When four warplanes appeared in the skies over Latamneh, it wasn’t viewed as unusual. Like many other rebel-held areas of Syria, the village in the northern province of Hama was a frequent target of Syrian government airstrikes.
But these planes were different.
“We’re used to them flying in from the east,” said Bebars Telawi, an opposition activist contacted via Skype who, like others mentioned in this article, used a nickname for security reasons. “But these came from the west, from the coast.”
Video taken from the headquarters of a rebel faction called Tajamu al Izza — the Gathering of Dignity — shows two of the planes breaking off, the roar of their engines rising before the loud crash of a bomb shakes the structure.
The Sept. 30 attack marked Russia’s first wave of strikes on what it said were Islamic State targets in Syria.
But this faction is not part of the Islamic State extremist group.
Instead, the Gathering of Dignity fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel factions, some of which have received U.S. support.
Until Russian warplanes began targeting Free Syrian Army positions, many had declared the group all but dead. But now, the Free Syrian Army is receiving lots of attention. U.S. officials back rebel assertions that the Russians are attacking “moderate” rebels.
“The Russians … target us in a direct fashion because we are part of the Free Syrian Army and a threat to Assad,” said Abdullah Hamawi, a spokesman for the Gathering of Dignity militia, referring to Syria’s president.
The Free Syrian Army has no central command structure; the hundreds of groups fighting under its green-striped tricolor have widely diverse ideological agendas. Although they generally label themselves as moderate, many have an Islamic fundamentalist bent. The main things they have in common are two enemies: the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that has seized large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Early in the war, the Free Syrian Army, founded by defectors from the Syrian military, was the main power in rebel-held areas. But the informal alliance was eventually beset with allegations of corruption, abuse and warlordism. Many Syrians were relieved when increasingly powerful Islamist groups dislodged rapacious commanders and fighters from their communities.
Islamist factions, flush with petrodollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries, came to dominate the battlefield, attracting fighters with cash and better equipment.
Still, the Free Syrian Army moniker stuck as a brand, even as it came under suspicion from the West for working alongside powerful extremist groups, such as Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and Ahrar al Sham, with deep ties to Al Qaeda. At least one freelance U.S. journalist, Peter Theo Curtis, held hostage in Syria and later released, says he was turned over to extremists by the Free Syrian Army. The family of Steven Sotloff, a U.S. journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State, says he too was handed over to extremists by so-called moderate rebels.
“The problem is this kaleidoscopic number of opposition groups that are constantly making deals with each other,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in a phone interview. “Everybody has been associated with Al Qaeda at some point.”
Rebels with Free Syrian Army units downplay their tacit cooperation with Al Qaeda-style fighters, saying such collaboration is inevitable in the complex and often crowded Syrian battlefield.
“Inside Syria, the view is different from the outside,” said Mohammad Rasheed, a spokesman for the Suqour al Ghab faction in Hama province, one of about a dozen groups that received TOW antitank missiles under a CIA-backed covert program. “We work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”
Some TOW missiles reportedly fell into Al Qaeda’s hands this year when another CIA-backed group, the Hazm Movement, was overrun by Al Nusra Front in northern Syria. Fear of advanced weaponry ending up in extremists’ possession has been a major preoccupation for U.S. officials.
Maj. Fares Bayoush, commander of Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness, which operates in Syria’s strategic northwestern province of Idlib and has also received U.S.-made antitank weapons, said some level of coordination with Al Qaeda-style groups was unavoidable.
“There is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight the regime and Daesh,” Bayoush said in an interview this year, using an Arab acronym for Islamic State.
For example, Bayoush says that his group’s TOW missiles played an important role in repelling government tanks during a March offensive in Idlib province spearheaded by an Islamist coalition called the Army of Conquest, which includes Al Nusra Front. The Islamists swept through much of the province and grabbed positions threatening coastal Latakia, Assad’s home province. Securing Latakia seems a major goal of the Russian aerial campaign, which is operating out of a base in the province. The Russians have repeatedly targeted factions associated with the Army of Conquest.
In Syria’s south, often touted as the last bastion of the moderate opposition, Islamists also still play an important role.
In a June offensive to seize the city of Dara, roughly 70 miles south of Damascus, Islamist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusra Front fought alongside Free Syrian Army factions organized under an alliance dubbed the Southern Front.
The Southern Front receives ammunition and heavy weaponry from a CIA-led operations room near the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate’s headquarters in Amman, Jordan.
U.S. officials have not commented publicly on the CIA assistance program for “moderate” Syrian rebels. The vetting process used has not been made public. It is unclear whether armed groups are disqualified from U.S. aid for having coordinated with or fought alongside Al Qaeda-style groups on the battlefield.
“We are aware that some moderate opposition groups have coordinated tactically with Nusra out of necessity when fighting against the regime and ISIL,” said a State Department official in an interview Friday, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State. “However, I would emphasize that the United States supports vetted armed opposition groups and takes extensive measures to minimize the risk of assistance falling into the wrong hands.”
Many of the rebel groups said the antitank missile systems they received had made them a target for Russia.
“The Russians targeted our warehouses and hit all the groups that have them,” asserted a spokesman for the Suqour al Jabal militia, another group vetted to receive the TOW. “They’re trying to destroy the moderates so that only terrorism or the Assad regime remains in Syria.”
The Russian strikes appear to have pushed the Free Syrian Army opposition into ever-deeper cooperation with hard-core Islamists.
A week ago, 39 rebel groups issued a statement saying that Russia’s involvement made “unity an obligation.” Among the names were Free Syrian Army-affiliated factions and hard-line groups such as Ahrar al Sham, co-founded by a high-level Al Qaeda operative.
“All disputes and names should melt under one higher aim, which is to liberate the land and preserve the identity of the [Syrian] people.”
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.