A new military alliance of revolutionary groups in northern Syria has been formed and aims to widen the military operations against Assad regime in various regions, as reports said that the US support has been partially restored despite the recent change in the US policy towards Syria.
Two sources from FSA have confirmed that the new military operation room, under discussion, will be supported by the “Friends of Syria” – a coalition of the US, Turkey, Western European and Gulf states – which have supported the Northern Front’s operations room, known by its Turkish acronym MOM.
The commander said that the revolutionary forces will fight against the Syrian regime in northern Syria. He denied media reports that their goal would be to attack Tahrir al-Sham, a militant alliance dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front) which formally renounced its affiliation to al-Qaeda in 2016.
The FSA commander confirmed that the funding and logistical support for revolutionary factions in northern Syria which the CIA froze in February have been restored to a certain extent.
The previously frozen support
Reports confirmed in February 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”.
The halt in assistance, which has included salaries, training, ammunition and in some cases guided anti-tank missiles, was a response to militant attacks and has nothing to do with U.S. President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January, two U.S. officials familiar with the CIA-led program said.
“The reality is that you have changes in the area, and these changes inevitably have repercussions,” said an official with one of the affected FSA rebel groups. He said no military assistance could “enter at present until matters are organized. There is a new arrangement but nothing has crystallized yet”.
The CIA-backed program has regulated aid to the revolutionaries after a period of unchecked support early in the war – especially from Gulf states – helped give rise to an array of insurgent groups, many of them strongly Islamist in ideology.
A similar program continues to operate in southern Syria with Jordanian backing. Some of the FSA groups backed through the MOM in the north continue to receive Turkish support as they participate in the Turkey-led Euphrates Shield offensive against IS and Kurdish groups to the northeast of Aleppo.
FSA groups have long complained that the aid provided falls far short of what they need to confront the better armed Syrian army. Their demands for anti-aircraft missiles have been consistently rebuffed.
U.S. intelligence and military officials said the leakage, sale and capture of U.S.-supplied and other weapons from units of the FSA to Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and other splinter militant groups have been a concern since the CIA and U.S. military began arming and training a limited number of revolutionaries.
Newly formed alliance
The FSA is a loose umbrella of what are seen as moderate revolutionary groups. Previous attempts to establish unified command failed as the FSA succumbed to factionalism and internal disagreements.
Among the groups joining the new formation are Failaq al-Sham as well as FSA-affiliated Tajamo Fastaqim, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jaish Idlib. Fadlallah Haji from Failaq al-Sham has been chosen as its leader.
In January, a number of these groups, including Tajamo Fastaqim and Jaish al-Mujahideen, joined the ranks of the influential Islamist Ahrar al-Sham movement seeking its protection from attacks by JFS.
While ِAhrar al-Sham has not yet clarified its position on the newly formed unified command, according to Syrian analyst Ahmad Aba Zeid, those factions will continue their association with the movement.
Syrian analyst Mohamed al-Abdullah said that Ahrar al-Sham might be a key factor in the success of the unified command.
“Ahrar al-Sham will be the factor making or breaking this unification. If Ahrar al-Sham refuses to join, I don’t think this [unification attempt] will be successful. As we all know, Ahrar al-Sham is the main military force in the region,” he said.
Abdullah also explained that the revolutionary factions do not have much of a choice about joining the new operations room and that not doing so would mean a confrontation with the US.
The move to unify revolutionary factions in northern Syria came just a few days after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey.
Earlier last week, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the end of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in Syria, suggesting there might be future operations with Turkish involvement in Syria.
According to Aba Zeid, it is possible that the new unified command is part of negotiations between the US and Turkey in which the participation of Turkish-backed Syrian forces the battle for Raqqa is also on the table.
Ankara and Washington had disagreements on how to proceed with the anti-ISIS operation in Syria and specifically the capturing of Raqqa.
Turkey was angered by the US dependency on the YPG Kurdish militias in the battle to capture Raqqa, because Turkey considers the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension to the PKK group which is fighting the Turkish government for 30 years.
In March, US troops were deployed in Manbij, east of the territory controlled by Turkish forces and their FSA allies in northern Syria, in order to stop their progress eastward and prevent clashes with the SDF.
Abdul Majeed Barakat, political adviser of FSA forces which were included in the Euphrates Shield operation, said that Turkey had planned a unified revolutionary army under the name “Al Jaish Al Watani” or “Jaish Al Tahrir”. That force was supposed to lead a second phase of Turkey’s operations in Syria which was to focus on Idlib province. Barakat said that a number of meetings were held in Ankara between the Turkish authorities and revolutionaries commanders to discuss the issue.
According to the FSA commander, an agreement could not be reached on how to form an army out of all the factions that participated in the meetings and, therefore, the decision was made to have a unified command under the support of the MOM.
Another policy change?
Restoring the revolutionaries support came in a critical time because the US administration has declared recently that its priorities in Syria have changed and it is no more concentrating on ousting Assad.
The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators.
On Thursday, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, let it be known that the United States no longer seeks Assad’s ouster.
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backed Haley’s statement, saying that Assad’s future is up to the Syrian people to decide.
“I think the … longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson is due in Moscow next month for talks with Russian leaders, and Trump has long argued the powers should work together against ISIS.
However, restoring the support may hint at the US’ plans to use the revolutionaries as a new fighting force against ISIS rather than letting them have their own battles against Assad regime freely in the country.
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.