Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is now using rebel groups paid for by a $1 billion U.S. taxpayer-funded program as its soldiers in a brutal war on the Kurdish-led forces in Syria—which were also armed and trained by America.
U.S. officials are describing these militants as “thugs, bandits, and pirates” as the Turkish-led Islamist forces are currently committing alleged war crimes against civilians and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria. Ironically, the United States armed many of these rebels as part of an effort to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Critics say that there were warning signs along the way year after year. In fact, Turkish-backed fighters recently videotaped themselves using a U.S.-made anti-tank rocket against an SDF vehicle, perhaps itself supplied by the U.S. military.
“If a fighter was in a faction that received weapons from the CIA, and is still fighting today—and that’s a big if—he is most likely in the ranks of the Syrian National Army,” said Foreign Policy Research Institute Fellow Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has extensive contacts with Syrian rebels.
Anti-Russia and anti-Iran hawks believe that the United States could have ended the could have pre-empted the whole mess in Northeast Syria—Turkey, the Kurds, ISIS, and all—by taking out Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now that the window of opportunity has passed, and as President Donald Trump doubles down on ending the “endless war” in Syria, anti-Assad hawks have shifted their attention toward using U.S. power to pressure the Syrian dictator into submission. But first, they have to clean up the image of the Syrian opposition.
The National Interest spoke to more than a dozen former officials, activists, and academics involved in U.S. policy towards Syria. Many were not willing to go on the record, but others were eager to point fingers for the current bloodshed and offer their own plans for the future of U.S. involvement.
Preying on Defeated Groups
Perhaps the most infamous incident of the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria was the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, leader of a local Kurdish-Arab-Assyrian political party. During a raid on the M4 highway, Ahrar al-Sharqiya rebels stopped Khalaf’s car, pulled her out of the war, shot her execution-style alongside several other prisoners, and mutilated the body.
Khalaf became an instant symbol of the plight of Syrian Kurds. Protesters as far away as Finland carried her photo. Ambassador James Jeffery told Congress that “the killing of a civilian Kurdish organization woman” had attracted “a great deal of media focus.”
As the National Interest previously reported, Jeffrey—who oversees Syria policy for the Trump administration—had slowed a statement condemning the killing of Khalaf, although State Department officials later called the assassination “troubling.”
Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which was founded by a former Al Qaeda member after he was expelled from the group’s Syrian branch in 2015, never received U.S. support. In fact, fighters with the group threatened U.S. forces embedded with Liwa’ al-Mu’tasim, a different Syrian rebel group, in 2016.
But both Ahrar al-Sharqiya and Liwa’ al-Mu’tasim are part of the Syrian National Army, an alliance of pro-Turkey rebel groups.
According to a study by the SETA Foundation, a pro-government think tank in Turkey, thirteen of the forty-one factions in the Syrian National Army were created after President Donald Trump cut off U.S. support to Syrian rebels. But of the twenty-eight older factions, twenty-one had received CIA or Pentagon support earlier in the war.
It’s no surprise that so many U.S.-backed groups are now part of the Syrian National Army, Tsurkov told the National Interest, because the alliance “includes basically the entire non-jihadist opposition” to Assad.
Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, claimed that the Turkish government built a “viscerally anti-Kurdish” army “by preying on defeated groups” and refugees inside Turkey.
But he said that most of the Syrian National Army groups were “essentially new.” Although the leadership was the same, many foot soldiers recruited from Syrian refugee populations would have been as young as twelve years old when they fled Syria.
Catnip for ISIS
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 when Syrians began to protest against the decades-long rule of the Assad family. The state’s security forces cracked down, but many army units mutinied to form the Free Syrian Army, kicking off a civil war that has not ended after eight years. Russia and Iran immediately lined up behind Assad while U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies provided $1 billion in weapons and other military aid to the Free Syrian Army.
