The latest in a series of dramatic but distorted headlines about Syria’s insurgency comes from the International Business Times, “US Stops Flow Of Weapons To Moderate Syrian Rebels, Considers Vetting New Groups In South”.
The article opens:
The U.S. is withdrawing its weapons support for the moderate rebel groups it previously backed in northern Syria after they suffered major defeats in Idlib province last week at the hands of an al Qaeda affiliate. Washington is searching for new fighters to prop up, members of the Free Syrian Army said Tuesday.
If true, this would be a significant shift in American operations. Washington has yet to overtly arm insurgents, although the Obama Administration has pledged $500 million to train and equip “moderate” fighters over the next year; however, the Central Intelligence Agency has covertly supported some supply of weapons to opposition units since early 2013.
However, on closer examination, the article by Erin Banco dissolves into little more than a bit of public relations from elements of the Syrian opposition.
Banco’s only significant source is Mohammed Ghanem of the US-based Syrian American Council, who says that it is “likely the weapons will stop”. However, Ghanem, who lobbies US officials in Washington, does not explain the basis for his “likely” — not “definite”, as the headline declares — assessment.
Banco then adds a supposed inside source from the US Government, “The Department Of Defense told the International Business Times Tuesday that it is currently not working with Harakat Hazm,” a brigade which has received US-made heavy weapons such as anti-tank missiles since early 2014.
But, as the NotGeorgeSabra blog notes concisely in its critique of the article, “The Department of Defense does not run the program arming Harakat Hazzm — the Central Intelligence Agency does — so of course the DoD isn’t in contact with Harakat Hazm.”
Banco’s last piece of evidence is the assertion of a Harakat Hazm commander at the start of October that the faction’s allocation of missiles had been exhausted.
However, NotGeorgeSabra refers to video of Harakat Hazm firing the TOW anti-tank missiles earlier this month, after the supposed cut-off:
Units of the Free Syrian Army posted footage this week of their use of the missiles:
So the story’s significance lies not in the “reality” of proving a halt to the US covert program but in its — inadvertent — illustration of how a bit of lobbying and public relations become a headline.
Here’s a possible scenario….
In recent weeks, there has been a sustained effort by groups in the Syrian opposition in Jordan, in Turkey, and in Washington to push for US military assistance for “moderate” insurgents. That campaign has warned: 1) that the Islamic State cannot be confronted by US aerial intervention alone; 2) that the “moderate” forces must be enabled to take on the Assad regime; 3) that, if the US does nothing, the insurgency will be taken over by “extremists” like the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra.
Amid this effort, Ghanem as part of his lobbying activities contacts journalists or journalists contact him. He gives his grim assessment to Banco, “The situation now in Syria….It’s not pretty to be honest with you. We don’t have high hopes.”
Banco recalls her story from the start of October, filed from Turkey, declaring, “US Airstrikes In Syria Weaken ISIS, But Strengthen Support For Al Qaeda Offshoot” of Jabhat al-Nusra. That article includes the claim from the Harakat Hazm commander of the cut-off, part of his lobbying effort for US assistance:
They should have received more funds and weapons, and in that case they would have been able to successfully fight ISIS [the Islamic State] and Al Nusra themselves. But the U.S. has so far not approved the Hazzm plan, Saleh said, even though the option was presented to Washington before the [US] airstrikes began [on September 22].
Banco apparently does not know — or does not care to mention — how the US covert program arming insurgents works, as Ruth Sherlock explained in The Daily Telegraph:
Rebel commanders apply for weapons directly to the operations rooms and state their case as to why they want the arms. “They have to apply for arms for individual missions,” the source said.
The operations room member states then discuss the need and decide how many to give. “They never give more than six or seven anti-tank missiles in one go,” the source said.
Then, if the commander wishes to continue to receive supplies, he has to return the used cartridges of the weapons to the operations room, thus proving that they used them and did not sell them on to another group.
In other words, the US had not “cut off” Harakat Hazm. The faction — which may have used up its latest allocation of “six or seven” missiles when she spoke to the commander at the end of September — was seeking a guaranteed expansion of the supply, rather than having to make periodic requests for a few more.
Banco does not indicate in her article if she investigated whether Harakat Hazm may have received some anti-tank missiles between the start of October and mid-November.
Instead, it appears that she called the Department of Defense for a statement. A spokesperson probably pushed aside her questions with the formulaic reply — technically true, but irrelevant to the story — that the Department “is currently not working” with Harakat Hazm.
So the article really does not establish anything of significance about the relationship between insurgents and the Americans in Turkey and Jordan who have been overseeing — sometimes in joint operation centers with officials from other foreign intelligence services — who have been involved in the covert arms program.
But Banco tries one more gambit: “Several videos were published on YouTube over the weekend following the attacks, one of which showed al-Nusra fighters purportedly driving tanks through Idlib with the U.S. weapons they seized from the moderate rebels.”
In fact, there is no evidence that any missiles in the Jabhat al-Nusra convoy came from the “moderates”, as they fought the Syrian Revolutionary Front and clashed with Harakat Hazm in northwest Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra has a stock of missiles which it has taken in battles with the Assad regime and has paraded them in previous videos.
As NotGeorgeSabra notes:
Rebel commanders (and their supporters) sometimes paint a strategically bleaker picture than what is actually going on in the hopes of getting more weapons and more support….
Combine [that] with the natural desire of newspapers for splashy, sensationalist headlines and the final product is a story that contains some truths…but that is on the whole false or mostly false.