ISTANBUL -- With weaponry little more sophisticated than homemade rockets fired from an abandoned hospital, a ragtag group of rebels somehow managed to chase the vastly better-armed forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the northern town of Al-Bab. It was the summer of 2012, and this seemingly impossible rebel triumph resonated as a signal that the tide of the civil war was turning. One of the strongest militaries in the Middle East was increasingly vulnerable to rebels lacking financial support and heavy arms.
The outside world knew these insurgents as a component of the Free Syrian Army, the entity U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration would back as the means of first toppling Assad and then avoiding a Syria governed by jihadist extremists. With the war then a just a bit more than a year old, the FSA looked like it could eventually defeat the dictator.
“I served 14 years in the Syrian military for Assad, and at first I had a misconception about the Free Syrian Army,” Yasser Hader said in Al-Bab in August of that year, when he was being held prisoner by the rebels. “But then I realized that these guys had a cause. I understood why they were fighting. They had families they need to protect.”
But their cause, a free secular Syria, and their momentum in battle would not survive for long.
The men of Al-Bab fought for almost three years with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, but could not take on Assad’s air force. Better-armed, richer fighters took their place. Today, four years after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Al-Bab has become the location of one of the main training centers for the Islamic State group, which is actively recruiting and training fighters, including children, in the area. The militant group formerly known as either ISIL or ISIS took over Al-Bab, once known for its textile production, in the fall of 2013. In doing so, it pushed out civilians who supported the moderate Free Syrian Army.
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The fate of Al-Bab, assimilated by religious extremists battling a brutal regime, is emblematic of dozens of towns throughout the country, where four years of carnage has left more than 200,000 dead and more than 9 million displaced.
The emergence of the better-armed, ruthless Islamic State group on the battlefield in Syria last year marked the beginning of the end for the opposition groups the U.S. dubbed the “moderate rebels.” Now, the men and women who sparked the revolution by demonstrating in the streets of Dara’a in March 2011 have fled, and the groups of men who took up what arms they could find to fight Assad’s military and eventually became the FSA have dissipated.
“There is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army,” said Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian activist and co-founder of ANA Press, a Syrian news outlet. “People still use the term in Syria to make it seem like the rebels have some sort of structure. But there really isn’t.”
The moderate movement in Syria could be considered officially dead as of last week, when the last U.S.-backed rebel faction, Harakat Hazzm, disbanded, its members joining extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda offshoot in the country. Some of the men joined a group called the Levant Front, a coalition of rebel militias that also has ties to al Qaeda.
“I think within three months or so the Levant Front will officially become a part of al-Nusra,” Jarrah said. “And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. The group’s relationship with al Qaeda is just a media one. The two groups don’t talk to each other.”
The Nusra Front, aka Jabhat al-Nusra, has picked up thousands of men who once fought under the umbrella of the FSA during the past three years. It offers its soldiers hundreds of dollars a month in salary and food installments. The soldiers in the FSA did not receive any monthly stipend. When extremist groups such as the Nusra Front gained ground in Syria and received millions of dollars in cash and weapons from wealthy businessmen in the Gulf states and Libya, the moderate rebels “had no other choice,” Jarrah said. “They feel like they are cheated, so they join ISIS.”
According to Jarrah: “This is the reason why the FSA was never successful. The countries that promised weapons haven’t provided them. They totally overexaggerated support.”
Jarrah, who is in contact with Gen. Salim Idris, nominally the commander of the FSA, said the leader dissuaded his soldiers from taking weapons from the Nusra Front because he did not want to be associated with the extremist group. Idris feared the U.S. would not support him should his soldiers appear to be close with a faction that had ties to al Qaeda.
“All the battalions fighting under his command would say, ‘These people are actually fighting, and they are spending money on weapons,’” Jarrah said. “Then Idris never got the weapons he was promised.”
As American focus shifted to fighting the Islamic State group rather than the regime, the U.S. began vetting and arming some opposition groups through the CIA in 2013, saying it supplied them with anti-tank weapons and ammunition -- but those groups said it was not enough to defeat the extremist group. Leaders of the FSA have said that with the equipment and money they have now they simply cannot fight the militant group, which is purportedly generating about $2 million in revenue a day.
Fighters in Harakat Hazzm, who got U.S. weapons, told International Business Times in interviews that Washington set them up for failure.
“They [the Islamic State group] have millions of dollars from donors,” said Oussama Abu Zayd, a member of Harakat Hazzm and one of its main advisers.
According to data obtained by IBTimes, the Hazzm movement received a total of about $6 million from the U.S. government in 2014, which works out to just $500,000 a month for a force consisting of 5,000 soldiers. According to Abu Zayd, only 40 percent of Hazzm’s budget went to weapons. And he said that until October the group received only 20 tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided anti-tank missiles from the U.S. every month, far too few to take on the Islamic State group.
Now, amid the dissolution of the secular opposition, the U.S. is changing tack.
The Defense Department is taking over from the CIA the task of propping up the rebels in Syria. It will be in charge of arming and training them at military bases in Jordan. In January, it confirmed it would send 400 U.S. military trainers and hundreds of other personnel to the Middle East to train Syrian rebels. The program, calling for the training of 5,000 rebels, will focus on defeating Assad’s forces near Damascus. It is still unclear which rebel groups will receive U.S. weapons and training.
Analysts have said any rebel group in the south of Syria that receives U.S. weapons will have a greater chance of succeeding, because it will not have to fight on multiple fronts. It will have to face Assad’s forces only, because the Islamic State group has yet to infiltrate the southern part of the country, where Damascus is located.
But in the northern part of the country, where the Al-Bab rebels scored that unlikely victory three years ago, there’s nobody the U.S. is supporting in the same way. The merging of the last remaining moderate fighters and Islamic extremist groups has complicated the calculus for Washington.
According to Jarrah, “If there isn’t a serious approach to supporting the moderate rebels, identifying them, and accepting groups like al-Nusra, then they are all going to become ISIS.”
Clarification: A quote in this story stated that the Levant Front will officially become a part of al-Nusra in three months. It is the other way around. Jarrah said al-Nusra members will become a part of the Levant Front.