This was not enough of a deterrent for some anti-Assad hawks, especially after Assad launched a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus in 2013. The Obama administration, which had claimed that chemical weapons were a “red line,” pointed the finger at pro-Assad forces. But facing backlash from Congress, the Obama administration did not respond with military force.
“Putin really went to school on the August 2013 red line,” said former Ambassador Fred Hof, but Trump’s airstrikes against pro-Assad forces in 2017 and 2018 proved that “you can react to these things, you’re not going to start World War III.”
Hof had overseen efforts at arranging an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty until March 2011, when Assad began to have “a fundamental legitimacy problem, and he is just not going to be able to speak for the Syrian people.” Hof stayed on the Obama administration as an advisor until September 2012, when he “had become convinced that the Obama administration had no appetite at all for defining the U.S. objective in Syria, or crafting a strategy.”
“None of us wanted to march into Damascus in say 2012, 2013,” former Ambassador Robert Ford, the last U.S. Ambassador in Syria, told the National Interest.
“Some people obviously think that if the United States armed the Syrian opposition generally, or at least moderate elements within the opposition, back in 2012 . . . we might have built a force which would have prevented extremism from happening in Syria at all,” said Wilson Center Fellow Alexander Bick. “That's not my view.”
“That’s a pretty big category—mainstream Syrian opposition,” he told the National Interest, calling the label “a misnomer because it's hundreds if not thousands of groups with conflicting ideologies, relationships with foreign patrons.”
Bick had worked on policy planning at the State Department from May 2013 to September 2014, and then as Syria director at the National Security Council until 2016.
Within the thousands of opposition groups, a force of Islamic extremists was jostling its way to the front—in part because U.S. allies were willing to support them, at least passively.
“It is very clear that the Turkish government, for reasons it should explain, let extremists go back and forth over the border,” Ford said during a November 1 conference call sponsored by the Turkish Heritage Organization. “We raised those questions [and] never got a satisfactory answer.”
“The American government believes that [extremism] is a serious problem,” he continued. “The Turkish government seems to believe…that a certain amount of Islamic extremism is ok.”
Eventually, the Islamist faction of the Syrian opposition split, as a group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) declared a worldwide caliphate for all Muslims—rampaging across Iraq and Syria, launching terrorist attacks against far-flung foreign capitals, terrorizing non-compliant Sunni Muslims, and attempting genocide against non-Sunni communities.
Some within the Obama administration blamed the United States for letting the secular rebels fall by the wayside. Hof told the National Interest in October 2019 that he saw Assad’s “brutality” as “catnip for ISIS.”
But Bick emphasized that “in 2014, when there was a strategy process inside the agencies, led by the National Security Council, when there was a process to develop a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, there was still an assumption that we would work with members of the Syrian opposition in order to fight ISIS.”
How to Fight a Monster
The U.S. military began to groom a Free Syrian Army faction to fight ISIS, separately from the intelligence community’s covert arms program. Gen. John Allen, then in charge of President Barack Obama’s anti-ISIS team, offering to protect them “when the time comes.”
It would seem to imply that the United States was planning to keep Assad from attacking them after ISIS was defeated.
Because most members of the Free Syrian Army were more interested in fighting Assad than fighting ISIS, only a few dozen troops graduated from the $500-million program, and Al Qaeda captured several of the U.S.-trained fighters.
“We would hear, ‘I have five thousand men’” from Syrian opposition leaders, said former Special Presidential Envoy McGurk, who ran the anti-ISIS campaign from 2015 to December 2018. “And it turned out there would be like twenty. This happened over and over again. Or, the forces that we wanted to work with were so riddled with extremists that our military repeatedly said, ‘there’s no way we can work with these people.’”
On the other side of the country—and the other side of the political spectrum—secular left-wing Kurdish forces were defying all expectations, holding off a massive ISIS onslaught in the border town of Kobane at the end of 2014. The U.S. military turned to the Kurds to lead a new alliance, called the SDF, that would serve as the core of the anti-ISIS effort.