to Syria without air defense.
“They’re convinced they can’t. I’m not going to disagree,” said the senior U.S. official. “I never heard our side disagree.”