Our proxy war in Syria suffered a setback over the weekend when two of the main “moderate” rebel groups receiving arms from the West surrendered to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra following an assault on their strongholds in Idlib province:
The US and its allies were relying on Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front to become part of a ground force that would attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). For the last six months the Hazm movement, and the SRF through them, had been receiving heavy weapons from the US-led coalition, including GRAD rockets and TOW anti-tank missiles. But on Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered military bases and weapons supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria stormed villages they controlled in northern Idlib province. The development came a day after Jabhat al-Nusra dealt a final blow to the SRF, storming and capturing Deir Sinbal, home town of the group’s leader Jamal Marouf.
On top of the American weapons now in the hands of the radical Islamist militia, the defeat of these two groups means that the Free Syrian Army has been almost completely driven out of northern Syria:
Idlib was the last of the northern Syrian provinces where the Free Syrian Army maintained a significant presence, and groups there had banded together in January to eject the Islamic State in the first instance in which Syrians had turned against the extremist radicals. Most of the rest of northern Syria is controlled by the Islamic State, apart from a small strip of territory around the city of Aleppo. There the rebels are fighting to hold at bay both the Islamic State and the forces of the Assad government, and the defeat in Idlib will further isolate those fighters.
Juan Cole responds to the news that some members of Marouf’s group defected to Jabhat al-Nusra:
The incident is disturbing because the Obama administration plans to train and arm fighters of the Syria Revolutionaries Front sort, on the theory that they are “moderates.” But a present Syrian moderate is all too often a future al-Qaeda member; many of these affiliations are not particularly ideological, but have to do with who is winning and who has more money. Last July, the Daoud Brigade of the Free Syrian Army joined ISIL.
Jamal Marouf’s group in any case had sometimes fought alongside Syria’s al-Qaeda and last April said al-Qaeda was the West’s problem, not his. (Ouch!) He complained that aside from a one time payment some time ago of $250,000, he hadn’t received any appreciable aid from the West. The loyalties of fighters may also have to do with which group is seen as more indigenous and which as foreign agents.
Larison knew this would happen:
In a saner political culture, this would be extremely bad news for the members of Congress that voted in favor of the administration’s plan to arm and train “moderate” and “vetted” rebels. The loss of weapons to an Al Qaeda affiliate is exactly the worst-case scenario that opponents of arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition imagined could happen, and now it has. Following the large loss of weapons and equipment to ISIS in Iraq, it was inexcusable to approve sending more weapons into Syria where they could be and now have been seized by jihadists, but the measure overwhelmingly passed both houses. A failure of this magnitude would normally be an indictment of the terrible judgment of the policy’s supporters, but we can expect that interventionists will quickly tell us that this would never have happened if only we had listened to them sooner.
They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.
Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers. So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s gains in northern Syria weren’t the only bad news this weekend. In Iraq, ISIS militants perpetrated a massacre against a Sunni tribe in Anbar province that had attempted to resist them, murdering more than 300 people:
The Albu Nimr, also Sunni, had put up fierce resistance against Islamic State for weeks but finally ran low on ammunition, food and fuel last week as Islamic State fighters closed in on their village Zauiyat Albu Nimr. “The number of people killed by Islamic State from Albu Nimr tribe is 322. The bodies of 50 women and children have also been discovered dumped in a well,” the country’s Human Rights Ministry said on Sunday. One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheik Naeem al-Ga’oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken.
Iraqi security forces are now planning a spring offensive to recapture the territory lost to ISIS, with American assistance, but the plan requires the training of three new army divisions and doesn’t foresee retaking the captured areas until the end of next year.