Two rounds of U.S. airstrikes in northwest Syria since September have destroyed bases and weapons depots linked to the al Qaida-backed Nusra Front, but the more serious damage may have been to the fragile political balance, helping to tip an entire province dominated by pro-Western fighters into the control of al Qaida, rebel commanders say.
Moderate rebel field commanders, holding emergency meetings in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli as they try to regroup, speak of a popular backlash caused by the bombings that gave Nusra an advantage when it moved against them in Idlib province and forced them to disarm or flee. They voice anger at the United States for attacking Nusra, which has been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations for nearly two years, without first considering how the action might affect their own battle against the government of President Bashar Assad.
U.S. officials have said the strikes on Sept. 23 and Nov. 6 targeted a group of al Qaida operatives that American officials call the Khorasan Group, describing them as Arab veterans of the war in Afghanistan whom al Qaida dispatched to Syria to plot attacks on U.S. and other Western interests.
They include a former French intelligence operative who joined Nusra and became a bomb maker. Both rounds of strikes targeted the operative, who’s been identified as David Drugeon. He apparently escaped both alive, though he appeared to have been injured in the most recent attack, a witness told McClatchy this week.
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“They jumped out of the car. I saw him,” said the witness, who insisted on withholding his name and nationality for his own safety. A missile destroyed the car, and Drugeon was taken by ambulance to the Shifa hospital near the Bab al Hawa border crossing to Turkey, according to the witness. After 24 hours, Nusra removed Drugeon to an undisclosed location, the witness said.
Whatever the U.S. intent, commanders say the first attacks – the U.S. targeted eight Nusra bases on Sept. 23 where it thought members of the Khorasan Group were housed – created a wave of sympathy for the al Qaida affiliate among Syrians, both the general public and, more importantly, the fighters.
That “supportive factor” allowed Nusra to sweep through Idlib province this month, displacing the more moderate rebel groups, said Gen. Ahmed Berri, a veteran commander from Hama province whom civilian opposition leaders selected last month to be the chief of staff over rebel forces. Nusra said it was targeting corrupt rebel leaders.
Two major rebel groups were forced out of their bases in the Zawyah mountains, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front – led by Jamal Maarouf, a civilian who’d led a successful offensive against the Islamic State in January but was widely accused of corruption – and Harakat Hazm, a movement of secular fighters said to be the biggest recipients of U.S. military aid.
Neither side deployed large numbers of fighters for the battle, but Nusra had the advantage, commanders said, because the two secular groups’ fighters weren’t willing to battle Nusra, which had been fighting Assad government forces.
“Then the coalition came and bombed it, so people in Syria considered that the coalition was supporting the regime,” Berri said. That did “a lot of damage” to the moderate rebels.
“We lost credibility before our people, because they think it’s the Assad regime doing the bombing, whereas it is the coalition,” Berri said.
Gen. Jamil Radoon, a commander who’s been approved to receive aid through a covert program administered by the CIA, put it more bluntly. The U.S. bombing “is the main reason behind the backlash,” he said. “But we should not ignore that Nusra has a good reputation of fighting the regime.”
Rebel commanders say their effort to regroup is complicated as well by what they say appears to be a change in Nusra leadership that’s now more sympathetic to the Islamic State.
Berri said fighters from the Islamic State, “pretending they were defectors,” had joined Nusra “and now they almost control the decision-making.”
An additional menace for moderate rebel forces in north Syria is the re-emergence of Jund al Aqsa, a group that has close ties with the Islamic State and may be a proxy. “They are more dangerous than Nusra,” Berri said.
One prominent Syrian religious scholar here, who’s in close touch with forces throughout Idlib, said he thought the Islamic State now was running the province through proxy forces, a situation he defined as a “mandate,” a reference to the kind of indirect rule seen after World War II, when Syria was under a French mandate.
The Islamic State mandate stretches throughout the countryside, said the cleric, Sheikh Hasan Dughem. “Even in the contested places, their vehicles move freely and there are no checkpoints to stop them,” he said.
“The sleeper cells of Daash are no longer sleeping,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Now there is a Daash mandate in Idlib.”
Berri and other rebel military officers say they haven’t been consulted at any time during the U.S. bombings and Berri said the U.S. hadn’t responded to his request for consultations.
“Sometimes, the Americans think that they are the only ones who know the truth,” he said. “We have an Arab proverb: Those who ask for counsel will never be let down.”
Another commander warned that if the U.S. doesn’t shift its policy, it will become the enemy. In the current public climate, “I cannot say I am receiving support from the Americans,” said Capt. Musa al Hammoud, who commands rebel fores in the western countryside outside Maarat al Numan, south of Idlib.
“And if American policy continues like this – looking only to its own interests, and targeting Islamist groups without targeting the regime – America will become the real enemy. And there’s the danger” that the Syrian people will turn to Nusra or the Islamic State “in order to target American interests even before those of the regime.”