Syrian rebels buckling in face of jihadis


BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian rebels that the U.S. now wants
to support are in poor shape, on the retreat from the radical al-Qaida
breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria, with
some rebels giving up the fight. It is not clear whether the new U.S.
promise to arm them will make a difference.
Some, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals.
Obama administration is seeking $500 million to train and arm what it
calls "moderate" factions among the rebels, a far larger project than a
quiet CIA-led effort in Jordan that has been training a few hundreds
fighters a month. But U.S. officials say it will take a year to get the
new program fully underway. The U.S. also faces the difficult task of
what constitutes a "moderate" rebel in a movement dominated by Islamist
Opposition activists complain that after long
hesitating to arm the rebellion to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad —
their main goal — the United States is now enlisting them against the
Islamic State out of its own interests. They have long argued that the
group, which aims to create a radical Islamic enclave bridging Syria and
Iraq, was only able to gain such power in Syria because more moderate
forces were not given international support.
"This decision is a
year and a half too late," said Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the
Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group. "Had it not
been for Obama’s hesitation all along, this wouldn’t be happening in
Iraq today nor would there be this proliferation of extremist factions
in Syria," he added.
Meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed
al-Jarba in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State
John Kerry made clear the priority in helping the rebels was to fight
the Islamic State — with hopes that their battlefield successes in Syria
could dilute their insurgency’s power in Iraq.
The moderate
opposition in Syria "has the ability to be a very important player in
pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria,
but also in Iraq," Kerry said. A senior State Department official
traveling with Kerry later said the secretary did not mean to imply that
Syrian rebels would actually cross the border to fight in Iraq. The
official was not authorized to brief reporters by name and spoke on
condition of anonymity.
Al-Jarba, who leads a coalition in exile
that only has nominal authority over some rebels on the ground, welcomed
the aid, and appealed for more. But in Syria, opposition activists were
The aid "will only worsen the crisis," said an
activist in the northern city of Aleppo, using his nickname Abu Bishr
for his own protection. "They want Syria to enter a new war" between
rebels and extremists. "This will not help at all."
As the Islamic
State has blitzed across much of northern and western Iraq this month,
its fighters have also advanced in Syria against other rebels. They now
hold most of the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria. They have
tightened their siege on the one major hold-out city in that region,
Deir el-Zour.
In the past two weeks, they have also captured a
string of villages in the northern province of Aleppo. Islamic State’s
fighters in Syria have been boosted by advanced weapons, tanks and
Humvees captured in Iraq and then transported to Syria.
In a
significant development, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters surrounded by
Islamic State forces in the town of Boukamal on the border with Iraq
defected this week and joined the Islamic State. That effectively handed
the town over to the Islamic State, which controls the Iraqi side of
the crossing.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with largely
peaceful protests against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for
more than four decades. After the government brutally cracked down on
the protest movement, many Syrians took up arms to fight back. As the
uprising shifted into civil war, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army
emerged, a loose term for a collection of self-formed brigades and
defectors from Assad’s military that fight under a nationalist banner.
Islamic fighters became the dominant force in the armed opposition,
ranging from religious-minded Syrians calling for rule by Shariah law to
more extreme al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. Foreign jihadis flooded into
the conflict.
The Islamic State, which was at the time Iraq’s
branch in al-Qaida, barged into the Syria war in 2012, sending its
forces and joined by foreign jihadis. At first, many rebels welcomed its
experienced fighters. But they quickly turned on each other in violent
clashes as other rebels accused Islamic State of using particularly
brutal tactics and of trying to take over the opposition movement for
their own transnational goals.
Even other Islamic extremist
factions among the rebels fought the Islamic State, including the
al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist
group. Al-Qaida’s central leadership booted the Islamic State out of its
network, blaming it for clashing with other groups.
But the rebels are being eroded by the war-within-a-war with the Islamic State.
Syrian opposition is exhausted," said Adam al-Ataribi, a spokesman for
the Mujahedeen Army, a small group fighting alongside other rebels
against the extremists.
An opposition activist based in the
northern town of Marea said the FSA has lost more people fighting
against the Islamic State in the past year than it has against Assad’s
forces. "There is a steady attrition within rebel ranks," he said.
More hardline rebels currently fighting the Islamic State could follow in joining it.
is currently the top dog with the most money in the jihadi universe.
Siding with them would seem like a rational choice, at least
temporarily," said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security
at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International
Activists say other fighters in the nationalist-minded
opposition are just abandoning the fight altogether due to frustration
and disillusionment. Judging how many is difficult, but several
activists in Syria speaking to the AP saw it as a growing trend.
have no reliable information on how many fighters have quit the FSA,
but the view on the ground is that attrition is high," said Sam Whitt,
principle investigator for the Voices of Syria project, which tracks
public opinion from inside the Syrian civil war through survey
Abdullah, a 27-year-old former FSA fighter, said that
when the Islamic State overran his hometown of al-Bab in northern Syria
in the spring, killing two of his friends in the rebel ranks, he decided
to quit and leave.
"The whole world has abandoned us. I realized
that our uprising has been hijacked by others, and that nothing will be
settled unless there is an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia," he
said, speaking via Skype from Turkey and referring to the main patrons
of Assad and the rebels, respectively.
"That’s not worth dying for."
Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lara Jakes in Jeddah, Saudi
Arabia, and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

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