CIA aid to Syrian rebels frozen after jihadist attack

CIA-coordinated military aid for rebels in Syria frozen since they came under Islamist attack last month.

Ben Ariel,

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels

CIA-coordinated military aid for rebels in northwest Syria has been frozen since they came under a major Islamist attack last month, rebel sources said on Wednesday, according to the Reuters news agency.

The sources said that no official explanation had been given for the move this month following the jihadist assault, though several said they believed the main objective was to prevent arms and cash falling into Islamist hands. They added they expected the aid freeze to be temporary.

The halt in assistance, which has included salaries, training, ammunition and in some cases guided anti-tank missiles, is a response to jihadist attacks and has nothing to do with U.S. President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January, two officials familiar with the CIA-led program told Reuters.

The freeze reflects the troubles facing Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in the six-year war against Syrian President Bashar-Al Assad.

The support funneled to vetted FSA factions has included contributions from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — states that have opposed Assad. It is one of several foreign aid channels to rebels. Others still function.

The CIA declined comment on the reported freeze in support. A Qatari official said his government had nothing to say on the matter. Turkish officials said only they could not discuss “operational details.” There was no word from Saudi Arabia.

In June of last year, reports surfaced that Jordanian intelligence officials stole weapons that the CIA and Saudi Arabia had supplied for Syrian rebels, then sold them on the black market.

The military equipment had been shipped into Jordan as part of the CIA’s secret program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight troops loyal to Assad. Some of the stolen weapons were used in a subsequent shooting attack on a police training facility in Amman.

Reuters confirmed the freeze with officials from five of the FSA groups that have been recipients of financial and military support from the so-called “MOM operations room.” It was also confirmed by two other senior FSA figures briefed on the matter, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

One of the FSA officials said he did not expect the rebels to be abandoned as they represent the best hope for blocking a further expansion of Sunni jihadi influence in Syria, and to fight back against the growing role of Iran there.

Last month’s assault on the FSA groups was launched by a group formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, which was Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in the war until last year when it formally cut ties with Al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The jihadi onslaught led several FSA groups to merge with the powerful Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, widely believed to be backed by Assad’s foreign adversaries in the region.

Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven Islamist rebel groups. It has taken a hardline approach, rejecting previous ceasefires with the Assad regime.

Ahrar al-Sham is has previously fought alongside Al-Nusra Front.

Before assuming office, Trump suggested he could end support for FSA groups and give priority to the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), which holds large parts of eastern and central Syria.

But Trump’s administration has yet to declare a firm policy toward Syria and Iraq, despite his repeated vows to eradicate ISIS, so it has been “business as usual” with covert and overt training and military support programs, one U.S. official told Reuters.

U.S. intelligence and military officials told Reuters that the leakage, sale and capture of U.S.-supplied and other weapons from units of the FSA to Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front, and other splinter jihadist groups have been a concern since the CIA and U.S. military began arming and training a limited number of rebels.

At the same time, one U.S. official said FSA groups continue to mount significant challenges to Assad.