Mike Giglio reports: The rebel commander was nervous. He had changed phone numbers and been difficult to reach before finally agreeing to meet in Antakya, a city near the border with war-torn Syria that has long swarmed with rebels, refugees, and spies. On the road to an out-of-the-way hotel, he told the driver to avoid the main route through town. “It’s better not to drive among all the people,” he said.
It was an open secret that the commander had once received cash and weapons from the CIA, part of a covert U.S. program that backs rebel groups against both ISIS and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
When his battalion was eventually driven from Syria by its jihadi rivals, like a number of U.S.-backed groups, he pleaded with his U.S. handlers for better support, but it wasn’t enough. So he was, he said, “out of the game.”
Now, he said, sitting at a quiet table at the hotel, he had received an offer that could bring him back in — and potentially make him even stronger than before.
He was being recruited, he said, to work for the U.S.’s rival in Syria: Russia.
“They told me, ‘We will support you forever. We won’t leave you on your own like your old friends did,’” he said. “Honestly, I’m still thinking about it.”
The commander said that five years into a war that has killed some 400,000 people and created nearly 5 million refugees, Russia is recruiting current and former U.S. allies to its side. His revelation was confirmed by four people who said they, too, had been approached with offers from Russia and by two Syrian middlemen who said they delivered them.
The moves come as Russia ratchets up its involvement in Syria with troops and airstrikes. Russia says its military campaign is designed to target ISIS — in reality it has targeted all rebels, including some who are still backed by the U.S., while also wreaking havoc on civilians.
The secret outreach shows that as it works to muscle the U.S. out of Syria, Russia isn’t just bombing the U.S.’s current and former rebel allies — it’s also working to co-opt them, launching a shadowy campaign that seeks to highlight U.S. weakness in Syria. Ultimately, Russia could be hoping to help Assad win the war by dividing the opposition, driving a wedge between rebel groups and their traditional backers, and getting them to turn their guns on his enemies. [Continue reading…]