WASHINGTON – Before it even begins, the U.S. training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces to fight the Sunni army ISIS appears to have become more difficult with the decision by a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group to join an Islamist coalition closely associated with ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front.
The Hazzm Movement, associated with the Free Syrian Army, is a secular Syrian insurgent group backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It was one of the last of the non-jihadist opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria.
Its leadership has decided to join the Islamist coalition of the Levant Front fighting around the key Syrian city of Aleppo, according to Arab news sources, including NOW Lebanon.
The turn of events comes even though Hazzm was viewed by one former Defense Department intelligence officer as a “model candidate for greater U.S. and allied support, including lethal military assistance.”
The Hazzm Movement decided to switch sides after months of battling Nusra fighters and join the Levant Front, which was formed in late December. It reportedly is on good terms with Nusra.
The development further complicates the process of selecting fighters for training. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told WND in January some 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army would receive training in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all Sunni countries – to battle the Sunni group ISIS.
At the time, Kirby said the training could begin in spring, but he noted the process of identifying and then undertaking training by U.S. Special Forces of “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIS was still being worked out.
“I think if we continue to make the progress that we’re making now, that we believe that we could start conducting some training of moderate opposition by early spring,” Kirby said.
“What I can tell you is that we continue to coordinate and plan joint efforts for training and equipping for moderate Syrian opposition forces” even though “no training has started yet,” he said.
Kirby pointed out that Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East, still was talking to officials of the three countries regarding how to implement the training program.
Each training period is expected to be four to six months, with trainees to number about 5,000 over the course of a year.
While Kirby made it clear that the training of Syrian opposition forces will be aimed at engaging ISIS fighters, Rami Dalati, a member of the FSA Military Command’s Higher Council, called on Washington to amend the military plan and allow the FSA to target not just ISIS but also Assad military forces.
“This is something we insisted on,” Dalati said.
Like the Hazzm group, however, FSA fighters have been known to defect to Nusra and ISIS despite Western backing. The reason given is to protect themselves from being killed by the more radical fighting groups that welcomed the defection.
“We ask our brothers in all other factions to resolve their disagreements with the movement through the leadership of the Levant Front,” a spokesman for the front said.
The Levant Front has the strong backing of Turkey, a member of the Western North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To date, Ankara, which has allowed Islamist fighters to move through its country to join Nusra and ISIS to fight Assad, worked with Nusra to recruit the Hazzm Movement fighters, according to informed Middle East sources.
The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that the Hazzm group remains in a CIA training program.
A request by WND to the CIA for comment went unanswered.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s World Food Program is investigating photos circulating on social media that indicate ISIS is distributing its food, the Associated Press reported.
‘Effective military force’
The Hazzm Movement, with ties to the FSA, represents a number of moderate rebel groups battling the Syrian military and, at one time, ISIS, in northern Syria.
According to informed sources, the group has been seen operating U.S.-manufactured TOW anti-tank missiles which it received from Saudi Arabia with U.S. approval.
Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute and a former senior defense intelligence officer said the Hazzm Movement is a merger of some 22 separate rebel units.
Last year, White said Hazzm has “very little Islamist content,” according to its founding documents and Internet postings.
“In general, the movement appears more interested in warfighting against the (Assad) regime than the infighting that has long plagued the political and military opposition.”
He said the group was well organized militarily and “appears to be a model for the type of group the United States and its allies can support with meaningful, lethal military assistance.”
Saying that it “appears effective as a military force,” White said the Hazzm Movement has an inventory of heavy weapons and combat experienced fighters.
“Harakat Hazzm has many qualities that make it a good candidate for such assistance,” White said.
“It appears secular in orientation, is well organized from a military perspective, has a significant inventory of heavy weapons, operates across an important area of Syria and has an established combat record in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” he said. “In short, the group seems to provide at least a partial answer to longstanding questions about which rebel groups Washington should arm.”