Mike Giglio reports: Ahmed Saoud was sitting in the restaurant of a four-star hotel in the Turkish city of Antakya, a short drive from the border with Syria, when he got an alarming call on his cell phone. An American voice was on the line. He said something that seemed to rile Saoud, a colonel who defected from the Syrian army and now commands a battalion of moderate rebels based in the country’s turbulent north.
Saoud’s group gets covert U.S. military support as part of a small CIA program to arm and train moderate rebels. Called the 13th Division, the battalion boasts a number of military defectors like Saoud, a common trait in the select club of rebel groups that America has decided it can trust in the murky war. One U.S. official involved in Syria policy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 13th Division gets strong reviews in Washington: “They sit at the rare intersection of combat-effective and responsible.”
Such groups are rare in Syria — and all are weak compared to the Islamist battalions that now dominate the war. The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has been reduced to a shadow of the force that once aspired to be the revolution’s standard-bearer.
Yet these same groups are a key component of the U.S. campaign against extremist groups in the country that saw sweeping airstrikes this week — even as their role in U.S. intervention in Syria puts them in an increasingly precarious place. One consequence of the U.S. strikes may be that its allies face their toughest fight for survival to date. [Continue reading…]