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US cuts funding to numerous Syrian rebel groups

Revelations come despite promise from US to continue training fighters within the country
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army in battle at Deraa (MEE/Abo Bakr al Haj Ali)

Many of the 'moderate' Syrian rebel groups have had their funding cut in the past few months, despite a renewed pledge by US President Barack Obama last week to support the groups.

Four of 16 US-approved rebel brigades operating in the north of Syria have had their funding cut and been removed from the list of ratified militias, according to a Daily Beast report on Tuesday citing a US State Department official and opposition forces.

Syrian rebel sources have alleged that the 7th Division, affiliated with the Syria Revolutionaries Front and allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has not received salaries from the CIA in months, according to the report.

Similarly, Harakat al-Hazm, one of the few brigades to be supplied with heavy weaponry, including TOW anti-tank missiles, is now receiving roughly half the amount of salaries for its nearly 4,000 fighters as it had previously.

The CIA had previously trained nearly 5,000 fighters in the country, but a variety have disappeared or defected to “extremist” groups like the Islamic State (IS) or the al-Nusra Front, according to the report.

“It’s not just that the administration is failing to deliver on committed resources, it’s that they aren’t even communicating with formerly affiliated battalions regarding the cutoff,” Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, told the Daily Beast.

“This puts our former allies in an incredibly vulnerable position, and ensures that groups like al-Nusra will be able to take advantage of their sudden vulnerability in the field," he said.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced it would be sending more than 400 US soldiers to train Syrian rebel fighters to fight IS, a move attacked by the Syrian government as “continuing to support terrorism in Syria".

The Pentagon estimated that it could train more than 5,000 recruits in the first year under a $500 million program, and that up to 15,000 fighters will be needed to take back areas of eastern Syria controlled by IS

Rebel plans 'illusory'

The revelations about the US activities in Syria come a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the country's strategy "illusory", arguing that any rebels trained would inevitably fall under the sway of IS and the al-Nusra Front.

"They are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army," he told Foreign Affairs magazine. "Bringing 5,000 (fighters) from the outside will make most of them defect and join IS and other groups. The idea itself...is illusory."

Assad also questioned the seriousness and effectiveness of the US-led coalition's campaign against IS.

"What we've seen so far is just, let's say, window-dressing, nothing real," he said.

"Did the United States put any pressure on Turkey to stop the support of al-Qaeda? They didn't," Assad said, referring to allegations that Turkey had facilitated the growth of the radical opposition in Syria.

He also criticised meetings with the Syrian opposition held in Moscow. The meetings, which opened on Monday, were supposed to bring together government and opposition representatives, but the main exiled opposition bloc, the National Coalition, announced it would boycott the talks.

"Who do you negotiate with?” said Assad. "We have institutions, we have an army and we have influence.”

"The people we are going to negotiate with, who do they represent?" he said.