U.S.-Backed Free Syrian Army Operating Openly with ISIS, Al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra
As the Obama administration struggles to address the threat from ISIS and plans to go to Congress in the coming weeks to up its commitment against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, multiple media reports indicate that the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) is operating openly with ISIS and other designated terrorist groups. And yet financial and military support for the FSA is the keystone to the administration's policy in Syria.
Some background is essential.
It was just over a year ago that the Institute for the Study of War's Liz O'Bagy was opining in the Wall Street Journal about her travels to Syria and purported discovery that the Syrian "rebels" really weren't bloodthirsty jihadists, but moderates worthy of U.S. financial and military support -- in particular, heavy weapons. Her claims about the Syrian rebels, particularly the FSA, were cited and praised by Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain.
That view, of course, quickly came crashing down as O'Bagy came under fire for failing to disclose that she was also a paid agent of a Syrian rebel front. (She had also lied about her academic credentials.) Within two weeks of her op-ed appearing, she was fired from the Institute for the Study of War, though she was hired two weeks later by Senator McCain as a Senate staffer.
At the same time that O'Bagy's career was taking a hit, the narrative that the Syrian "rebels" were all secular moderates was quickly collapsing. A
Rand Corporation study (Correction: The report was by IHS Janes, not Rand) appeared two weeks after O'Bagy's op-ed saying that nearly half of the Syrian "rebels" were jihadists or hardline Islamists (as if there were a discernible difference). Meanwhile, the FSA was under serious pressure from the very jihadist groups that Ms. O'Bagy had assured were not a problem.
Another practical problem developed with providing weapons to the FSA. As soon as weapons shipments from the CIA were arriving in Syria, the FSA weapons caches were being raided by jihadist groups, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, under very suspicious circumstances. The problem got so bad that by last December, both the U.S. and the UK had stopped weapons shipments to the FSA.
But by April of this year, the Obama adminstration's CIA weapons spigot was turned back on, with the FSA now receiving heavy weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. And in late June, President Obama asked Congress for $500 million to arm and train the FSA.
This move was not without controversy as the Syrian Military Council chief-of-staff warned that the U.S. was circumventing the SMC and providing weapons directly to FSA units that could end up creating Afghan/Somali-style warlords in Syria. The State Department responded to that criticism by assuring that the weapons were going to "moderate, vetted groups" (because, of course, the State Department has such a long, illustrious history of vetting Islamic "moderates").