July 31, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda Kidnaps U.S.-Trained Rebels in Syria
Even for a program with a troubling history of spectacular collapses scattered among a general sense of drift, the kidnapping of members of the U.S.-trained rebels known as Division 30 by Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria is a notable low. The U.S. effort to train moderate Syrian rebels has been marked by understandable concern that extremists or Assad supporters would volunteer, and the resulting fear that the U.S. was in effect training and equipping the next generation of violent extremists. According to recent statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, approximately 60 Syrians, mostly ethnic Turkmen, have completed the training and been deployed into the field.
This group is known as Division 30, and has only recently begun operations against the Islamic State in Syria, with small units moving south from Turkey, where the group is based. Division 30 has a clear mandate to only attack the Islamic State, and has communicated this to other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra in the hopes they would not interfere.
While there is no love lost between the Islamic State and al-Nusra and other groups in Syria, the notion that these groups would tolerate rebels trained, equipped, and financed by the hated United States is fatally flawed. Not only do these groups view such rebels as spies or disloyal to the Syrian cause, but they also resent their focus on the Islamic State instead of the one enemy all the rebels can agree on: the Assad regime.
This fundamental error was exposed with the July 29 kidnapping of up to 20 members of Division 30, including the overall leader of the group, Colonel Nadim al-Hassan. Shortly after crossing at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, the group was fired upon, and 20 rebels were seized along with their equipment. Division 30 released a statement accusing al-Nusra of kidnapping its members and demanding their release; al-Nusra has denied holding the rebels.
As seen repeatedly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, training is not the magic bullet its proponents proclaim. In this case, training may even be counterproductive, given that the small numbers of U.S.-trained rebels will always be outnumbered and considered outcasts by the much larger pool of Syrian rebels and thousands of foreign fighters—a sizable number of whom are extremist in nature. The cost per recruit trained so far is in the high hundreds of thousand of dollars, with nothing to show for the effort. As with last year’s collapse of Harakat al-Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front—and al-Nusra’s subsequent seizure of their equipment, including TOW missiles—al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has again frustrated hopes that U.S.-trained forces would play a meaningful role in the conflict.
The kidnapping of the Division 30 fighters might prompt a reexamination of the premise that small groups of U.S.-supported rebels can safely operate in Syria. The far more dominant groups such as al-Nusra, and of course the Islamic State, will likely never accept units of fighters that are acceptable to the West. More important than the fact that the numbers of Western trainees are woefully inadequate for the task of fighting the Islamic State, is the fact that they are not seen as part of the indigenous fight against the Assad regime—the fight that matters most to the rebels.
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