With Washington's plans for rebel training in disarray, analysts say further setbacks could herald disengagement in US policy on Syria
The US Department of Defence went on the offensive on Thursday to deny reports that graduates of its Syrian “train and equip programme” were captured by al-Nusra Front shortly after beginning active combat.
After several US false starts to train so-called moderate rebels in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, reports that Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, trained under a new US programme, had been captured by al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, are potentially highly embarrassing for Washington.
Major news agencies including Reuters, AFP and the Associated Press reported on Thursday that fighters belonging to Division 30, a US-backed division of the FSA, had been captured by al-Nusra Front on their return from a coordination meeting in Azaz in Syria’s Aleppo province.
Reports surfaced after Division 30, reportedly the first group of Syrian rebels to receive training from the US Department of Defence (DoD), issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the capture of the battalion’s leader, Nadim Hassan, along with an unspecified number of companions.
In its statement, the group called on its “brothers” in al-Nusra Front to release captive members as soon as possible, stressing the “unity of the front” against common enemies.
Local news sites reported that negotiations for the group’s release are ongoing.
US officials have previously confirmed – although anonymously - that some 54 fighters from Division 30 of the FSA received US training in Jordan, before crossing back into Syria two weeks ago.
The small group of fighters was reportedly part of Washington’s “train and equip" programme, taken over the by DoD, analysts say, after the perceived failure of efforts backed by the CIA.
The latest programme, scheduled to have bases in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, launched in April, aiming to train 15,000 rebels over a three-year timeframe at the cost of $500mn.
The new programme aims to tighten vetting procedures, which this time include not just battalion commanders but all fighters.
However, the new scheme has faced serious setbacks, with US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter admitting earlier this month that, out of 7,000 potential candidates for the programme, just 60 had been successfully vetted.
US officials have also declined to specify whether the rebels, trained to fight IS but not the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, would receive air support if singled out by Assad, leading to concern that they could be left undefended as prized targets in a highly volatile country.
Amid these setbacks, the DoD and US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees military activity in the Middle East, attempted on Thursday to rein in media coverage implying that US-trained fighters had been kidnapped.
A CENTCOM spokesperson who contacted Middle East Eye on Thursday refused to deny earlier reports that Division 30 was receiving US training, but categorically denied that any of its graduates were captured by al-Nusra Front this week.
According to Washington’s narrative, while US-trained rebels were not themselves captured, some of Division 30’s top leadership was targeted by al-Nusra weeks after their fighters reportedly completed the programme.
FSA recruits perform training drills earlier this year (AFP)
At the time of publication, al-Nusra Front had yet to issue a statement regarding the capture or why Division 30 was targeted.
However, an FSA fighter close to another captured Division 30 leader wrote on Thursday that the group had been captured “on suspicion of collaborating with the US”.
The friend, Abu Omar al-Manbaji, said the capture was carried out despite the fact that members of Division 30 and al-Nusra had attended a joint coordination meeting at the latter’s local headquarters just three days earlier.
Despite reports of coordination, al-Nusra has historically come down hard on rebel groups seen to be cooperating with the US, branding them as traitors.
In March, Harakat Hazm, a group whose fighters received US training, was identified as a direct target by al-Nusra, which seized a huge cache of the Hazm’s US supplied hi-tech weaponry after an offensive in Aleppo province.
The day after that crushing defeat, Harakat Hazm announced it was disbanding, in a fresh blow for Washington’s policy in Syria.
Nadim Hassan, the Division 30 leader confirmed captured by his group’s statement this week, recently voiced concern that his group would become a greater target not just for more hardline rebel groups, but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday, Hassan said his group’s US trainers had not promised to protect the fighters if they came under fire by Assad’s forces.
Hassan also complained that the night vision goggles he requested from the Pentagon had yet to materialise, and that some of his fighters had threatened to quit over unpaid expenses.
Hassan, 49, originally from Aleppo, joined Assad’s armed forces in 1994 as a pilot, eventually rising to the rank of colonel.
However, he defected to join the Free Syrian Army in October 2012 – in a recorded speech announcing the move he appeared surrounded by FSA fighters, with the sounds of gunfire in the distance.
His armed forces card, held up to the camera as proof of his identity, shows Hassan - now in his early forties with a greying beard - as a young man sporting a bushy moustache and thick black hair.
A screengrab from the footage shows Hassan's armed forces identity card (MEE/YouTube)
In the video he denounces Assad and the shabiha, militias supportive of him: “Assad and the shabiha have the blood of Syrian children, elders and youths on their hands,” he says.
Battling Assad has always been the top priority for most Syrian rebel groups, and US demands that those it trains must focus on pushing out IS rather than toppling the embattled president have sat badly with many.
“The US is clearly strictly focused on counter-terrorism, not nation building,” says Joshua Landis, editor of Syria Comment and director of the University of Oklahoma's Centre for Middle East Studies.
“President Obama has tried to maintain a very narrow policy [in Syria], though many military leaders have criticised him, saying that it’s impossible to stop IS until you destroy IS.
“In some ways, though, the farce of the train and equip programme will only confirm that Obama was right to say the US should not get sucked into the quagmire in Syria.”