A Central Intelligence Agency-coordinated program to aid Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad in northwest Syria has been frozen, Reuters reported Tuesday, as the rebels there have faced recent setbacks amidst the chaotic and multifaceted war that has engulfed the region for the past several years.
“The support funneled to vetted FSA factions has included contributions from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – states that have opposed Assad. It is one of several foreign aid channels to rebels. Others still function,” reported the news service, also noting that the CIA declined to comment and the freeze is thought to be temporary. “Reuters confirmed the freeze with officials from five of the FSA groups that have been recipients of financial and military support from the so-called ‘MOM operations room’.”
The MOM, so-called for its Turkish acronym, is an Ankara-based military operations center. “Until now,” the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius wrote in 2014, “the MOM has tried to coordinate rebel activities, but the command structure is weak.” This latest funding freeze is not an indication that the MOM’s command structure has improved appreciably since then. The FSA has been a more or less ragtag alliance since its inception, with concerns about Islamist extremist elements long-festering. Russia had also not yet entered the fray in Syria at the time of Ignatius’ 2014 writing.
“MOM-backed rebels had suffered a heavy blow in December when Syrian government forces ousted them from eastern Aleppo with decisive help from the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias,” Reuters reports. “Eastern Aleppo had been seen as an FSA stronghold.”
The Western-backed rebels have also reportedly come under attack recently from anti-Assad Islamists, and their battlefield losses appear to be a contributing factor in the decision to halt the CIA-coordinated funding program.
“Islamists have long been seen as the more formidable insurgent force in the northwestern Idlib area though a dozen or more U.S.-vetted FSA groups have also operated there and nearby,” Reuters reports. “Last month’s militant assault on the FSA groups was launched by a group formerly known as the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in the war until last year when it formally cut ties and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.”
“The jihadist onslaught led several FSA groups to merge with the powerful Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, widely believed to be backed by Assad’s foreign adversaries in the region.”
Indeed, not only have there been defections but weapons have routinely fallen into the hands of Islamist extremists — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the convoluted and fluid nature of the bloody Syrian conflict, with its many foreign stakeholders.
“U.S. intelligence and military officials said the leakage, sale and capture of U.S.-supplied and other weapons from units of the FSA to Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and other splinter militant groups have been a concern since the CIA and U.S. military began arming and training a limited number of rebels,” Reuters reported Tuesday.
The freeze in funding to the Ankara-based MOM Operations Room rebel coordination program comes on the heels of a visit to the Turkish capital by President Donald Trump’s new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, which itself followed a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month. Erdogan reportedly tried to persuade Trump during that call against arming Syrian Kurdish rebels to fight ISIS in the effort to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been strained in recent years, given that the Obama administration supported Syrian Kurdish fighters that were battling ISIS but which Turkey considers a terrorist group. Things have been even more tense since the failed coup against Erdogan last summer, which he and many others in Turkey blamed on the CIA.
The freeze in funding to FSA forces in northwest Syria is far from the end of U.S. intervention in the regional conflict, nor is it the first military aid program to forces fighting in Syria that has been halted due to concerns over its effectiveness. As I noted earlier this week, for example, the Obama administration shut down an effort to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS in 2015 after similar concerns were raised about the effectiveness of the training program and where weapons were ultimately ending up.
Despite the widespread failures of efforts by the CIA and other American organizations to keep track of all the weapons they’ve been funneling into Syria over the past few years, the ongoing heavy involvement of U.S. intelligence agencies and taxpayer funding going towards the conflict is — arguably — a better option than potential alternatives.
“The CIA-backed program has regulated aid to the rebels after a period of unchecked support early in the war – especially from Gulf states – helped give rise to an array of insurgent groups, many of them strongly Islamist in ideology,” Reuters reports. “A similar program continues to operate in southern Syria with Jordanian backing.”
Last summer, the New York Times reported that weapons shipped into Jordan by Saudi Arabia and the CIA and meant for Syrian rebels were actually being diverted to the black market by Jordanian intelligence officers. Millions of dollars worth of weapons were reportedly stolen, including a gun used by a Jordanian police officer who killed two Americans and three others in a shooting in Amman in late 2015.
“The State Department did not address the allegations directly,” the Times noted in its report last June on the allegations of weapons thefts by Jordanian operatives, “but a spokesman said America’s relationship with Jordan remained solid.”