In the skies over Syria, U.S. and Arab combat aircraft have bombed Islamic State targets 20 times since Tuesday. But on the ground, commanders for rebel groups that are part of a CIA-run program say they’ve pleaded in vain for arms, ammunition and even field rations so they can fight the same extremists.
Although they are among the few chosen to receive aid under the covert U.S. program, the commanders say the U.S. has done little to help them as they struggle to hold onto their main supply route from Turkey against a determined Islamic State offensive.
The stakes are high in the 6-week-old ground fight with the Islamic State in small towns north of Aleppo. The outcome will determine not only if the rebels can continue to be supplied, but whether they will hold onto portions of Syria’s biggest city.
Rebel leaders say they’ve stopped the Islamic State’s advance and recaptured several villages. But no one is bragging, because they fear that after the Islamic State finishes its attack on the Kurdish Kobane region to the east, it will send reinforcements to the Aleppo front.
The stalemate north of Aleppo is the latest sign of the United States’ ambivalence toward forces that it is backing covertly already. None of the recent coalition strikes over Syria has targeted the Islamic State positions north of Aleppo.
There are now 10 groups fighting north of Aleppo, near the town of Mare, but the U.S. and its allies “offered very little ammunition support, no information, no air cover, and no collaboration in military plans and tactics – nothing,” said Col. Hassan Hamadi, who defected from the Syrian army and now heads the newly formed umbrella group Legion 5.
“I’ve gotten a little ammunition, but I don’t have enough to continue our presence at the front line,” said Col. Jemil Radoon, a defected Syrian army officer who dispatched 55 fighters from his Sukhur al Ghab brigade to join battle with the Islamic State.
Like others among the dozen or so rebel commanders who’ve been approved to receive covert U.S. aid, Radoon and Hamadi visit this Turkish border town regularly to seek support from CIA officials and representatives of other nations that staff the Military Operations Center here.
“Our problem with them,” Radoon said of the MOC, as it’s known, is that it “walks like a turtle, and things on the ground go like a rabbit.”
The covert aid program predates mid-June, when the Islamic State startled the world by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, and swept through northern Iraq, then doubled back to Syria to expand its grip on large parts of that country. The Military Operations Center “promised us bulldozers, trucks, ambulances three months ago,” Radoon said. “They haven’t delivered. We don’t have even food packets. It is a big burden on us.”
The list of gripes is long and growing. Rebel commanders are deeply upset that the coalition bombing runs targeted the Islamic State and positions of the Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate that is considered a rebel ally, but not the government of President Bashar Assad, which they accuse of collaborating with the Islamic State.
The battle north of Aleppo began Aug. 14, when the Islamic State opened an offensive, capturing the town of Akhtarin. The campaign, the rebels said, was clearly aimed at capturing Tal Rifa’at, Mare and Azaz, towns on a critical supply route to Turkey. The commanders say that as the Islamic State used its heavy weapons on the ground, the Assad air force bombed the rebels from the air.
Rebel groups working with the MOC sent reinforcements, said Radoon. They blocked the Islamic State advance but had to break off when they ran short of supplies, commanders said.
Numerically, the forces were of similar size, with hundreds of fighters on each side. But in weaponry they were unevenly matched. “We have light weapons,” said Radoon, “and what we capture from the regime.” The Islamic State has “hundreds of 23mm machine guns,” he said, referring to the tripod-mounted, belt-fed weapons that have been infantry mainstays for decades. “We dream of getting just one.”
For rebels it is a two-front war. When the Islamic State slackens its pace, the government seems to fill the gap. Its planes bombed Mare, and at some locations along the 35-mile front, rebels face the Islamic State and at others, pro-Assad forces. The government is not fighting the Islamic State at any location on this front, commanders say.
On Thursday, the regime bombed rebel military convoys moving between the towns of Al Braij and Mare in what Ghassain Yassin, an Aleppo journalist who closely follows the conflict from Gaziantep, Turkey, said was an attempt to prevent the rebels from fighting the Islamic State.
Since the coalition bombing began Tuesday, the Syrian government has stepped up pressure on rebel fighters in central Syria, where MOC-supported units had withdrawn fighters in order to send them to the Aleppo front, according to anti-Assad media activists.
Elsewhere in the country Thursday, government aircraft struck the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb, Alhabeet and Haas in central Syria, and dropped improvised munitions known as barrel bombs in Kafr Zeita and Latamena. There were at least 60 airstrikes in northern Hama province.
The failure to coordinate the current coalition air campaign with rebel ground forces fighting the Islamic State has left commanders baffled.
“There are now 50 countries joining the war against terrorism, but this war will be fought from the air, with no boots on the ground,” said Hamadi. “According to military tactics, this is useless.”
The commanders bitterly criticized the Military Operations Center, saying it plays no part in coordinating rebel forces but instead operates as a service bureau for commanders who arrive with plans in hand. Even after the Islamic State captured Mosul in early June and swept through northern Iraq and then Syria, the MOC did not attempt to organize a joint offensive against the extremists, using the thousands of rebel troops benefiting from the aid it distributes in Syria, commanders said.
The MOC did not even ask the advice of commanders, said Capt. Ma’amun al Swed, the commander of the Haq Front. Those running the operation “asked us about the existence of Daash and its spread, but didn’t say we were going to work against it,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic nickname for the Islamic State.
Swed said he wouldn’t divert his own forces from northern Hama, where they’re based, unless there was a plan to support them. “If we leave the front line in Hama, the regime will take all of Hama,” he said.
Commanders said it was clear to them that the MOC wasn’t designed to conduct military operations. It’s staffed by representatives of the CIA and of the major countries backing the rebels, but it has never held a joint meeting of rebel groups.
“The persons we deal with are employees,” Radoon said. “They are responsible for reporting our opinions and our ideas, but they are not the ones who will make the decisions. The decisions are in the hands of the White House.”
The commanders said they don’t know what to expect.
“We don’t know what is in their heads,” said Hamadi. “It seems that there is a timetable, and at this time it is not in their interests to put an end to the Syrian crisis. They don’t take the lead. I don’t know what their strategy is.”