Clashes between militias trained by the CIA and the Pentagon are intensifying as bitter fighting has broken out near Aleppo and the Turkish border.
The fighting has intensified over the past two months, as CIA-armed units and Pentagon-armed ones have repeatedly shot at each other as they have maneuvered through contested territory on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, U.S. officials and rebel leaders have confirmed.
In mid-February, a CIA-armed militia called Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness, was run out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, by Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east.
“Any faction that attacks us, regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it,” said Maj. Fares Bayoush, a leader of Fursan al Haq.
Rebel fighters described similar clashes in the town of Azaz, a key transit point for fighters and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and March 3 in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud.
The attacks come amid continued heavy fighting in Syria and illustrate the difficulty facing U.S. efforts to coordinate among dozens of armed groups that are trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad, fight the Islamic State militant group and battle one another all at the same time.
“It is an enormous challenge,” said Rep.Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who described the clashes between U.S.-supported groups as “a fairly new phenomenon.”
“It is part of the three-dimensional chess that is the Syrian battlefield,” he said.
The area in northern Syria around Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, features not only a war between the Assad government and its opponents, but also periodic battles against Islamic State militants, who control much of eastern Syria and also some territory to the northwest of the city, and long-standing tensions among the ethnic groups that inhabit the area, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
If anything demonstrates the incompetence, futility, and danger of the president’s policiy in Syria, it’s this almost comic clash between fighters trained by two separate wings of our national security apparatus.
Did it really have to be like this? In late 2011, the main organized force fighting President Assad was the Free Syrian Army. At that time, FSA was made up of deserters from Assad’s army and was almost entirely secular in nature. No Islamist militias. No Gulf state support for extremists. No ISIS. No Hezbollah or the Russians assisting Assad.
It was a critical point. Should the U.S. arm and train the Free Syrian Army? I acknowledge there were serious arguments on both sides of the question. The president feared that supporting the overthrow of Assad would commit the U.S. to a course of action that may eventually have required ground troops. Even back then many people realized that if America were to commit ground troops to Syria, it would force Russia to intervene.
But Assad’s army was falling apart. Thousands were deserting or refusing to fire on civilians. This little history lesson is necessary because we forget there were alternative paths that Hillary Clinton and President Obama didn’t take. A strong show of support for the FSA supplied with heavy American arms might have brought the civil war to a relatively quick end without the fractured, quarrelling opposition and extremist militias wreaking havoc on anyone who disagrees with them.
But Clinton-Obama played it safe and now we are presented with a Gordian Knot that appears hopelessly tangled. Each strand that is unravelled leads to another strand tightening.
None of the many sides in this conflict appear ready to stop fighting. Perhaps that will only happen when they run out of people to kill or they run out of modern weapons and are forced to fight with sticks and stones.
I don’t envy the next president who has to manage the slaughter to keep it from spilling over Syria’s borders and further embroil the region in conflict.