Fall of U.S.-backed Syrian group casts doubt on plan to arm moderates

U.S. wants to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State. Can they be trusted?

The social media post features an odd incarnation of war booty: plundered sacks of dried lentils, humanitarian aid turned spoils of a punishing conflict.

"For the Syrian people from the United States of America," reads a label superimposed on a stylized Stars and Stripes.

The lentils — along with piles of weapons also shipped to Syria, including U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles — are apparently in the hands of an implacable foe: Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's official franchise in Syria.

In recent days, Al Nusra and its adherents have gleefully uploaded images of foodstuffs and weapons purportedly captured after the group's forces commandeered the former bastion of a U.S.-backed rebel faction known as Harakat Hazm, or Resolve Movement.

"The lions of the Nusra [Front] found American lentils in the Hazm Movement's headquarters," Mohammad Amin, an Al Nusra supporter, declared triumphantly in a Twitter message. "Is there any doubt left of [Harakat Hazm's] apostasy?"

It wasn't the first time that weapons and other goods meant for a U.S. proxy force in Syria ended up in the hands of Al Nusra militants, but that has not stopped the Obama administration from doubling down on its strategy: The Pentagon has unveiled a new plan to vet and train about 15,000 Syrians rebels — dubbed moderates by U.S. officials — in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. officials generally define moderate rebels as those committed to a democratic Syrian state that recognizes the rights of minorities. But such definitions have become blurred in Syria, where hundreds of rebel factions have sprung up, loyalties shift fluidly, and hard-core Islamists dominate a sectarian battlefield. Vetting is at best an inexact science.

Many members of Western-backed rebel groups are Sunni Islamists who have at times cooperated with Al Qaeda in battle and openly denounce "Nusayris," a derogatory term for Alawites, the Shiite offshoot minority sect whose adherents include Syrian President Bashar Assad and many security chiefs in his secular government.

Across northern Syria, Western-backed rebels are mostly on the run or have left to cool their heels in nearby Turkey. Some have defected to militant Islamist groups, driven to do so by ideological commitment or the lure of regular salaries from extremists awash with cash from sundry enterprises, including cross-border smuggling, extortion and kidnapping rackets, and gifts from deep-pocketed donors in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

Harakat Hazm, meantime, is officially out of business, according to a Twitter message issued by the group March 1 announcing its demise. The group was routed by Al Nusra Front, which denounced it as a "criminal gang" and attacked it for months. Before the deadly rift, Hazm officials had acknowledged occasionally collaborating with Al Nusra forces and had criticized U.S. airstrikes on Al Nusra positions near Aleppo.

Hazm, which last year claimed 5,000 fighters, failed to meet the high expectations of Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others. Just a year ago, Hazm, was a bright star in the constellation of Western-backed rebel groups known as the Free Syrian Army, one of the few to receive U.S. TOW antitank missiles, considered the most sophisticated weapons to date provided by Washington or its allies to an opposition faction. In the last year or so, the State Department has provided Hazm with about $5 million worth of nonlethal aid, including foodstuffs, communications equipment, trucks, cranes and medical supplies.

Although the images uploaded by Al Nusra could not be independently verified, Maj. Fares Bayoushi, a commander in the U.S.-backed Fifth Legion faction, said "a large number of the weapons fell into Nusra's hands." The Al Qaeda affiliate overran Hazm's headquarters in the northern town of Atarib, close to the Turkish-Syrian border, Bayoushi said via telephone from the Turkish city of Reyhanli, a Syrian opposition hub.

According to opposition activists and insiders, Hazm and other U.S.-backed factions were also given military training and arms in a covert program run by the CIA. That effort, aimed at helping to topple Assad's government, is continuing in northern and southern Syria, activists say. The CIA declined to comment.

Besides being announced publicly, the new Obama administration train-and-equip initiative features a major distinction from the CIA effort. The stated principal goal this time is not to topple Assad, but to counter Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway group also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL that emerged from the Syrian tumult to seize control of vast areas of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The pivot reflects Washington's evolving Syrian strategy. Islamic State's rapid gains in Syria and Iraq have resulted in a shift in Washington's stated priorities, from deposing Assad to destroying Islamic State. With the U.S. hesitant to provide ground forces, the newly trained army is slated to become the Pentagon's de facto forces in Syria.

"Our program will focus first and foremost on preparing appropriately vetted Syrians to counter ISIL," said a Pentagon official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, before adding a caveat that seemed to leave ample room for mission creep. "We recognize, though, that many of these groups now fight on two or three fronts, including against ISIL, the Syrian regime and other violent extremists."

Officials in Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally that is hosting an initial group of trainees, suggested that Syrian government troops are directly in the crosshairs of the new U.S.-backed militia.

"These forces will fight both Daesh and other terrorist organizations on the ground, as well as the regime," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters last month, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

In Syria, many view the latest U.S. plan as little more than a feint meant to build up a proxy army that will ultimately fight to bring down Assad, possibly with American air cover and aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, three Sunni-led governments determined to flip the leadership in Damascus.

Whatever the ultimate fate of the new U.S.-trained force, the Hazm collapse shows that there is no guarantee that the new project will succeed in the unpredictable terrain of Syria. Proxy armies generally have a checkered history in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Syrian war, now entering its fifth year, has taken many unanticipated turns, not the least of which has been the longevity of Assad's government, which many predicted would fall years ago. Analysts say much more weaponry, aid and air power will be needed to challenge an entrenched and well-funded Islamic State force, with tens of thousands of fighters across Syria and Iraq, and much more firepower will be required to vanquish Assad's battled-tested army and its allies, including Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

"If the U.S. wants secular-ish moderates to win, it will have to do a lot more than train and arm them," Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said via email. "It will have to give them air support and more support on the ground."

But that also brings more risk of weapons falling into radical arsenals.

Along with plundered bags of lentils, the uploaded images of captured war spoils depicted militants showing off piles of Russian assault rifles and what Al Nusra said were U.S.-made long-range mortars seized from Hazm.

The big prize, however, was the BGM-71 TOW weapons system. In the video, an Al Nusra fighter, his face blurred, proudly lugs one of the antitank devices, which were designed to destroy Russian-made armor, a mainstay of the Syrian army.

The caption declares, "Tens of American TOW missiles have become booty in the hands of the mujahedin."

Hazm's downfall is just the latest blow for the Free Syrian Army, which was always a loose and fractious semi-alliance with no central command and varying ideological agendas. Though still a force in southern Syria, where Western-backed factions work in concert with Al Qaeda fighters against Syrian government forces, only pockets of the Free Syrian Army battalions remain in their former stronghold in the north of Syria.

"Now there are very few FSA groups left," said Bayoushi, bemoaning the demise of Hazm. "This is a very big event."

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut, special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan, and staff writer Hennigan from Washington.

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