Turkey and the U.S. struck a deal last month to train and equip “moderate rebel forces” in Syria. A number of media outlets are hailing this as a first for the Obama administration, yet there’s evidence proving otherwise.
A Free Syrian Army fighter, right, looks through a mirror which helps him see Syrian troops from the other side, as he takes his position with his comrade during fighting, at the old city of Aleppo city, Syria.
BEIRUT — On Friday, Rear Adm. John Kirby stated that the United States would begin training moderate Syrian rebels in Turkey to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria.
Speaking during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Kirby explained that the goal of the program is to intended enable those forces to “defend their communities, protect their own neighbors, and then go on the offense against ISIL [the U.S. government’s preferred term for ISIS].”
The Pentagon press secretary emphasized that the rebel training is to fight extremists, not the Syrian government. Kirby stated, “The Syria component of this campaign is an anti-ISIL component. That’s the focus, not about the Assad regime.”
A deal was signed by Turkey and the U.S. on Feb. 19 to train and equip moderate rebel forces in Syria. While numerous media outlets have reported that this is the first time the Obama administration has implemented support for the rebels, such reporting flies in the face of the facts.
Background of U.S. involvement in Syria
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Photo: Manu Brabo/AP
The first evidence of the American military training opposition fighters in Syria was recorded on March 6, 2012, in an email thread released by WikiLeaks as part of The Global Intelligence Files.
An email by Reva Bhalla, an employee at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, revealed that special operations forces (SOF) were already on the ground in the region by December 2011 — nine months after the civil war had officially started. Bhalla, who had spoken with a United States Air Force (USAF) strategic studies group at the Pentagon, wrote on Dec. 6, 2011, “After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces.”
Bhalla made it sound as if the deployment of special operations forces in the region was in reaction to the unfolding crisis, and that the U.S. military was still trying to figure what to do. “There is still a very low level of understanding of what is actually at stake in Syria, what’s the strategic interest there, the Turkish role, the Iranian role, etc.,” she wrote.
She also made it seem as if the U.S. didn’t have much of an opposition force to work with, noting, “One Air Force intel guy (US) said very carefully that there isn’t much of a Free Syrian Army to train right now.”
Bhalla explained that the SOF were in the region to get information about the activities of the Syrian army, and presumably other opposition fighters.
As to their future role, Bhalla wrote that the USAF intelligence officers believed that the hypothetical function of the SOF teams would be “to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, [and] elicit collapse from within.”
However, she explained, it did not appear as if the SOF had started any of those activities. “They have been told to prepare contingencies and be ready to act within 2-3 months,” she wrote, “but they still stress that this is all being done as contingency planning, not as a move toward escalation.”
Then, in June 2012, The New York Times published a report which highlighted interactions between the U.S. and rebel fighters entering Syria via Turkey. Eric Schmitt reported: “A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.”
“The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Schmitt explained that the CIA was involved to keep weapons away from al-Qaida-linked fighters.
Laura Rozen reported in July 2012 that a U.S.-based organization, the Syrian Support Group, had been issued a rare waiver by the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control to provide financial, logistical, and communications support to the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Support Group employed Brian Sayers, a former NATO adviser. It ultimately shut down in August 2014.
In March 2013, it was reported that the U.S. was training moderate rebels in Jordan to serve as a bulwark against extremists fighting in the country and to take over in case of governmental collapse. The focus of the operation was Syrian army officers who had defected.
In September 2013, NPR’s Tom Bowman said in an interview that “weapons are starting to move into Syria, small arms, assault rifles, machine guns.” He added that it was part of “a covert CIA program.”
That same month, the U.S. was also reported to be working with Saudi Arabia to siphon weapons to Syrian rebels. Anne Barnard of The New York Times wrote: “For months, Saudi Arabia has been quietly funneling arms, including anti-tank missiles, to Free Syrian Army groups through Jordan, working covertly with American and British intelligence and Arab governments that do not want their support publicly known, according to rebel groups operating in southern Syria.”