Two months before Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq fell to the Islamic State last June, representatives of a Syrian rebel group called on the new U.S. special envoy for Syria with an outline of a plan to stop the extremists.
The group urged the U.S. to shift its focus to eastern Syria, where the Islamic State had emerged from Raqqa and other towns under its control and begun military operations to capture Deir el Zour province.
If Islamic State fighters seized the region’s oil and gas resources, they’d gain enough power to destroy the U.S.-backed rebel forces across northern Syria and link the swath of territory they held in Syria to that under their control in Iraq’s restive Anbar province
“Ultimately,” they said in a written memo, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State, “this will lead to an expansion of ISIS to reach neighboring countries as well . . . bringing it closer to establish the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
But the presentation April 17 to special State Department envoy Daniel Rubinstein was stillborn. The plea for immediate financial support for moderate forces in the east, backing for a rebel offensive in Aleppo that would divert Islamic State forces, and relief and medical supplies in the east went unanswered.
“Two or three million dollars would have changed the whole thing,” said a rebel official who was at the meeting and spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing a diplomatic exchange. “But we never heard back from them.”
That’s been the pattern. Moderate rebels, despite their battlefield setbacks, have unique assets, such as ground-level intelligence about the locations and movements of the Islamic State, a grasp of local politics and the drive to expel foreign-led forces from their country. But they’ve failed to gain traction with the Obama administration for their plans to fight the terror groups, and recently they’ve had trouble even getting a hearing.
The Islamic State didn’t follow quite the path that Syrian rebel officials had predicted, conquering Mosul before Deir el Zour. But the rebels were right that the extremists’ takeover of eastern Syria would speed the demise of the moderates by radicalizing the battlefield, opening the border with Iraq to free movement of arms and manpower, and providing the Islamic State with income from the sale of oil and gas.
Syrian opposition leaders doubt that the U.S.-led intervention can defeat the extremists.
“You cannot defeat terrorism by airstrikes alone,” said Hadi al Bahra, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “There must be a strategy in place.”
It should entail “full coordination” between U.S.-led airstrikes and ground forces, military pressure on the Bashar Assad regime and a commitment to enable moderates to establish a governing system in Syria, Bahra said.
“They listen,” he said of U.S. officials. “But they do not respond.”
The State Department had no comment on the April meeting. “We do not discuss details of our diplomatic contacts and outreach,” said spokesman Michael Lavallee.
The administration also has tried to choke off complaints from rebel officials and commanders, threatening a total aid cutoff if they’re quoted in the news media, rebel officials said. For this reason McClatchy isn’t naming its rebel sources. (A State Department official told McClatchy: “We have not heard of such a warning.”)
The meeting with Rubinstein, an intelligence expert who took over from former Ambassador Robert Ford in March, was only one of numerous such efforts.
In early May, the then-president of the opposition coalition, Ahmad Jarba, made a presentation about fighting the Islamic State to Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
Jarba emphasized that the battle for eastern Syria was “important to Iraq as well” and called for “real alliance . . . to fight this common cancer,” according to notes of the meeting made available to McClatchy.
“We need a strategic partnership to fight terrorism,” he said at the meeting. “We need logistical support and weapons to help the Free Syrian Army fight the Islamic State on the Iraqi border as well.” The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group of moderate forces fighting the Assad regime.
Lumpkin replied that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was supportive of their efforts against the Syrian regime and al Qaida, and predicted there would be many more meetings “as we work together to end this challenge to us both,” according to the visitors’ notes.
The Pentagon confirmed that the meeting took place May 8 and addressed the “threat of extremists groups” such as the Islamic State. It said Lumpkin had affirmed U.S. support for Jarba’s efforts to build the capacity of the moderate opposition.
But there was no further response, Syrian opposition officials said.
One attendee at the meeting expressed surprise that Lumpkin didn’t ask about rebel strategy.
The former chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army – a post stripped of most power because the U.S. disburses covert aid to individual rebel commanders rather than through a general staff – said he’d taken maps and a five-page outline of the first phase of a strategic plan with him, as well as a separate file for the battle against the Syrian regime. “But no one asked me for any of these,” Gen. Abdul-Ilah Albashir said.
