Just days after the U.S. and Turkey announced plans to create a safe zone in northern Syria, rebel groups in that part of the country are vying for a spot on the team that would oversee the mission on the ground with newly shipped American weapons. The competition took an extreme turn Thursday when news broke that the extremist Syrian rebel group aligned with al Qaeda had kidnapped the man tapped by the U.S. Department of Defense to lead the buffer zone mission.
A statement released by the moderate opposition group armed and trained by the U.S. accused Jabhat al-Nusra of abducting group leader Nadim al-Hassan and a number of his companions. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British group that reports on the conflict, said the men were abducted while returning from a meeting to co-ordinate efforts with other factions.
Other sources said the leaders of al-Nusra denied the kidnapping.
Source: Witnesses tell us kidnappers of U.S trained rebels R Nusra Front. We spoke to Nusra Emirs. They say they aren't holding them @akhbar
— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) July 30, 2015
Al-Nusra is aligned with al Qaeda and rose to power in Syria in 2012. The group is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington. Last year, it played a crucial role in routing fighters trained and equipped under a CIA-led program from major strongholds in the northern part of the country. The extremist group's strength, along with the rise of the Islamic State group, ultimately led to the downfall of the moderate opposition group in December.
The U.S. tried to spearhead a new program to train and arm 5,400 moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State group, this time under the direction of the Department of Defense. That program, though, has so far enlisted only 60 soldiers in Syria.
When the U.S. announced last year it was going to start the new training program in Turkey for Syrian rebels, the program’s target audience -- rebel groups based in the north of Syria -- hoped that the United States would not fail them again as it had before, fighters in Aleppo, Syria, told International Business Times. Now, their fears may be about to come true. The so-called train-and-equip program, which was set to start in May, has been delayed, and no one knows when, or even if, it will start. The reason, the rebels said, is a deep disagreement with Washington on whether they should focus on fighting the Syrian regime or the Islamic State group.
The U.S. program to train and arm Syrian rebels was delayed because of “technical reasons,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said this week. Both U.S. and Turkish officials said the program would proceed at some point, but Syrian rebels say there are too many disagreements -- between not only the U.S. and Turkey but also among the participating rebel groups -- to move forward.
Al-Nusra does not have a track record of kidnapping soldiers in Syria like the Islamic State group, which is alo known as ISIS or ISIL. It indulges in trade for weapons, but does not rely heavily on ransom money from kidnappings.
Given al-Nusra's track record with kidnapping, the moderate rebels are most likely being held in a detention center in Aleppo and will be used for leverage in negotiations with the U.S. and Turkey in regard to weapon shipments and cash support.
The kidnapping of the U.S. moderate rebels could put a major dent in the plan to create a safe zone in Syria, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said could pave the way for millions of refugees to return home.