US to arm Syrian moderates, but who are they?

Whereas previous aid to anti-Assad forces was handled by the CIA, the newest round will fall under the purview of the Department of Defense, which is frequently more hands-on

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Syrian rebels holding their weapons as they prepare to fight against Syrian troops, in Homs province, Syria, June 18, 2012 . (photo credit: AP/Rebels Battalion of Baba Amro)
Syrian rebels holding their weapons as they prepare to fight against Syrian troops, in Homs province, Syria, June 18, 2012 . (photo credit: AP/Rebels Battalion of Baba Amro)

WASHINGTON — The US has selected a number of Syrian “moderate groups” to receive American aid, but administration officials have remained closed-mouthed as to which of the dozens of groups operating in the war-torn nation have already benefited from Washington’s support.

The sudden appearance of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles in the hands of opposition forces this spring sheds light on the list of possible beneficiaries of a larger $500 million aid package for Syrian opposition forces that the White House requested late last week.

The United States announced that in the face of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gains in Iraq and Syria, it will provide an additional $500 million in funding to Syrian opposition forces to counterbalance Islamist gains in the region. Over the past few months, as the administration has sought some $760 million in aid to the opposition forces, US officials from President Barack Obama downward have emphasized that the resources would be given to moderate Syrian opposition forces, promising that the aid recipients would be carefully vetted to ensure that weapons would not fall into the wrong hands.

The administration – neither in official statements nor in open testimony before Congress – has not listed which factions are likely to receive the funds, nor which groups received the previous $260 million package. Requests by The Times of Israel for a list of organizations went unanswered.

Last month, the Syrian website Tahrir Souri noted that a number of opposition groups – all aligned with the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and fighting under the banner of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) — have acquired US-made TOW anti-tank missiles. The TOW missiles appeared following the US announcement of the $260 million package of nonlethal aid, but do not fall within that category.

The website posted video evidence recorded by Syrian activists of TOW missiles deployed by opposition members in a number of locations throughout Syria, including the hotspots of Aleppo, Daraa, and Latakia.

Although it is almost five decades old, the TOW wire-guided anti-tank missile is a popular and effective armament that can be used against both tanks and fortifications.

Tahrir Souri noted that the missiles “are the first advanced American weaponry to be dispatched to Syria since the conflict began.” Multiple local sources – as well as Washington analysts – agree that they first appeared in March or April in the hands of Harakat Hazm, an FSA faction that is seen as moderate and secularist.

A relatively new fighting force formed in January by the amalgamation of 12 moderate factions, Harakat Hazm deploys the wire-guided missiles alongside armored vehicles including tanks when it goes into battle. Members have reportedly undergone military training in Qatar and the organization was described by Washington Institute for Near East Policy Defense Fellow Jeffrey White as “a movement worth supporting.”

Asked by Tahrir Souri about its overseas support, a political representative of the organization said in May that “funding comes from countries friendly to the Syrian people, who have, and still do provide funding for us.”

An organization with similar credentials, although much more localized, is the 13th Military Council Division, an FSA faction that fights in southern Idlib under the leadership of Ahmad Al-Su’oud. The group was also an early recipient of the TOWs.

Al-Su’oud said in a May interview that his group’s goal is “to bring down the Assad regime and form an inclusive, civilian state.” This goal – emphasizing inclusivity and not endorsing sharia law or the establishment of an Islamist regime – makes his group a likely contender for future aid.

In the same interview, Al-Su’oud also was coy about the origins of his support, saying that “the Friends of Syria and the friends of the Syrian people are who support us financially and militarily against the Assad regime. As for the question of whether or not the aid will continue, the aid will undoubtedly continue as we’ve seen serious determination from the Friends of Syria towards the armed opposition.”

It was those same Friends of Syria, according to Al-Su’oud, who provided both the TOWs and the training for them that the organization deployed in the field against pro-Assad forces.

Al-Su’oud emphasized that the aims of the weaponry was to “defeat the Assad regime” and said that his group will “work with whoever benefits our battle plans.”

Other FSA factions which now deploy the TOWs are the Ahmad Al-Abdo brigades and battalions, the Al-Omari Brigades, the Al-Yarmouk Division, the Al-Aadiyat Brigade and the Fursan Al-Haq brigade, the 101th Infantry Faction, and the Suqoor Al-Jabal Assembly.

