McClatchy reports: North of Aleppo, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army is battling the Islamic State terror group over a vital supply route.
In Washington, the Obama administration is groping for a strategy to deal with a force that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says is “beyond anything we have ever seen.”
But in this south Turkish city, in the office of the chief of staff of the rebel force, not much is astir, and the atmosphere is funereal.
This should be the hour of coordination and brainstorming between the U.S.., its allies in Europe and the Middle East and the leadership of the appointed western-backed fighters. But according to Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, the FSA’s embittered chief of staff, they just aren’t talking.
Since December, when Islamist fighters overran the arms warehouses of the moderate rebel group. the covert U.S. program has been working directly with individual commanders, leaving the leadership structure here high and dry. Some 12 to 14 commanders receive military and non-lethal aid this way in northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups are recipients in southern Syria, al Bashir said. They report to the CIA.
“The leadership of the FSA is American,” says the veteran officer, who defected from the Syrian army two years ago and won respect for leading rebel forces in southern Syria. “The Americans are completely marginalizing the military staff. Not even non-lethal aid comes through this office.”
U.S. officials acknowledge the dysfunction, but blame al Bashir for keeping too low a profile among commanders and for not fully staffing his office. They say his title is a “business card.” Yet the failure to establish a good working relationship also reflects an ambivalence within the U.S. government that goes straight to the top.
President Barack Obama received the opposition leadership in May, and renewed his commitment to the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But in an interview last month, he disparaged the fighters as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth” and said it was a “fantasy” that they could overthrow Assad.
The issue of who hands out the weapons and funds provided by the FSA’s international backers isn’t just a turf battle between the Syrian opposition military leadership and the CIA, which runs the covert supply and training program.
According to al Bashir, the lack of communication and the CIA’s “tactical” approach to Syria prevented a timely response when the Islamic State, using weapons looted from Iraqi bases, rampaged through eastern Syria in July and seized almost the entire region bordering Iraq. One commander told McClatchy that 2,000 rebel troops were killed, along with hundreds of civilians in the fighting. Another 750 members of the Shueitat tribe were executed last month after a tribal revolt against the extremists, al Bashir said.
He said that if military aid had been distributed through the institution of the rebel Supreme Military Council, which stays in touch with all fighting fronts in the country, “the situation would be different. Terrorism and Daash” — a pejorative for the Islamic State — “would not have spread as they have today. “
“So I put the responsibility on the Americans for the spread of terrorism now on a larger scale than before,” he said. “And now the Americans are trying to combat terrorism and forget the regime at a time the regime itself is the source of this terrorism.” [Continue reading…]