WASHINGTON -- Moderate U.S.-backed Syrian rebels seemed weaker than ever on Monday after a weekend of major defeats in the northwestern region of the country, raising questions about the U.S.-led coalition's plan to arm and train the groups to fight the Islamic State -- and the international community's commitment to keeping the moderates relevant.
But Syrian opposition figures had been warning for weeks that these plans meant little without immediate assistance from the U.S. and its partners to help rebels secure their limited territory in the north. This weekend's events bore out their fears. Now, the U.S.-led coalition's plans to support the moderate rebels will, to put it mildly, have to be reworked.
Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front, defeated two of the most important U.S-backed rebel groups, the Syria Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm, in Syria's northern Idlib province over the weekend, securing weapons and bases. The Nusra Front on Friday took over the Revolutionaries Front's last main base, the hometown of its leader, and Hazm withdrew from its own bases the day after.
Moderate rebel fighters, opposition activists and rebel media sources also said that scores of fighters from the rebel groups had defected and that the Nusra Front had secured weapons stockpiles. Nusra Front fighters boasted on Twitter that they now had anti-tank missiles, the most advanced weapon the U.S. has given moderate rebels, the Telegraph reported.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Huffington Post that with the defeats in what had "consistently appeared a safe zone for purportedly pro-Western groups ... an era of Western influence [in Syria] may be coming to a close."
The al Qaeda affiliate's new level of control over the province will make it more difficult for moderate rebel groups to receive lethal assistance through the border crossings there, Lister said. Key pipelines for such assistance from Turkey, where CIA officials and representatives of other nations run a Military Operations Center to support vetted moderate Syrian rebels, run through Idlib.
The losses in northern Syria took place just 150 miles from the Kurdish town of Kobani, where the U.S.-led coalition has supported fighters on the ground by launching increasing rounds of airstrikes and helping backup arrive from Iraq.
The White House declined to comment on how these latest developments might alter its approach to the moderate rebels. A Department of Defense official told the Washington Post that while the Pentagon was monitoring the situation closely, it could not confirm reports from the ground. But in a major address last week, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken made clear that the Obama administration's plan for the rebels was not likely to change, even as they became weaker on the ground.
Asked about aiding the vulnerable rebels, Blinken said, "There is a very methodical campaign plan that is in development, and indeed we're starting to roll out on, and we have to stick to the plan."
"Unfortunately, every day there is going to be in some part of Iraq or some part of Syria, a community that is under siege, under attack, and is looking for help," he added. "We can't be every place, every time."
Analysts told HuffPost that the Nusra Front ratcheted up its ambitions after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing targets in Syria -- including early strikes in September on a Nusra Front base hosting a top specialized al-Qaeda unit. Though the Nusra Front has been battling the Syrian Revolutionaries Front since the summer, it had previously cooperated with that group and other U.S.-backed rebels to fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Islamic State, also called ISIS.
But once the U.S. indicated that it would be targeting the Islamic State and strengthening the moderate rebels, but not attacking Assad, the Nusra Front’s calculus shifted, analysts said. Its chief goal became taking over territory to prove its strength, particularly compared to rival extremists in the Islamic State, before the moderates became empowered or the regime extended its control.
"Nusra wants to build an emirate. They're all feeling pressure to copy the ISIS model, which has been so successful in terms of local rule, because people are hungry for local rule," said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the founder of the Syria Comment blog. "People are hungry for order, and they don’t care who is providing it -- which was, I think, one of the strengths of ISIS."
One activist told the Washington Post the Nusra Front had gained local support because of the unpopularity of the U.S. strikes, with moderate rebels losing stature as they became identified with an airstrike campaign more interested in the stated U.S. goal of degrading the Islamic State than the goal that opposition Syrians share with the Nusra Front: defeating Assad.
Separate groups of moderate rebels are currently being squeezed between Assad's forces and the Islamic State in another part of northern Syria, Aleppo. But Syrian opposition figures and U.S. officials told HuffPost last week that assistance from the U.S.-led coalition seemed unlikely to come through there either, because of both a U.S. assurance to Iran that it would not target Assad's forces and distrust between the moderate rebels and their international backers.
A source within the Syrian opposition, speaking on background to discuss military strategy, told HuffPost over the weekend that despite the new losses, U.S. Central Command -- which determines the location of U.S. strikes in Syria -- has yet to establish direct contact with the moderate rebels battling the Nusra Front, the Islamic State and Assad in northern Syria.
The rebels -- who are unofficially aligned in a coalition called the Free Syrian Army but are organized into largely autonomous brigades -- have made their own strategic mistakes, analysts noted.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who researches militants at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, told HuffPost that the Syria Revolutionaries Front "has only itself to blame for these losses" in Idlib. Al-Tamimi said the group underestimated the Nusra Front's territorial ambitions and alienated the local population because of its reported corruption.
The Free Syrian Army remains eager to fight the Nusra Front and other extremist elements in Syria, according to Oubai Shahbandar, a spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which lobbies for international support for moderate rebels and the removal of Assad.
Maarouf, the leader of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, said in a video statement after his retreat that his group abandoned its villages only to avoid civilian casualties.
Shahbandar said that U.S.-led airstrikes are "urgently needed" in Idlib.
Early reports on the Idlib losses suggested that the Islamic State had aided the Nusra Front in its assault, and opposition figures made similar claims to HuffPost last week. But HuffPost could not independently verify those allegations, and the groups have a history of tension that would complicate any merger beyond a tactical alignment.