POLITICS
10/29/2014 08:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2014

U.S-Backed Syrian Rebels' Pleas For Help Likely To Go Unanswered

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WASHINGTON -- As Islamic State militants inched closer to seizing control of the Kurdish town of Kobani, the international community heaped shame upon neighboring Turkey, condemning it for standing aside and allowing the slaughter to take place for its own political interests.

Turkey's government, which sees Syrian President Bashar Assad as its prime enemy in Syria, initially saw little reason
to attack Assad's most powerful foes. It was particularly unwilling to aid Syrian Kurds, whose leadership is aligned with Kurdish militants within Turkey. But under intense pressure from the U.S. and its coalition allies, Turkey recently allowed Iraqi Kurds to travel across its border into Syria to shore up Kobani's defenders.

Less than a hundred miles away in Aleppo, non-extremist Syrian rebels say they may be wiped out by Assad's forces. This time, the ally withholding help for political reasons is the United States.

U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, described by the White House as essential partners in the fight against the Islamic State, say they are in the fight of their lives in northwestern Syria -- and that without immediate assistance from the U.S.-led coalition, they will be weakened to the point where they will be of little use against the extremists. They warn that unless aid -- particularly in the form of weapons -- arrives, there could be a mass slaughter of civilians, along with a milestone recruitment moment for ISIS.

But that assistance looks like it will never come through.

Syrian opposition figures, U.S. officials and outside analysts have told The Huffington Post that because of the complex mix of forces involved in these battles -- particularly Iranian squads backing the Syrian regime -- and growing distrust between the U.S. and the rebels, there is little chance the coalition will aid the rebels in Aleppo and Idlib.

Free Syrian Army rebels have told the U.S. their chief goal is toppling Assad, who is presently pushing to take over Aleppo. Over the weekend, they were outraged when White House envoy Gen. John Allen told an Arab newspaper the U.S. goal in Syria was not to help rebels end Assad's rule but to make them part of a negotiated political end to the civil war.

Those sympathetic to the rebels believe U.S. policymakers, long wary of toppling Assad, are loath to aid rebels in regions targeted by Assad because of Assad's support from Iran. At a time when U.S. relations with Iran are better than ever before and a deal over Tehran's nuclear program seems within reach, they say, Washington does not want to be responsible for undermining Iran's chief client -- or empowering U.S. allies in Syria to do so.

Two leading Syrian opposition figures -- Oubai Shahbandar of the Syrian Opposition Coaltion and Mohammad Al Abdallah, a Syrian activist in exile who runs the Syria Justice and Accountability Center -- told The Huffington Post they believe the United States' Syria policy is being influenced by its interests in a relationship with Iran. Scholar Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, also said this is a likely U.S. rationale.

"It is imperative that the administration not value a deal on Iran's nuclear program above ensuring the safety of its partners in Syria," Shahbandar said.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on Iran's relevance to the United States' Syria strategy. Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator working on the administration's efforts to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, said in a Washington address last week that broader regional concerns -- including the fact that Iran and the U.S. are both working to undermine the Islamic State in Iraq -- would not affect what she described as a "single-track negotiation."

But the Wall Street Journal revealed Tuesday night that U.S. officials have explicitly told Iran that their strikes against the Islamic State in Syria will not target Assad's army or the Iranian fighters working alongside it. It is those Iranian forces, Shahbandar said, that are now moving to quash the U.S.-allied rebels.

The rebels describe themselves as squeezed between forces loyal to Assad in the south, and fighters with al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra (a temporary ISIS ally) in the north. They likely will have to defend themselves without direct help from their ostensible partners.

Shahbandar told The Huffington Post at least two major U.S.-vetted groups in Idlib, the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm, are at risk of losing "a critical line of supply from the Turkish border."

"I spoke to the FSA commanders in the field, and they are extremely concerned, particularly since ISIS is moving aid and reinforcements to Nusra in this area," Shahbandar, whose group liaises regularly with the FSA, said in an email Tuesday. The question, he said, is whether coalition airstrikes will help the FSA fight al Qaeda's affiliate or allow it "to overrun moderate forces."

Shahbandar told The Huffington Post in an earlier conversation that the U.S.-backed rebel groups also face a "true existential threat" from the combined forces of Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in Aleppo. His message echoed what Syrian rebels have expressed in recent days.

The U.S. has repeatedly condemned Assad, but has said it will not directly attack him in its present fight against ISIS. The Syrian president has used this guarantee of his safety to hit the rebels especially hard since the U.S.-led airstrikes began. Analysts told The Huffington Post this is because he likely believes the international coalition will deal with the ISIS threat for him. Assad began his latest assault on Aleppo, long a stronghold of the U.S.-backed rebels, at the beginning of this month.

A senior administration official told The Huffington Post the level of U.S. assistance to the rebels in the region is not likely to change immediately in response to Assad's moves.

“We continue to closely monitor the Assad regime's actions against the moderate Syrian opposition, and are of course concerned about any attempt by the regime to seek to exploit the coalition campaign," the official said, speaking on background to discuss administration strategy.

"We have been clear that we are increasing our support to the moderate Syrian opposition as a way to not only fight [ISIS], but to defend against regime attacks, as well as to further the goal of a political solution," the official added. "The train and equip program, which Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreed to host, is one important part of this effort." The official also noted that since the Islamic State is "a threat to the moderate opposition," U.S. efforts to degrade the Islamic State "will also benefit the moderate opposition.”

Tony Blinken, the president's deputy national security adviser, addressed the non-extremist rebels' demands for greater assistance at a Wednesday event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washintgon. Blinken repeated that the focus of the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes was on areas strategically important to ISIS. He added that the U.S. had taken action when it identified significant potential humanitarian catastrophes, like the ISIS attempts to capture the Yezidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq or Kobani earlier this month.

But Shahbandar said the rebels need immediate assistance -- faced with battles on two fronts, he said, they cannot wait until next year when the training program begins to send fighters into Syria. He added that Aleppo has more civilians at present than Kobani did when the U.S. intervened.

The administration's approach to the rebels' struggle reflects its increasingly difficult relationship with the groups it has said it needs to defeat the Islamic State, and the complexity of the three-year-long Syrian civil war in which the U.S. and its allies have inserted themselves.

The non-extremist rebels have played their own role in making U.S. inaction unlikely, said Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. Hassan said that while the rebels are in "a very tight position," they are unlikely to attract strikes or weapons assistance from the U.S.-led coalition because of their own approach to the fight against ISIS -- including their vocal criticism of the U.S.-led air campaign.

"The rebels are appealing for help, but at the same time, they don't seem to make a pitch," Hassan said. "They expect the world to help them without making any moves to provide anything in exchange. Just before the airstrikes, we saw a lot of gestures from some rebel groups saying, 'We will chase ISIS!' Now, we're not hearing that. There's a lot of cynicism towards the airstrikes, and there are no concrete promises to help."

He added, "They're just expecting the coalition to help them, to strike here and there."

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