A number of the groups – including Al-Aadiyat Brigade, 13th Military Council Division, Harakat Hazm, the Suqoor Al-Jabal Assembly, and Fursan Al-Haq – have established links to Qatar, including receiving training and funding.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in March, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson noted that, even then, the US was “working to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition, both inside and outside of Syria, because they are now facing a two-front war against both the Assad regime and the violent extremists. ”

She noted that as part of the previous $260 million in nonlethal assistance, the US provided $80 million in support to the SMC, including food rations, medical kits, and vehicles – as well as communications and other personal gear.

In the course of that testimony – and testimony before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs – Patterson did not mention by name any of the beneficiary organizations other than to describe them as under the auspices of the SMC. In the Senate testimony, she emphasized the word “moderate,” mentioning it seven times.

The SMC – which is, as of Friday, undergoing structural reorganization – is itself an amalgam of groups and structures. While it has repudiated the al-Nusra organization, an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group, it has reached out to other Islamist and Salafist organizations.

Speaking on Friday, State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged that there was a risk that US assistance could reach the wrong hands, and said that “to mitigate the risk of assistance falling into the wrong hands, all of the moderate units that are receiving or will be receiving our assistance are vetted through our formal process – we have a process in place – and are coordinated with the Supreme Military Council as well.”

The US, she said “needs to be very careful and deliberate as we decide who to give assistance to.”

Harf did not rule out that the US had already stepped up its support for programs that would involve third-party transfer of the TOWs, saying that “last year we did announce that we had expanded the scale and scope of our assistance. We don’t detail all of that. But we have continued to ramp it up and we do believe this new effort is really complementary to what we’ve already done and will just build on the work that we’ve already done.”

The new aid package requested by the administration is significant not just in the increased funding but also a change in the nature of the aid itself. Whereas previous aid to the Syrian opposition was carried out largely under the auspices of the CIA, the newest round will fall under the purview of the Department of Defense.

While the CIA traditionally favors third-party brokers in its work with local forces, the Department of Defense is frequently more hands-on, favoring direct contacts with the groups they aid.

Tony Badran, an analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that aid to the opposition groups has already begun shifting. “It originally went through the SMC, but now the SMC complains that the donors are bypassing them to send money directly to their own groups,” he explained.

Harf noted that ISIL gains in Iraq were only part of the reason why the US was stepping up assistance.

“We have a number of goals with this assistance: of course building the Syrians’ capacity to help secure and stabilize Syria; also helping the moderate opposition defend civilians against attacks by the regime and by extremists,” she said. “Really the threat is clearly coming from both; to counter terrorist threats to stabilize areas under opposition control – that’s obviously an important component of this – and help facilitate the provision of essential services. So also when we talk about things like humanitarian, when we talk about things like getting other kinds of assistance, nonlethal, to the opposition, this can help secure areas to do that.”

Badran, however, questioned whether the administration really prioritizes the struggle against Assad, or whether the US boost in aid is simply a further repercussion of ISIS’s advances in Iraq.

Badran noted that White House statements on the additional aid have emphasized defensive postures against the pro-Assad forces while leaving the door open regarding a more aggressive stance against organizations like ISIL.

Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement that the budget request “marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks” while also arguing that the money and training would help Syrians fight extremists.

Meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, Secretary of State John Kerry was more explicit, saying that “obviously, in light of what has happened in Iraq, we have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which 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.”

This position, Badran warns, might be problematic for the Syrian moderates, many of whom see Assad as their prime enemy, and are likely to see a fight against Islamist groups – especially in Iraq – as secondary or diversionary at best.

“These are reactive measures that are absurd in that they don’t address the center of gravity in the combat zone – Assad,” he warned.

In some places, the Islamist forces and moderate forces have worked closely together to achieve key strategic victories against the pro-Assad forces, which they see as their common enemy.

“It seems difficult to imagine telling these guys that they should be dying in order to fight al-Nusra,” Badran added. Thus far, he said, such armed engagements among factions have emerged in cases – such as in the city of Aleppo – in which factions felt that the radical groups were hampering their ability to effectively confront Assad’s forces.

Badran noted that whereas there might be readiness to fight ISIL, which had hampered the rebels’ ability to fight the regime, or, worse, have effectively colluded with the regime against the rebels, al-Nusra collaborates well with rebel formations, including those the US supports, like Harakat Hazm.

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