President Obama has long been reluctant to provide substantial aid to Syria’s so-called moderate rebels, often dismissed as weak and disorganized. But the rapid rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State has changed many calculations.
The CIA has been running a small-scale covert weapons program since early this year, according to rebels who have been trained and are now receiving arms shipments. The modest program has strengthened moderate battalions, according to Western and regional analysts, even as rebel commanders complain about the meager arms flow.
The first American anti-tank missiles, known as TOWs, arrived in northern Syria early this spring. There were just a handful, delivered to only one rebel group carefully vetted by the CIA.
The group, Harakat Hazm, or the Steadfast Movement, showed off the new weapons system by posting the first successful strike on YouTube in April.
Harakat Hazm’s media team works out of a well-furnished apartment on the Turkish border. Ahmed Abu Imad says he’s just back from the battlefield in Syria to upload videos of the latest hit — a strike on a Syrian army artillery cannon.
“It was huge for us,” he says, grinning, “because it was bombing a lot of sites.” He believes the Syrian military has had to adapt to the new weapons systems.
“They started to get afraid,” he says. Imad uploads videos of every strike on Facebook, Twitter and the battalion’s official website.
The videos are more than just an accounting of the battalion’s success. It’s part of the complex program that is run from the joint Military Operations Center near the front lines. The U.S. is a “leading participant” in the MOC, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, confirmed by rebels who are recipients of the program.
Tight Control Over Weapons
The CIA keeps a tight rein on the rebels and the weapons. Rebels say they have to document every strike by a vetted video team and turn in the documentation, even the spent canisters from the weapons they’ve used before they can be resupplied.
The resupplies are limited — no more than five at a time — say rebels who chafe at this “lending library” approach to fighting a war. But U.S. support has benefits and has boosted the ranks of moderate rebel groups, says Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Harakat Hazm quickly went from not existing to being one of the most powerful groups in the north,” says Bonsey.
Since the first weapons arrived in the spring, more than a dozen groups have been deemed moderate enough to qualify for training on sophisticated weapons systems.
“More groups have been steadily making their way through the vetting process and receiving various kinds of material support, including anti-tank weapons,” says Bonsey.
Fighting On Two Fronts
Still, the weapons flow remains modest, and rebels say it is not enough to change the battlefield dynamics against the Syrian regime. Rebel demands have grown more insistent, as they fight on two fronts, against the Syrian army, as well as the powerful militants of the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
At the media office for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella for dozens of battalions, Hussam al-Marie rolls out a map of the front lines around the northern city of Aleppo. The rebels have been battling regime forces for more than a year, but now, Islamic State fighters are challenging them, too.
“So you can see this front line against ISIS is here,” says al-Marie pointing to the villages northwest of Aleppo, where Islamic State fighters have captured positions from other factions. He repeats again the message he wants to get out.
“ISIS is defeatable,” he says. “We have done it before, and we can do it again.”
These rebel battalions declared war on the Islamic State in January, pushing them east toward the Iraqi border. But the victory was short-lived. In June, the Islamic State came back to Syria flush with weapons. Many were U.S. weapons, seized in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces fled. Now, the Islamic State is stronger than ever, he says.
“I saw by my own eyes, ISIS using the yellow tank, the American tank,” he says, when he was on the front lines near Mara, a town in the countryside of northern Syria.
Al-Marie makes the argument that many commanders make, that the Islamic State cannot be defeated with airstrikes alone. These Free Syria Army battalions are a key part of any strategy, but they need weapons and support quickly, he insists.
“Airstrikes won’t tackle ISIS; it will only tickle ISIS,” he repeats more than once, a line he crafted to make his point.
Since January, the Islamic State threat has galvanized FSA battalions, forcing them to step up battlefield coordination and cooperation, say Western sources. However, they still lack a coherent military structure as well as command and control, says analyst Noah Bonsey, who tracks rebels movements.
“This is a modest improvement that we’ve seen so far. There’s still a long way to go,” he says, “if they are to hold their ground against the regime and ISIS, and eventually regain territory from ISIS.”
Obama may be betting on the rebels, but unless the support is ramped up quickly, Bonsey says the rebels will continue to lose ground.
“We are crying for weapons,” says a rebel known as Abu Abdullah, with the Mujahedeen army, the latest group to undergo vetting by the U.S. for training and eventual weapon supplies.
This group was the first to publicly declare war on ISIS back in January, and has finally gotten the green light from the U.S. for training and weapons.
“We have a lot of good fighters,” says Abu Abdullah, “but sometimes we don’t have the means, no matter how brave our fighters are.”