3 September 2016

Lessons From Syria: The Enemy of My Enemy Is Not Necessarily My Friend

August 30, 2016

Knowing the Risks, Some Syrian Rebels Seek a Lift From Turks’ Incursion

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The rebel fighter, a former major in the Syrian Army, thought he had finally found what he was looking for: a group with strong international backing that was gearing up for an offensive against his two most hated enemies, the Syrian government and the Islamic State militant group.

But within days of crossing into Syria, backed by Turkish planes, tanks and special forces troops and American warplanes, the fighter, Saadeddine Somaa, found himself fighting Kurdish militias that, like him, counted the Islamic State and the government of PresidentBashar al-Assad among their foes.

That was because the Turks, who supplied the weapons and the cash, were calling the shots, and they considered the Kurds enemy No. 1. The Kurds, for their part, considerTurkey an enemy, and so as the Turkish-led troops advanced, the Kurdish militias attacked.

For all the hope the new offensive had inspired in Mr. Somaa and other Syrian insurgents, it showed once again how even rebels fighting against the Islamic State and Mr. Assad — both targets for defeat under stated American policy — remain dependent on backers who only partly share their goals.

“Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s,” he said in a long telephone interview from Jarabulus, the border town the Turkish-led force took from Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, on the first day of the offensive. “The problem is the same everywhere in Syria.”

In an ideal world, he said, groups like his — a collection of insurgent groups that oppose the government and ISIS and reject Al Qaeda — would unite in a single body, fight the government and all extremist groups, and preserve the institutions of the Syrian state for the future.

But in reality, he said with a sigh, “the factions will be depending on outsiders to back them, and keep fighting and fighting each other, and this might take years.”

Mr. Somaa was identifying with insurgent groups that brand themselves as the Free Syrian Army, including many army defectors like himself. Many, but not all, of the groups have been vetted by, and receive covert support from, the C.I.A. and allied intelligence agencies. Their members range from secular to Islamist, with the United States drawing the line at hard-line groups like Ahrar al-Sham and more radical groups like the former Nusra Front, affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Mr. Somaa’s conundrum summed up why the new offensive has been at best a mixed bag for the C.I.A.-vetted Syrian rebels. It gives them a rare morale boost and a chance to show their countrymen they can rescue them and prove to foreign backers that, like the Kurdish groups, they can be effective partners on the ground against ISIS.

But it also puts them at the center of the newest complication in an already confused battlefield, fighting among forces backed by Turkey and the United States, fellow NATO members and putative allies that are supposedly united in the fight against Mr. Assad and ISIS. The Kurdish militias are backed by the Pentagon, which considers them its most reliable ally against the Islamic State.

Some Syrian Arab insurgents have already been caught on video apparently abusing Kurdish militia members, and as the operation becomes more contentious, rebels who had sought to increase their legitimacy as a Syrian force risk reinforcing criticism that they are Turkish and American proxies at best, de facto allies of ISIS at worst.

Mr. Somaa blamed the Kurds for the fighting, saying they had failed to retreat from territory west of the Euphrates River that they had promised to leave just days before, as they were urged to do by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“Our main target was Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, but when the Kurdish-led militias attacked, “we retaliated.” He said that his group, Faylaq al-Sham, had taken several prisoners from among the Kurdish fighters.


The Syrian government Backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. 

Russia Began its military offensive in support of the Syrian government in Sept. 2015. 

Turkey Made its biggest plunge into Syria last week, sending planes, tanks and special forces. 

The Islamic State The terror group also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, its Arabic acronym, has been losing ground. 

Kurdish groups They’re backed by the U.S. to fight ISIS, but Turkey is seeking to contain their aspirations to take more territory. 

The Nusra Front Was linked to Al Qaeda; its leader renounced Qaeda and changed its name in July. Western officials dismissed it as a semantic change. 

Free Syrian Army A loose alliance of anti-Assad and anti-ISIS rebel groups, many of whom get aid from the U.S. and its allies. 

On Monday, in a change of tone from Mr. Biden, a top American official criticized the Turkish incursion. “We want to make clear that we find these clashes — in areas where ISIL is not located — unacceptable and a source of deep concern,” Brett McGurk, the United States special envoy against the Islamic State, said on Twitter.

The offensive comes at a crucial and volatile time for the rebel groups that brand themselves as the Free Syrian Army and include many army defectors like Mr. Somaa.

The rebel fighters and their supporters have been dejected for months over losses in northern Syria that their foreign backers did little to prevent, and a fear that the United States and Turkey are preparing to abandon them in pursuit of a broader deal with Russia.

In this context, some rebels saw the new operation as a chance to show a bright spot in their efforts.

For rebels, the operation was also a chance to show they could separate themselves from extremists, a key bone of contention in talks between the United States and Russia on steps to end the war. They widely shared pictures of themselves sleeping in the street rather than entering local homes, wanting to show that they could be trusted to take over an area without looting it or abusing the residents, as many combatants have done.

But by Sunday, there were reports that Turkish airstrikes had killed 35 civilians in Kurdish-held villages. And there was a video online showing rebels kicking prisoners from the Kurdish-led militias. Mr. Somaa said he had not seen those abuses. But he said Kurdish militias had received United States backing to battle Islamic State, “not to occupy Arab lands.”

For Mr. Somaa and many others in the rebel force, the offensive is also a chance to reclaim their home region. He is originally from the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militias recently seized from ISIS — with American air support. Now, the Turks and rebel leaders say they are bent on taking it from the Kurds and forcing them out of the area.

Free Syrian Army fighters and Turkish Army tanks moved last Wednesday toward the border to Jarabulus, Syria. Credit Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The somewhat murky outlines of the Turkish-backed rebel ground force are now coming into sharper focus. It appears to consist of about half a dozen groups that brand themselves as the Free Syrian Army, most of them recipients of aid from the United States and its allies. The flags of the groups, including those of Faylaq al-Sham and Furqa Sultan Murad, could be seen in videos of the advancing columns and in the streets of Jarabulus.

Another group taking part was Nooredine al-Zinki, which has received covert aid from the United States and its allies on and off, but has also been accused of having ties to Qaeda-linked groups — and was widely condemned when a group of its fighters videotaped themselves beheading a young prisoner.

The group’s leaders said they would discipline the killers, and its participation in the Jarabulus operation was an indication that it has not been completely shunned, at least by Turkey.

But considerable confusion remained about the goals of the Turkish-led offensive. Ahmad Kanjo, a Zinki field commander, said on Friday that the rebels planned to keep fighting and advance west toward Al Bab, the largest town in the area still held by ISIS.

But by Sunday, the main thrust of the operation was to push south to take territory not from ISIS but from Kurdish-led groups that had already driven ISIS from those areas.

By then Mr. Kanjo seemed unsure of what was even happening in the operation, saying he at first mistook Turkish airstrikes for American. “I don’t know who is bombing who,” he acknowledged, adding that he felt that he and his men were being used by so many different interests that they felt like a highway.

“There are many different cars driving on us,” he said.

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