If you’re a fan of morbid humor, you undoubtedly took some notice back in early July, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Carter told the committee that, so far, the half-a-billion-dollar US effort to train a force of vetted, moderate Syrian rebels, the centerpiece of America’s plan to destroy ISIS in Syria and get a handle on the Syrian Civil War, had so far churned out a whopping 60 fighters. Vetting rebels for possible links to extremists turns out to be a pretty daunting task, and one that weeds out the vast majority of your program’s applicants (a pool that’s already been severely limited by a US insistence that their trainees must focus on fighting ISIS, not the Assad regime, and America’s unwillingness to arm even its own trainees with advanced weaponry for fear that it will fall into undesirable hands). Needless to say, the goal of training a 5400-man brigade in the first year of the program’s operations is a ways off.
That already impossible task probably got a little tougher on Thursday, when an attack by Jabhat al-Nusra on Division 30, the rebel group that had supplied the first 54 (it turns out Carter may have exaggerated slightly) fighters to the US training mission, resulted in the capture of Division 30’s commander, Colonel Nadeem Hassan, his deputy, Farhan Jasem, and 6 of his fighters (none of the ones that had gone through US training, though). Hassan was reportedly working directly with the US to find recruits, so his capture might be kind of a big deal.
On Friday, Nusra again attacked Division 30, and US aircraft had to be deployed to protect the Good Rebels from the Bad Rebels, and the problem with that isn’t so much that it happened as that it seems to have taken the Obama administration completely by surprise:
In Washington, several current and former senior administration officials acknowledged that the attack and the abductions by the Nusra Front took American officials by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure.
While American military trainers had gone to great lengths to protect the initial group of trainees from attacks by Islamic State or Syrian Army forces, they did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.
Who could have predicted that Nusra would attack a rival rebel group that’s openly working with the US? I mean, sure, the US bombs Nusra sometimes, but we didn’t know they’d get mad about it. And sure, this whole “US-trained force of moderate rebels” is transparently an attempt to put a rebel force in the field that could contend with Nusra for control of the country once both ISIS and Assad are out of the way, but still! We assumed they would welcome our trained proxies as allies in their fight against ISIS, which they don’t really fight very often, but that’s beside the point for some reason!
But wait! It gets worse!
The Nusra Front said in a statement on Friday that its aim was to eliminate Division 30 before it could gain a deeper foothold in Syria. The Nusra Front did much the same last year when it smashed the main groups that had been trained and equipped in a different American effort, one run covertly by the C.I.A.
Those groups would be Harakat Hazm, whose Idlib branch surrendered to Nusra last November and whose Aleppo branch dissolved quietly into another group called the Levant Front on March 1 rather than succumb to the Idlib branch’s fate, and the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), which also surrendered to Nusra in Idlib in November, along with its US-supplied weaponry.
So not only was there every reason to anticipate that Nusra might attack Division 60, Nusra actually did something just like this less than a year ago. The people in DC running this Syrian operation, such as it is, can’t really be this dense, can they?
Reportedly, almost none of the other rebel factions in the vicinity of this Nusra-Division 30 clash got involved on either side, understandably not wanting to get on America’s bad side but also, and this is not a good sign if you don’t like Al-Qaeda affiliates, unwilling to attack Nusra. Why? Well for one thing, Nusra is too strong for most other rebel factions to take on. For another thing, Nusra is seen by most of those other groups as an important ally in their real fight, against Assad, as opposed to America’s fight against ISIS, which isn’t a priority for any Syrian rebels (even the ones America is training, to be perfectly honest) at the moment.
The one rebel group that did come to Division 30’s aid on Friday, though only (it seems) after Nusra started attacking its positions as well as Division 30’s, was a group called Jaysh al-Thuwar (“The Revolutionary Army”), which is composed of…remnants of Harakat Hazm and the SRF, along with a few Free Syrian Army units and some Kurdish fighters. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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