Interviewed in late September, he told McClatchy the Americans had shown no interest and that he didn’t volunteer his plans: “They don’t even say hello to us. How can we share these things with them?”
On May 14, Jarba and other rebel officials spent a half-hour with President Barack Obama at the White House, but the Islamic State threat didn’t appear to be a priority. The White House said they reviewed the “risks posed by growing extremism in Syria and agreed on the need to counter terrorist groups on all sides of the conflict.”
Even after the fall of Mosul on June 10, the U.S. showed little interest in rebel plans. Nour Kholouf, a defected Syrian army general who served as Syrian Opposition Coalition defense minister until recently, said in early July that he’d developed plans to expel the Islamic State in stages from Syrian territory but he couldn’t get an appointment with American officials.
The most detailed strategy proposal of all was produced by one of the most effective of the rebel groups during the summer and given in August to U.S. and other intelligence officials in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. But it has yet to be presented formally to the rest of the U.S. government.
The 30-page plan, which centers on the use of mobile strike forces, proposes to clear the Islamic State from Syria within 12 to 18 months, rebel officials said. It calls for air, ammunition, logistics and other support, including intelligence.
It would require communications equipment to replace the walkie-talkies now obtained from Best Buy or Radio Shack. And it requires stepped-up support in the rebels’ battle to defend their control over much of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, from which they’d draw much of their manpower.
“It lays out city by city the force movements and the different tactics: which cities to enter first, how to enter each city, how to overcome the IS resistance at checkpoints and from suicide bombers,” said one rebel official.
Rebel officials said they hadn’t been able to get an appointment with U.S. defense officials.
One obvious candidate would be U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, who’s in charge of training and equipping a force of 5,000 Syrian rebels under a $500 million program.
But Nagata has yet to meet a commander of the Free Syrian Army, according to a knowledgeable rebel official. White House spokesman Alistair Baskey said Nagata and his team were “free to meet with members of the moderate Syrian opposition as they deem fit in order to advance their train and equip program.”
Has any such meeting taken place? The U.S. Central Command task force that deals with the new program “is taking a deliberate and careful approach toward direct engagement with members of the Syrian opposition,” said Maj. Tiffany Bowens, a spokeswoman.
The Central Command turned down McClatchy’s request for an interview with Nagata.
Though Rubinstein is one U.S. official who’s always available to meet, rebel officials said they saw him as a dead end. Rubinstein, whom several rebel officials have nicknamed “the complaint box,” listens to all and never responds, they said. “I think they empty it into the trash at the end of every day,” said one rebel official.
In November, after the Nusra Front, the al Qaida affiliate in Syria, pushed rebel forces out of their bases in Idlib province, Rubinstein gave a cool reception to rebel officials, according to three who met with him.
“It was an absolutely horrifying meeting,” said one attendee.
“How did it happen?” this official quoted Rubinstein as asking. “The tone was not one of ‘This is an emergency,’ but more, ‘How did you guys get beat?’ ” the official added.
The official said an aide to the envoy then asked them: “So what’s your strategy now? Is everything lost?” When told that the forces needed to regroup and obtain more resources, “No, that’s not a smart strategy,” the aide was quoted as saying. “Your strategy is to look at what your resources are and plan accordingly.”
With even the most effective fighting groups saying they’re receiving one-tenth the ammunition they need to sustain their two-front battle, the message seemed to be that the rebels should prepare to abandon the fight.
In December, the U.S. government cut salaries for a large part of the rebel forces, McClatchy has reported. The U.S. government has refused to comment.
The State Department turned down McClatchy’s request for an interview with Rubinstein.
“Unfortunately, the current strategy being implemented results in the increase of terrorism,” said Bahra, the businessman who heads the Syrian Opposition Coalition. “Some battalions are not being supplied with anything: food, clothing, fuel, what they need for survival. You are pushing them to be the prey to any extreme terrorist organization that offers assistance.”
He added: “But no one is listening.”
McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed to this article.