Multiple sources within moderate Syrian opposition groups have confirmed that the CIA has stopped supervising the distribution of logistical and military assistance to groups within the Free Army in northern Syria. According to these sources, fighters in these Syrian opposition groups who oppose Assad’s rule, and who receive salaries from the operations room known as “MOM,” have reported that aid to them was suspended after their positions were attacked by Islamist groups.
The program was approved by the United States and the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, in response to crimes committed by Bashar Assad’s regime. It includes salaries, training, and ammunition, and in some cases, anti-tank guided missiles.
There has been no confirmation that assistance is suspended indefinitely, and a prominent military commander in the Free Syrian Army said that he has not been officially informed of anything. He noted that certain groups in Idlib and Aleppo could lose some of their weaponry to Islamist organizations as a result of this decision. According to the commander, preparations are underway for upcoming meetings, in order to create a plan to ensure matters are organized, and guarantee that no weapons are leaked to groups they were not intended for.
Moderate groups in northern Syria and Daraa were specifically selected by the CIA, after it confirmed that they were not extremist. They received light and medium weapons and ammunition, and some of them participated in operations to combat ISIS.
Mostafa Marati is a military commander in Jaysh al-Izza, one of the Free Army groups that receives assistance from the MOM operations room. He was a captain in the regime’s army before he defected. In discussing the impact of this decision on fighters, and whether groups are likely to maintain their control of large areas of land in Idlib, the Aleppo countryside, Latakia, and Hama, Marati says that this decision was a political one which coincided with the Geneva negotiations and the Astana conference. According to Marati, the decision was made to force groups within the Syrian opposition who oppose Assad’s rule to accept a political solution they otherwise might not have.
Marati implied that the effects of the decision may not be entirely negative. It may mean that groups are freed from any military pressure imposed on them, and return to the early days when they faced the regime. Marati also downplayed the importance of assistance previously given. In his view, there was no change in the balance of power, while the United States refrained from providing Syrian revolutionaries with anti-aircraft weapons – a priority for them given the fact that the Assad regime and its Russian allies rely heavily on air power.
Regarding potential solutions that groups could use in the future to avoid losing material support, Marati said that an approach of starting productive ventures to benefit the groups could limit the impact of the decision.
On a related matter, an assistant who defected from the Assad regime, Othman Asbro, would not significantly affect the ability of opposition groups to continue combatting the regime. On the contrary, it would free them from conditions imposed by those providing the assistance. Asbro based his opinion on the fact that most groups now have weapons manufacturing workshops, and the majority depend on the spoils of war they acquire in their combat with regime forces.
As for fighters’ salaries, Asbro explained that most opposition groups possess agricultural and industrial facilities. They have begun to rely on themselves to manage their affairs and secure funding for their fighters, especially since a decision like this was expected. It has always been a possibility, since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, in order to force groups to accept any solution presented to them.
Fears of Rising Extremism
Others cautioned that this decision could threaten the future of opposition groups. According to a prominent military commander in the countryside of Latakia who works with groups of the Free Army and preferred to remain anonymous, stopping the provision of aid could push fighters towards other, more extremist, groups, in search of a way to guarantee their livelihoods. He explained that some jihadist groups offer their fighters financial support, since they control oil wells and border crossings and have their own resources, while most moderate groups do not possess such resources.
This leader said that the war – whether against Assad regime forces, or against ISIS – differs from how it was in the past. Now, it is a large battle, which requires huge quantities of ammunition, as well as material and logistical support. If current conditions continue, we will not be able to convince fighters to keep fighting without guaranteeing their livelihoods, he added.
This is the first time since 2014 that opposition fighters are without any financial support. Groups rely on several channels of support, some of which still remain, such as food and medial aid that the US State Department provides though organizations working in its interests.
Meanwhile, Zakaria al-Youssef, who lives in the city of Antakia, Turkey, is convinced that moderate groups need a new strategy to guarantee supporters. Al-Youssef proposes forming a strong organization that would include most remaining groups of the Free Syrian Army, to keep them from being taken over and attacked by jihadist powers.
One group is accused of pledging itself to ISIS and launched an attack on the Free Army in January 2017. Another group – formerly known as the Nusra Front, was an official branch of al-Qaeda in the Syrian War until 2016, when it cut its official ties to al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – led an attack on several groups in the Free Army. This prompted the Free Army to merge with Ahrar al-Sham, a strong Islamist group that embraces non-jihadist Islamist thought and raises the banner of the Syrian revolution.
Some believe the United States is abandoning moderate groups, particularly given the timing, which comes as a result of a change in administration for the United States. This is heightened by the fact that on numerous occasions, US President Donald Trump has declared his intention to halt assistance to Syrian groups that are fighting the Assad regime, out of fear of a confrontation with Russia.
Some people think this change is unfortunate. The United States is erasing all of its previous stances and promises to support the Syrian people’s freedom and path to democracy. Others have voiced fears that some countries will gradually return to acknowledging Assad’s legitimacy as ruler of Syria, even after all these massacres.
Youssef al-Saleh, a colonel who defected from the regime forces, believes that this change will be a disaster for all. Syrians will find themselves without hope, after all these years of struggle.
Al-Saleh wonders what alternatives the United States and the Group of Friends of the Syrian People gave Syrian opposition groups. Without a clear prospect for a political solution, Assad and Russia will continue to kill Syrians.
The effects will quickly become evident, says al-Saleh, through the emergence of more extremism and continued fighting at a time when everyone is trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Even though suspension of aid may not be indefinite, the decline in military and logistical support, the United States and the Group of Friends of the Syrian People’s abandonment of the opposition, and the adoption of a new policy closer to Russia’s stance in support of the Assad regime limited only to combatting ISIS, will not stop the war in Syria. Majority of civilian victims are dying at the hands of Assad led airstrikes and shelling.
Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.