U.S. and Syrian opposition fighters view each other with mutual distrust

The New York Times reports: American involvement with the rebels so far has largely been through so-called operations rooms in Jordan and Turkey staffed by intelligence officials from the United States and other countries that have provided arms to limited numbers of vetted rebels. So far, the support provided has included light arms, ammunition and antitank missiles, which have helped the groups destroy government armor but have not resulted in major rebel advances or helped control the spread of ISIS.

“The United States can probably work with them to some extent, but they haven’t been hugely effective so far, which is why the Islamic State is there in the first place,” said Mr. Lund, the Syria analyst.

The support so far has been limited, leaving many rebels feeling that the aid is prolonging the war, not helping them win. And the fluidity of battlefield alliances in Syria means that even mainline rebels often end up fighting alongside the Nusra Front, whose suicide bombers are relied on by other groups to soften up government targets.

“Even the groups that the U.S. has trained tend to show up in the same trenches as the Nusra Front eventually, because they need them and they are fighting the same battles,” Mr. Lund said.

The operations rooms — known as the Military Operations Command — also have had their influence sapped by the spread of extremists.

Ahmed Naimeh, the top Syrian official in the operations room in Jordan, was captured by rebels during a visit to Syria this year, ironically while trying to unify local rebel groups. He has not been heard from since, and many suspect that the Nusra Front killed him.

An operations room in Turkey has provided support to a number of moderate groups in northern Syria, shifting the balance of power away from the Islamists, according to a report published this week by the International Crisis Group. But this, in addition to a decline in direct support from Persian Gulf states, has not strengthened the rebels, instead causing “a weakening of overall rebel capacity to halt regime gains in Aleppo and hold ISIS at bay to the east,” the report said. [Continue reading…]

McClatchy reports: In an effort to map out the ideological spectrum of Syria’s various rebel groups, Turkish and American officials used a color-coded scheme: green for trusted friends, red for clear-cut enemies and yellow for those in the middle.

That middle section turned into a point of contention when it became clear that the Turks were willing to work with groups that were anathema to the United States, including al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the hard-line Ahrar al Sham. Turkish officials seemed to be gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category.

“We said, ‘Yes, sure, OK, but a number of the groups that you’re working with, which you consider open to persuasion, we consider beyond the pale. And we will not work with them, and we’d rather you not work with them and we think they need to be blocked from transiting your borders,’ ” Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey until last month, recalled Thursday in a media call arranged by the Atlantic Council foreign policy institute, where he’s now the director of the Middle East program.

“We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” Ricciardone said.

U.S. officials haven’t publicly acknowledged previously knowing that Turkey was providing assistance to Nusra, which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in December 2012. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Now the schism with Turkey, never resolved, is resurfacing in a more public way with President Barack Obama’s pledge to build a “moderate” Syrian rebel force as he wades deeper into the Middle East’s turmoil. When the United States and Muslim partners such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia clash over the very definition of “moderate,” who gets to decide the makeup of a coalition-backed rebel force? And no matter what it’s called, is Obama ready to accept the risk of backing a movement that’s widely viewed as too small, too weak and too untrustworthy to win? [Continue reading…]

The difficulty the U.S. faces in identifying which Syrian groups are fit to view as partners, is a product primarily of the ideological straightjacket inside which Washington operates.

U.S. officials who are obsessed by their own fear of being accused of unwittingly or intentionally offering support to extremists, are asking the wrong questions.

The exact political complexion of each group is of far less consequence than their proclivity to commit war crimes, level of corruption, and commitment to create an inclusive Syria. Whether a particular group can be dubbed “moderate” gives relatively little indication of how they would rank on those counts.

The fact that officials bemoan a paucity of reliable partners among the opposition groups says as much about the Obama administration’s willful neglect of the conflict as it says about the opposition.

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