US-backed secular force off to a slow start in Syria

Friday 14/08/2015
Al-Nusra Front members in Syrian city of Ariha

OTTAWA- Al-Nusra Front, the al- Qaeda franchise in Syria, recently abducted Syrian rebel fighters believed to be from the group trained by the United States in Tur­key. The capture signals resistance to Washington’s plan to equip the Syria insurgency to combat the Is­lamic State (ISIS).
In response, the United States bombed al-Nusra Front’s headquar­ters in Syria. Al-Nusra admitted in a statement that the strike killed or wounded a number of its fighters.
“[In Aleppo], the street is divided between proponent and opponent,” said Mohammed Yassin, a resident of the rebel-held part of Aleppo. Yas­sin said people do not like al-Nusra’s strict ideology and its dominance in the north, but say the group may be the only option for defending the area. Some people in Aleppo, ac­cording to Yassin, support al-Nusra because it has played a major role in battles against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS.
Yassin said al-Nusra fighters jus­tified their actions against the US-backed force as self-defence, insist­ing that the United States trained and sent the fighters to confront them.
The US-supported force, known as “Division 30″, was supposedly formed as a nucleus of a “national army” — a nationalist-oriented armed opposition group the United States hoped to establish in Syria. Al-Nusra’s abduction of more than ten fighters, including the group’s leader, is a setback to the struggling US strategy to create a secular armed force.
Pentagon officials said one fighter from the group was killed and five of the captured fighters were Division 30 trainees. On August 4th, how­ever, the Syrian Observatory for Hu­man Rights reported that al-Nusra captured a second group of fighters from the new force.
The US-backed force is reportedly trying to move to areas safe from at­tacks by al-Nusra.
The White House’s changing policy towards the conflict has left the United States with few allies in Syria.
Since its initiation in May, the CIA-led training and equipping programme has struggled to gain support from rebel groups, largely due to the programme’s intention to exclusively combat ISIS and not the Assad regime. Both hard-line Islamists and moderate national­ists viewed the training programme with scepticism.
“The Syrian people, for sure, do not trust America,” Yassin said, add­ing that armed groups, in particular, are hesitant to work with the United States, noting the example of the Hazm Movement — a group formerly backed by the US but abandoned by the West after suffering a major de­feat to al-Nusra.
To date, the Pentagon has trained and equipped only 54 fighters; the programme aims to graduate 5,000 anti-ISIS fighters.
Days before his abduction, the new force’s commander, Colonel Nadim Hassan, told the New York Times that the first contingent of the force was sent to the front lines in Syria without night-vision gog­gles, which are essential for the fight against ISIS. He commented that Pentagon trainers pushed the group to quickly join the fight “so they can get results to show their bosses”.
Mohammed Ghanem, a senior po­litical adviser and government rela­tions director for the Syrian Ameri­can Council in Washington, said the United States had to work on implementing a “serious” train and equip programme and referenced the US programmes for troops in Iraq, where 8,000 fighters have been trained in just six months.
“But even the best options will not be effective if there is no politi­cal will,” he noted. Though the new­ly trained fighters are committed to only fighting ISIS, and not the Assad regime, the Pentagon is authorised to defend the new force against any attacks, including by government forces. US officials, however, are reportedly concerned about direct confrontations with Assad forces.
Ghanem insisted the new force must be authorised to fight the As­sad regime in addition to ISIS. “It is absurd to forbid trainees to fight Assad when even the [US] State De­partment has accused him of serv­ing as the ISIS air force,” he added.
However, White House policy, ac­cording to Ghanem, is “avoiding any serious measures against Assad to avoid angering Iran and jeopardising the [Iranian] nuclear deal”.
Western powers have been strug­gling to find local partners in Syria. The West is reportedly considering working with Ahrar al-Sham — a Salafi armed group mainly posi­tioned in the northern parts of Syria and considered one of the best-functioning factions in the Syrian conflict.
As the Iran nuclear deal seems to be increasing Tehran’s influence in the Syrian conflict, observers in Washington have begun to see a ne­cessity for the United States to ex­pand its training programme of Syri­an rebels, even if it entails accepting the risks of coordinating with hard-line groups or in vetting trainees.
The former US ambassador to Syr­ia, Robert Ford, co-wrote an article in July suggesting dialogue between the United States and Ahrar al- Sham, noting that not talking with groups such as Ahrar would reduce the little influence the United States has.
Ahrar al-Sham, labelled by the United States as a hard-line jihadi group, has been reaching out to the West as well through op-eds. The group’s head of foreign affairs, Labib Al Nahhas, wrote opinion ar­ticles — one published by the New York Times and another by The Telegraph in Britain — outlining Ah­rar al-Sham’s intentions and post- Assad agenda. The US Department of Defense’s 2015 national defence authorisation bill forbids Ahrar al- Sham fighters from joining the train-and-equip programme, however.
“Cooperation is unlikely, but things could change if Ahrar alters its behaviour,” says Ghanem. “We could also see a form of indirect US-Ahrar cooperation through Turkey as part the Turkish safe zone.”
In recent weeks, US-Turkey rela­tions have progressed due to com­promises made by both countries on issues related to the war in Syria. Ankara and Washington agreed to the establishment of a “safe zone” in northern Syria where supported rebels can possibly position.
The Syrian opposition hopes the recent US-Turkey affinity will en­able further international coordina­tion to implement an effective plan of action for Syria.