|Tweet by Rep. Walter Jones.|
By Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Moderate U.S.-backed Syrian rebels seemed weaker than ever on Monday after a weekend of major defeats in the northwestern region of the country, raising questions about the U.S.-led coalition's plan to arm and train the groups to fight the Islamic State -- and the international community's commitment to keeping the moderates relevant.
The rebel groups have received U.S. assistance through the CIA since last year. In September, Congress approved a plan to offer them expanded training and equipment.
But Syrian opposition figures had been warning for weeks that these plans meant little without immediate assistance from the U.S. and its partners to help rebels secure their limited territory in the north. This weekend's events bore out their fears. Now, the U.S.-led coalition's plans to support the moderate rebels will, to put it mildly, have to be reworked.
Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front, defeated two of the most important U.S-backed rebel groups, the Syria Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm, in Syria's northern Idlib province over the weekend, securing weapons and bases. The Nusra Front on Friday took over the Revolutionaries Front's last main base, the hometown of its leader, and Hazm withdrew from its own bases the day after.
Moderate rebel fighters, opposition activists and rebel media sources also said that scores of fighters from the rebel groups had defected and that the Nusra Front had secured weapons stockpiles. Nusra Front fighters boasted on Twitter that they now had anti-tank missiles, the most advanced weapon the U.S. has given moderate rebels, the Telegraph reported.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Huffington Post that with the defeats in what had "consistently appeared a safe zone for purportedly pro-Western groups ... an era of Western influence [in Syria] may be coming to a close."
The al Qaeda affiliate's new level of control over the province will make it more difficult for moderate rebel groups to receive lethal assistance through the border crossings there, Lister said. Key pipelines for such assistance from Turkey, where CIA officials and representatives of other nations run a Military Operations Center to support vetted moderate Syrian rebels, run through Idlib.