Friday 13 December 2019

Rebels defect over lack of weapons in war on Isil

An injured boy is taken to a hospital after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Assad in Raqqa, eastern Syria yesterday. Photo credit: REUTERS/Nour Fourat
An injured boy is taken to a hospital after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Assad in Raqqa, eastern Syria yesterday. Photo credit: REUTERS/Nour Fourat

Ruth Sherlock

Western-backed "moderate" rebels fighting jihadis in Syria are refusing to do battle and even defecting for lack of weapons and other promised support, leaders have said.

Despite US President Barack Obama's strategy, outlined last month, to arm and fund rebels to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and the Assad regime, arms supplies remained at a trickle, they said.

Even when they received weapons heavier than rifles, they came encumbered with bureaucracy.

"We decide on the mission that we want to do. Then we apply to the operations room for the weapons. If they agree with our military plan, some weapons arrive," said a commander with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed.

"If we receive Tow anti-tank missiles, we have to film every time we use one to prove that we haven't sold it on."

The conditions are imposed because of America's long-standing fear that weapons provided to the "moderate" rebels will end up in the hands of jihadis.

The recent experience of moderate rebels suggests this policy is backfiring.

Two of the most important American-backed groups were attacked and overrun earlier this month by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa'ida's branch in Syria, a defeat they put down to their lack of international support.

It was reported that Jabhat al-Nusra was able to capture weapons originally supplied by the West and its allies.

In his speech outlining his response to the threat of Isil in September, Mr Obama promised a "moderate" rebel force would be built up from scratch, starting with training 5,000 men. However, officials said this would take at least a year, and that Mr Obama's first targets were the jihadis.

The US then bombed Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Isil, even though the group had been fighting alongside the "moderate" rebels. In response, Jabhat turned against the western-backed fighters.

Abu Ahmed said he called for support from his Western backers in vain. "Some of the other Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups didn't come to help, because they feared that Jabhat al-Nusra would then turn against them too," he added.

Jabhat al-Nusra defeated a unit of one group, Harakat al-Hazm, and took large areas of Idlib province from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a major group led by the well-known rebel Jamal Maarouf.

Earlier this year, the Syrian opposition in exile and its British and American advisers made a concerted push to promote Mr Maarouf as a rebel "with whom the West could work", despite a reputation for war profiteering.

Abu Majid, another rebel leader, who has been receiving western support for six months, said it had not prevented his recent defeat by Jabhat al-Nusra and that he was losing faith. More than 1,000 men, half his brigade's strength, had left in despair, many defecting to Isil.

Defection to the jihadis has been going on for years. Mahmoud, a former prisoner of the Syrian regime who used to work for the FSA, now runs safe houses in Turkey for foreign fighters looking to join Jabhat al-Nusra and Isil.

He said he wasn't an extremist, just practical. "Many of my friends are doing the same now," he said.

"Isil is the only solution for us. If Obama had given support to the FSA things would have been different."

Meanwhile, about 13.6 million people, equivalent to the population of London, have been displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq, many without food or shelter as winter starts, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said yesterday. Amin Awad, UNHCR's director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the world was becoming numb to the refugees' needs. "Now when we talk about a million people displaced over two months, or 500,000 overnight, the world is just not responding," he told reporters in Geneva. The 13.6 million include 7.2 million displaced within Syria - an increase from a long-held UN estimate of 6.5 million, as well as 3.3 million Syrian refugees abroad, 1.9 million displaced in Iraq and 190,000 who have left to seek safety. The vast majority of Syrian refugees have gone to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, which Awad said "are putting us all to shame" with their support for homeless Syrian families.

"Other countries in the world, especially the Europeans and beyond, should open their borders and share the burden."

UNHCR says it is short of $58.5 million in donations to prepare 990,000 people for winter, money that would cover basic supplies. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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