BEIRUT – The Syrian rebels that the U.S. now wants to support are in poor shape, on the retreat from the radical al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria, with some rebels giving up the fight. It is not clear whether the new U.S. promise to arm them will make a difference.
Some, more hardline, Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals.
The Obama administration is seeking $500 million to train and arm what it calls “moderate” factions among the rebels, a far larger project than a quiet CIA-led effort in Jordan that has been training a few hundreds fighters a month. But U.S. officials say it will take a year to get the new program fully underway. The U.S. also faces the difficult task of deciding what constitutes a “moderate” rebel in a movement dominated by Islamist ideologies.
Opposition activists complain that after long hesitating to arm the rebellion to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad — their main goal — the United States is now enlisting them against the ISIL out of its own interests. They have long argued that the group, which aims to create a radical Islamic enclave bridging Syria and Iraq, was only able to gain such power in Syria because more moderate forces were not given international support.
“This decision is a year and a half too late,” said Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group. “Had it not been for Obama’s hesitation all along, this wouldn’t be happening in Iraq today nor would there be this proliferation of extremist factions in Syria,” he added.
Meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed al-Jarba in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear the priority in helping the rebels is to fight the ISIL — with hopes that their battlefield successes in Syria could dilute their insurgency’s power in Iraq.
The moderate opposition in Syria “has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq,” Kerry said.
A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry later said the secretary did not mean to imply that Syrian rebels will actually cross the border to fight in Iraq. The official was not authorized to brief reporters by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Jarba, who leads a coalition in exile that only has nominal authority over some rebels on the ground, welcomed the aid, and appealed for more. But in Syria, opposition activists were skeptical.
The aid “will only worsen the crisis,” said an activist in the northern city of Aleppo, who used his nickname, Abu Bishr, for his own protection. “They want Syria to enter a new war” between rebels and extremists. “This will not help at all.”
As the ISIL has blitzed across much of northern and western Iraq this month, its fighters have also advanced in Syria against other rebels. They now hold most of the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria. They have tightened their siege on the one major holdout city in that region, Deir el-Zour.
In the past two weeks, they have also captured a string of villages in the northern province of Aleppo. The Islamic State’s fighters in Syria have been boosted by advanced weapons, tanks and Humvees captured in Iraq and then transported to Syria.
In a significant development, beleaguered Jabhat al-Nusra front fighters surrounded by ISIL forces in the town of Boukamal, on the border with Iraq, defected this week and joined the Islamic State. That effectively handed the town over to the Islamic State, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. After the government brutally cracked down on the protest movement, many Syrians took up arms to fight back. As the uprising shifted into civil war, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army emerged, a loose term for a collection of self-formed brigades and defectors from Assad’s military that fight under a nationalist banner.
But Islamic fighters became the dominant force in the armed opposition, ranging from religious-minded Syrians calling for rule by Shariah law to more extreme al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. Foreign jihadis flooded into the conflict.
The Islamic State, which was at the time Iraq’s branch of al-Qaida, barged into the Syria war in 2012, sending its forces and joined by foreign jihadis. At first, many rebels welcomed its experienced fighters. But they quickly turned on each other in violent clashes as other rebels accused the ISIL of using particularly brutal tactics and of trying to take over the opposition movement for their own transnational goals.
Even other Islamic extremist factions among the rebels fought the Islamic State, including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra front, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist group. Al-Qaida’s central leadership booted the ISIL out of its network, blaming it for clashing with other groups.
But the rebels are being eroded by the war-within-a-war with the Islamic State.
“The Syrian opposition is exhausted,” said Adam al-Ataribi, a spokesman for the Mujahedeen Army, a small group fighting alongside other rebels against the extremists.
An opposition activist based in the northern town of Marea said the FSA has lost more people fighting against the Islamic State in the past year than it has against Assad’s forces. “There is a steady attrition within rebel ranks,” he said.
More hardline rebels currently fighting the Islamic State could follow in joining it.
“ISIL is currently the top dog with the most money in the jihadi universe. Siding with them would seem like a rational choice, at least temporarily,” said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Activists say other fighters in the nationalist-minded opposition are just abandoning the fight altogether due to frustration and disillusionment. Judging how many is difficult, but several activists in Syria speaking to AP saw it as a growing trend.
“We have no reliable information on how many fighters have quit the FSA, but the view on the ground is that attrition is high,” said Sam Whitt, principle investigator for the Voices of Syria project, which tracks public opinion from inside the Syrian civil war through survey interviews.
Abdullah, a 27-year-old former FSA fighter, said that when the Islamic State overran his hometown of al-Bab in northern Syria in the spring, killing two of his friends in the rebel ranks, he decided to quit and leave.
“The whole world has abandoned us. I realized that our uprising has been hijacked by others, and that nothing will be settled unless there is an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he said, speaking via Skype from Turkey and referring to the main patrons of Assad and the rebels, respectively.
“That’s not worth dying for.”