Rebel cooperation in Syrian town shows challenge of isolating Islamists

A member of the Nasr Brigade, a Syrian rebel group, inspects a newly arrived rocket propelled grenade launcher in Kfar Nbouda, Syria
A member of the Nasr Brigade, a Syrian rebel group, inspects a newly arrived rocket propelled grenade launcher in Kfar Nbouda, Syria MCT

Sophisticated new weapons now in the hands of rebels in north-central Syria underscore how difficult it will be, once more lethal aid begins to arrive, to keep those weapons from Islamist extremists who’ve become key to rebel military advances throughout the country.

Rebels who belong to the Victory Brigade – a group whose alliance with the Hama provincial military council makes it acceptable to U.S. officials who are deciding where aid should go – were giddy as they showed off their new weapons this week. They included Russian-made RPG-27s – shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades capable of piercing the armor on the Syrian military’s most advanced tanks – and RG6 grenade launchers, another Russian-designed weapon, this one capable of spewing projectiles that explode on contact.

But the brigade doesn’t fight alone, and a video that another rebel group, the Islamist Ahrar al Sham, posted to YouTube this month showed fighters using the same kinds of weapons in an assault that was coordinated with the Victory Brigade.

“Of course they share their weapons with us,” said Ali Ankir, a spokesman for Ahrar al Sham. “We fight together.”

Indeed, Victory closely coordinated its offensive in December to seize the town of Kfar Nbouda from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad not just with Sham, but also with fighters from the Nusra Front, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization aligned with al Qaida in Iraq. Nusra and Sham share the goal of establishing an Islamist state in a post-Assad Syria, and unlike Victory they don’t recognize the authority of the Hama military council.

Victory rebels were cagey about how they’d gotten the new weapons. “We have our ways,” said Ahmed Darwish, a brigade leader. The timing of the weapons’ arrival suggests they were part of a recently publicized shipment brokered by Saudi Arabia from Croatia. The RG6 rounds the rebels displayed this week were manufactured in Serbia.

The new weapons are a far cry from the light weapons the rebels in this part of Syria possessed when the largely peaceful uprising against the Assad regime became violent in the spring and summer of 2011. But as the rebels’ backers step up military and other aid, the battle for this city reveals the difficulty of controlling which of the myriad rebel groups take possession of that aid.

The provincial military council with which Darwish’s group is allied, along with similar councils formed in each of Syria’s 14 provinces, nominally answers to Salim Idriss, a defected general who’s the commander of the Supreme Military Command, which is based in Bab al Hawa, just inside Syria’s northern border with Turkey. It’s the group that Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday would begin receiving food and nonlethal aid directly from the United States.

But the military command isn’t the only source of Victory’s weapons, Darwish said. The group also procures weapons on the black market, and, Darwish said, has private backers in Qatar who’ve also supplied weapons and money. One commander from the group is in Libya attempting to secure funding for weapons from backers there.

The U.S. government has expressed concern that backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar were empowering rebel groups who call for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, as opposed to those who envision elections after Assad is deposed.

But it’s difficult here to see a difference between the groups. For example, Victory and Sham maintained a joint operations center during recent fighting. On a recent day, the local commanders of Sham, Victory and a third rebel faction, the Farouq Brigade, were spotted together in the same car; Farouq also doesn’t recognize the authority of the Hama military council.

On repeated visits to Kfar Nbouda, this reporter has seen the groups share weapons and expertise. Last June, one bomb maker was providing munitions to various fighting groups, and a video that Sham posted to YouTube on Feb. 17 by clearly shows fighters using RPG-27s and RG6 grenade launchers, the same type of weapon Darwish bragged about receiving in recent weeks.

They’re not housed together but it’s not odd to see fighters from each organization visiting one another’s quarters.

Asked whether Sham also had the sophisticated weapons that Darwish was showing off this week, Ankir, Sham’s spokesman, said, “Yes, we do, and we have others.”

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