WASHINGTON – A claim by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that some of the 600 tons of weapons the U.S. gave Syrian rebels last year ended up in the hands of ISIS is based on the Free Syrian Army’s initial cooperation with a Syrian-backed coalition of Islamic Front fighters.
The Islamic Front last December attacked the compound of Brig. Gen. Samir Idris, who was then chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, capturing two warehouses filled with weapons and non-lethal equipment.
After that development, the U.S. suspended all arms shipments to the FSA, who claim their primary enemy is the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Islamic Front was created last year and was comprised of seven so-called “moderate” jihadist militant groups opposing the Assad.
The new coalition does not contain the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups Nusra Front and ISIS. But Islamic Front members such as Ahrar al-Sham are difficult to distinguish from the al-Qaida-affiliated groups.
Ahrar al-Sham, for example, worked together last year to conduct joint raids with the Nusra Front and ISIS against Hezbollah and pro-Assad militias.
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had sought U.S. support to train and equip the coalition, but there was concern in Washington even last year that the arms could wind up in the hands of ISIS.
Many of the Islamic fighter groups that the Saudis had asked the U.S. to support later morphed into the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.
At the time of its formation, the Islamic Front had published a charter that stated its aim was to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria with the implementation of strict Islamic law, or Shariah – a development ISIS carried out earlier this year by taking over northeastern Syria and Sunni-controlled western and central Iraq.
Two years ago, the New York Times reported that arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad’s government were going to “hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.”
The Times extensively quoted American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
“The opposition groups that are receiving most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” one U.S. official said.
Instead of direct shipments, the U.S. was sending arms shipments through Saudi Arabia and Qatar that later were determined to be going to the hard-line Islamists.
Following the recent beheadings of two American journalists, President Obama reversed his previous stance and asked Congress to allow arms shipments to “moderate” fighters. The House approved the request, 273 to 156. The Senate similarly voted overwhelmingly to approve the measure, and Obama signed it into law.
Obama also stated that some 5,000 vetted “moderates” would be trained at a base in Saudi Arabia, which continues to back jihadist fighters.
However, there was criticism of the vote, with a number of congressmen saying the vote was rally a disguise to continue waging war on Syria rather than ISIS.
“Today’s amendment ostensibly is aimed at destroying ISIS – yet, you’d hardly know it from reading the amendment’s text,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. The amendment’s focus – arming groups fighting the Assad government in Syria – has little to do with defeating ISIS. The mission that the amendment advances plainly isn’t the defeat of ISIS; it’s the defeat of Assad.”
Two retired generals interviewed by WND also are at odds over just who those “moderate” fighters are.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely said the FSA needs the arms to continue battling the Assad regime. Vallely, who is close to FSA , believes that a non-aggression pact it recently signed with ISIS is acceptable since the main enemy is Assad.
“You can’t blame (the FSA) for signing a non-aggression pact with ISIS,” Vallely said. “You can’t fight Assad and ISIS at the same time.
“If FSA gets strong enough, it will do away with ISIS, so there needs to be some accommodation with ISIS,” he said.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, however, disagrees.
“I’m not in favor at all of training and equipping the FSA,” Boykin said. “Who knows who these people are?”
Members of FSA have defected to the Islamic jihadist group al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaida.
Boykin said that if there is a non-aggression pact, it is a strong indication FSA won’t fight ISIS. FSA’s primary objective is to bring down Assad. If they are given weapons to fight ISIS, that may not happen.
“They will use the weapons to attack Christians and attack Israel, and I don’t think (giving FSA weapons) is prudent.”
It was with the FSA that two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were embedded before they were sold to ISIS for up to $50,000 a piece and later beheaded.
WND sources say Foley and Sotloff had become increasingly critical of the so-called “moderate” FSA rebels in stories they filed for various media outlets.
“We have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with that we have vetted,” Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in a recent interview.
Nevertheless, fighters for the FSA are working more closely with al-Nusra and ISIS.
Weapons provided to the FSA from the U.S. and the Gulf Arab countries have made their way into ISIS hands.
“We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in Qalamoun,” said Bassel Idrisss, a commander of an FSA brigade.
“We have reached a point where we have to collaborate with anyone against unfairness and injustice, “said FSA commander Abu Khaled.