The United States has stopped paying most of the pro-western rebels fighting in northern Syria and has suspended the delivery of arms to them, rebel commanders told McClatchy Tuesday.
A top civilian coordinator for rebel forces estimated that the cutoff affects 8,000 of the estimated 10,000 fighters in Idlib and Hama provinces, where the so-called moderate rebels face a severe challenge from the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
Commanders said CIA operatives told them the cutoff was the U.S. response to the Nusra gains, which have included the seizure of U.S.-supplied weapons from moderate rebel forces in recent weeks.
The commanders predicted the cutoff will only strengthen Nusra as fighters desperate to feed their families join Nusra or the Islamic State.
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Individual fighters were receiving $150 a month, the commander said.
“In November we received all kinds of support including salaries. This month support stopped completely,” said Col. Fares Bayyoush, leader of the Fursan al Haqq Brigade in Kafr Nabel, a town about 20 miles south of the city of Idlib.
On Tuesday, he reported later, a State Department representative informed him that non-lethal – food and medical supplies, primarily – would continue, but not pay for individual fighters.
Another commander, who asked not to be named so as not to worsen his relations with the U.S. government, said many of his fighters had asked him if they’d receive their December salaries at the end of the month. He had no response except to urge them to keep fighting.
“I did my best to assure them,” he told McClatchy. “I told them, ‘We must continue our fighting against the regime and support will come back as we achieve new victories.’ ” But if the suspension continues he predicted most of the fighters will quit.
“It’s a big mistake to cut off the aid,” said Razan Shalab Alsham, the field director for the Syria Emergency Task Force, which coordinates relations between the Free Syrian Army umbrella group and U.S. officials. “You are telling them to join the extremists.”
As many as 800 to 1,000 fighters from U.S.-vetted rebel groups already have joined Nusra, she said.
The deputy chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Ahmed Berri, who defected from the Syrian Army, denied that his rebel force was breaking up. But there was a grimness to his pledge to provide them with weapons and supplies “in the event they are available.”
The Obama administration declined to explain its reported action or the potential impact on the battlefield.
“I won’t have anything for you on this,” said Alistair Baskey, a White House spokesman on Middle East affairs. “We are standing up a train and assist program” for Syrian fighters, he added, referring to the $500 million program before Congress this week.
The CIA did not respond to requests for an explanation for the cutoff of arms and ammunition.
But the State Department said it continues to provide food, medical supplies, winter gear and trucks to vetted units of the armed Syrian opposition.
The aid cutoff will not affect fighters from two groups now fighting to hold onto areas of Aleppo, Syria’s one-time commercial center. Those groups include some 600 fighters from Harakat Hazm, which had been the biggest recipient of U.S. aid, and as many as 1,000 fighters fielded by the Nuruddin az Zinki force.
Those cut off include a larger group of Hazm fighters whom Nusra ousted from their bases in the Zawyah mountains in Idlib province in October, as well as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, led by Jamal Marouf, a civilian who’d led a successful offensive against the Islamic State in January but whose base was also overrun by Nusra, and the Haqq front, led by Malek Khalil. Both Marouf and Khalil have been accused of corruption, and Khalil earned notoriety by attacking Christian and Alawite villages with Grad missiles.
Alhamadee, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Reyhanli, Gutman, from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed from Washington.