Trained By U.S., Syrian Fighters Stumble As They Hit The Battlefield

Aug 6, 2015
Originally published on August 13, 2015 3:48 pm

A small group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters entered northern Syria late last month and waited for their mission. They were on a base, with American supplies that included heavy machine guns, communications technology and laser pointers for directing airstrikes.

These fighters are, in effect, the elite members of a much bigger rebel group called Division 30. Their mission is to fight the self-declared Islamic State, though there are multiple factions involved in the Syrian civil war.

But on July 29, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida captured the Division 30 commander, along with several of his men, as he was returning to base after a meeting. Two days later, al-Qaida attacked the base.

The al-Qaida affiliate, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, then made a video parading some of its captives before the camera.

Those seized included regular fighters from Division 30, as well as some from the newly created force. There are different reports on how many of each were taken.

A captive who is described as a guard from the Division 30 headquarters says the new fighters have direct contact with the Americans, and that each man received $400, 400 Turkish lira, an M16 rifle and a device to contact the U.S.-led coalition.

Few Rebels Trained

Last year, the U.S. Congress approved Pentagon training for moderate Syrian fighters to battle the Islamic State, but the effort has gone slowly. The goal is to train up to 5,000 fighters a year. But Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last month that only 60 had been trained since the program was established last fall.

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra said in a statement that American-backed rebels called in airstrikes for the first time after the attack on Division 30 that killed some of its men and forced it to retreat for a while.

But fighting continued, and most of the brand-new fighters who weren't captured are now laying low at bases. Some might be hiding in refugee camps or trying to flee to nearby Turkey.

An Inauspicious Start

Analyst Charles Lister follows Syria closely and says the episode "is not a particularly good indicator in terms of these forces' capabilities, in terms of protecting themselves against potential adversaries."

Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis says it shows the challenges in a dynamic and changing environment, and adds that hundreds more anti-ISIS fighters are in training. But one officer in Division 30 says the actions by the U.S.-led coalition didn't inspire much confidence.

The officer, Ammar al-Wawi, is in Turkey right now. He says the coalition delivered airstrikes, but they came an hour and a half after they were requested and far from the place where the battle was.

Plus, he says, the training of anti-ISIS fighters is taking too long.

Some moderate commanders on the ground said it could be a good sign that the U.S. is now bringing in airstrikes to support Syrian rebels on the ground.

But Adnen al-Hussein, a Syrian activist now in Turkey, says he sees the effort as a failure.

He says he knows people who were going to participate and pulled out before starting the training, because they wanted to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad, not just ISIS. And people will be even less likely to join now that they've seen what happened to Division 30.

Mohammad Ghannam and Alison Meuse contributed reporting.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A long-awaited phase of the U.S. effort against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, is in disarray. Last year, Congress approved Pentagon training of Syrian fighters to combat ISIS. Well, 10 months and $40 million later, a few dozen of them recently crossed back into Syria. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, they've now suffered serious setbacks.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Less than two weeks after they entered Syria, the newly-trained fighters hadn't started their mission. They were on a base with the new machine guns, communications technology and laser pointers for targeting airstrikes the Americans had given them. They're an elite part of a much bigger moderate rebel group called Division 30, and they were awaiting orders. Then on Wednesday last week, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida captured the Division 30 commander along with several of his men as he was returning to base after a meeting. On Friday, al-Qaida attacked that base.

The al-Qaida affiliate known Jabhat al-Nusra made a video parading their captives as they marched them along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORDHAM: They captured regular fighters from Division 30 and others from this new anti-ISIS force. There are different reports on how many of each.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: A captive they say is a guard from the Division 30 headquarters says the fighters there have direct contact with the Americans, who give them guns and money. The militants did acknowledge in a statement that for the first time, American-backed rebels called in airstrikes against them, killing some of their men and they had to retreat for a while. But the fighting continued, and most of the brand-new anti-ISIS fighters have scattered. Analyst Charles Lister follows rebel dynamics in northern Syria closely and says the crumbling of the U.S.-backed forces...

CHARLES LISTER: Is not a particularly good indicator of these forces' capabilities in terms of protecting themselves against potential adversaries, never mind ISIL. And of course, it impacts morale as well.

FORDHAM: Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis says the episode shows the challenges in a dynamic and changing environment, and says hundreds more anti-ISIS fighters are in training. But one officer in that moderate group, Division 30, says the U.S.-led coalition's actions didn't inspire much confidence.

AMMAR AL-WAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The officer, Ammar al-Wawi, in Turkey right now, says, "the coalition did bring in air strikes, but they came an hour-and-a-half after they asked for them and far from the battle."

AL-WAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Plus," he says, "this training of anti-ISIS fighters is just too slow."

NPR spoke to some moderate commanders on the ground encouraged to see the U.S. airstrikes supporting their guys, but others disagree.

ADNEN AL-HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Adnen al-Hussein, a rebel activist now in Turkey, says he sees the scheme game as a failure.

AL-HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He knows people who were going to participate and pulled out before starting the training because they wanted to fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not just against ISIS, and people will be even less likely to join now they've seen what happened to Division 30. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.