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”).
The ISIS announcement of the reestablishment of the caliphate and their subsequent push further into Iraq has considerably changed the playing field and revealed the true nature of the U.S.-backed “moderate, vetted” FSA.
Last week the Washington Post reported on the Syrian “rebel” takeover of the Golan Heights Quneitra border crossing with Israel (where I reported from last year), with the “rebels” capturing the UN peacekeepers stationed at the crossing. The Post noted:
The United Nations gave no further details, but an Israeli military spokesman told CNN that the captors are suspected to be members of al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been fighting alongside more-moderate, Western-backed rebels for control of the area.
The “more-moderate, Western-backed rebels” fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra the Post was referring to, but didn’t dare name, were none other than the FSA.
This is not the only time the FSA has been caught allied with U.S.-designated terrorist groups. Just a month ago the New York Times quoted a “rebel” field commander saying that the FSA had joined ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in attacking a border post in Lebanon:
Reached by phone in Arsal, Abu Osama, a member of Mr. Jomaa’s brigade, said that the sole purpose of Saturday’s attacks was to secure the release of Mr. Jomaa and that they were carried out as a combined operation involving fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front and ISIS.
The Times report was quick to note that Abu Osama’s claim could not be confirmed, no doubt because that fact would be devastating to the Obama administration’s ongoing narrative about the “moderate, vetted” FSA. But the facts about the true nature of the FSA are getting harder to conceal.
In early July I reported here that FSA brigades in eastern Syria had surrendered their arms and pledged allegiance to ISIS. And two weeks ago the Washington Post reported that more FSA units that had been armed and trained by the U.S. were defecting to ISIS — a fact that ISIS commanders openly bragged about:
For a long time, Western and Arab states supported the Free Syrian Army not only with training but also with weapons and other materiel. The Islamic State commander, Abu Yusaf, added that members of the Free Syrian Army who had received training — from the United States, Turkey and Arab military officers at an American base in Southern Turkey — have now joined the Islamic State. “Now many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us,” he said, smiling.
As if more evidence were needed, it should be noted that American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS several weeks ago, reportedly came into ISIS custody when the FSA-aligned Dawud Brigade that kidnapped and held Foley pledged allegiance to ISIS and delivered him to ISIS as a token of their submission.
Since the beginning of the outbreak of war in Syria, some, myself included, were scornful of the idea that the FSA were a moderate force worthy of U.S. support. The D.C. foreign policy establishment, for the most part, fell into line with the Obama administration’s narrative or stayed silent to avoid getting disinvited from the cocktail parties.
Even more egregiously, when three members of the DC foreign policy “smart set” (including a former senior Bush National Security Council official) published an article in Foreign Affairs arguing for an alliance with Ahrar al-Sham – at the time led by one of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s lieutenants and former bin Laden courier — hardly a word of protest or criticism was uttered.
Then again, this capitulation to the administration’s narrative has always been in face of the facts. In March 2013, Aron Lund, an expert in groups fighting in Syria, explained that the FSA was a fictional branding operation intended to draw Western support. And earlier this year the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar observed that the elusive pursuit of a “moderate” opposition in Syria was trying to find “a needle in a haystack,” with many Syrian groups touting FSA credentials to obtain U.S. support and using such to conceal their jihadist leanings:
Hundreds of groups claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Announcing their FSA affiliation was a mere pathway to receiving foreign support. Funders – most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait’s Salafis – were keen on the Islamist identity of the groups receiving support without requiring them to announce it publicly.
In 2013, the picture became clearer. The Islamist discourse became public and most groups organized under the rubric of new fronts that are predominantly jihadist in nature. Groups that used to claim affiliation with the FSA united with hardline groups that never once raised the FSA flag […]
In addition to al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, who are affiliated with the Islamic Front, the southern front of the FSA’s offensive is teaming up with small jihadist groups such as the Green Battalion which is believed to be al-Qaeda-affiliated even though it is not well-known in the media.
Meanwhile, senior FSA field commanders who regularly met with top U.S. officials were open about their relationship with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups:
And yet inside the New York/D.C. media and political establishment bubble, the fiction of the “vetted moderate” Free Syrian Army not only dominates, but is the foundation of the Obama administration’s Syrian policy. And with Americans literally losing their heads at the hands of ISIS, and the Obama administration frantically fumbling for some kind of response to the ISIS threat, the financial and military support by the U.S. government and the propaganda backing of the American media for the FSA will likely continue unabated for the foreseeable future.