If abandoned by US, Syrian ‘moderates’ may get in bed with jihadists, report warns
Armed groups in Syria previously vetted by the US to receive weapons through CIA channels may join jihadist forces if the Trump administration abandons them, the Washington Post warned.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump questioned the Obama administration’s policy of secretly providing weapons to rebel groups in Syria, saying, “we have no idea who these people are.”
He also voiced his intention to ally the US with Russia to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria. Rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who the US has dubbed ‘moderate opposition,’ are considering forming “a closer alliance with better-armed Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups,” according to the Washington Post, which cites US officials, regional experts, and the rebels themselves.
Other rebel options for survival may include obtaining “more sophisticated weaponry from Sunni states” and adopting “more traditional guerrilla tactics” like small-scale raids on “Syrian and Russian targets.” The US-backed siege of Mosul, Islamic States’ stronghold in Iraq, has stalled largely due to hit-and-run attacks carried out by the terrorist group.
“We are very frustrated,” one US-vetted rebel commander told the US-based newspaper on condition of anonymity. “The United States refuses to provide the weapons we need, and yet it still thinks it can tell us what to do. They promise support and then watch us drown,” he complained.
“America will have no influence if our comrades are forced [to retreat to] Idlib” from Aleppo, he warned.
Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, shares this concern.
“There will be significant reputational costs with our allies in the region if we abandon support of the moderate opposition,” he said.
The Washington Post warning comes as Russia’s Reconciliation Center for Opposing Sides in Syria reported that some 500 fighters from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front group, which has rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, have surrendered the town of Al-Tall north of Damascus to government forces and left for Idlib province along with their families. A similar change of control reportedly occurred on Friday in the town of Khan al-Shih.
Idlib province is a major center for groups opposed to Damascus. Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front reportedly has an estimated 10,000 fighters there that dominate the area. Another jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, is also in the region, though, unlike Russia and Syria, the US doesn’t consider its fighters to be terrorists.
The US considers some 50,000 fighters in Syria to be part of the ‘moderate opposition,’ according to the Washington Post. However, American statistics may be inaccurate, as the US insists that Al-Nusra Front’s fighters in the divided city of Aleppo number in the hundreds, while Russia insists that the jihadist group is dominant among the several thousand militants remaining there.