US Has Drastically Reduced Funding for Syrian Rebels: Daily Beast

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A rebel fighter rides a bike through an empty street in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 28, 2015. AFP/Karam al-Masri

Published Thursday, January 29, 2015

Over the past few months, the United States has significantly reduced its funding of the so-called moderate Syrian rebel groups, the Daily Beast revealed on Tuesday.

The Daily Beast reported that funding was cut to several groups for what the US deemed to be unsatisfactory performance on the ground. It cited an instance when US-backed militants in Syria’s Idlib province were defeated by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in October. Following the defeat, Washington immediately cut off funding for the group, eliminating them from the “ratified militias” list, which included up to 16 groups at the time. Twelve remaining groups have since seen cuts or complete suspension of their funding.

The Wall Street Journal revealed on Monday that Syrian rebel factions were fighting with scraps left from the latest US military aid. Most of the 5,000 CIA-trained fighters have either been killed, disappeared or defected to stronger factions which receive military funding from elsewhere.

One such group is the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, funded primarily by Saudi Arabia, which does not hold a very significant presence on the ground according to a November Al-Akhbar report.

Other factions aligned to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have not received funding from Washington for a few months, although they still receive food shipments, the Daily Beast reported.

Even Washington’s favorite rebel group, Harakat al-Hazm (Steadfast Movement), has also faced severe cutbacks in recent months. In May, Al-Akhbar reported that the movement, original name was Harakat Zaman Mohammad (Movement of Mohammad' Era), had roots in Islamist factions, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, discrediting US claims that it is a secular movement. The US has provided Harakat al-Hazm with high end weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles.

“What are the fighters meant to do?” one rebel commander complained to the Daily Beast, while another said “they have families to feed. The idea that they don’t have the money is insulting. I don’t believe this — it is a political decision.”

The relation between the US and Syrian militant groups has grown into one of mistrust. The militants are afraid the US might be pushing for a compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its increased focus on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group. Washington, on the other hand, is concerned that the rebels which it financed and trained are ineffective on the ground and that they might defect to stronger jihadist groups, or that US-supplied weapons might end in jihadist hands.

The US administration, however, still maintains publicly that it will continue supporting rebel groups in Syria, while US officials insist cutbacks are on a “case-by-case” basis, implying failures on the ground are the primary reason behind the cutoffs.

“They didn't fight hard enough,” a state official told the Daily Beast, referring to the October defeat against Nusra Front in Idlib. At the time, a number of militants defected and joined ranks with Nusra Front — a jihadist group fighting both government forces and rebel groups in Syria.

A US official said that some Western-backed factions were “getting too close for our liking to al-Nusra or other extremists,” a position some rebels said justified as a pragmatic alliance to counter government forces.

A rebel commander told the Daily Beast that rebel brigades in Aleppo felt they had no choice but to collaborate with the Nusra Front, the strongest group in the war-torn city.

“What do the Americans expect us to do?” he asked. “Al-Nusra is popular here. It is a perilous time for us — Assad is pushing hard.”

Political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria Evan Barrett doubled down on the commander’s point.

“It’s not just that the administration is failing to deliver on committed resources, it’s that they aren't even communicating with formerly affiliated battalions regarding the cutoff. This puts our former allies in an incredibly vulnerable position, and ensures that groups like al Nusra will be able to take advantage of their sudden vulnerability in the field,” Barrett told the Daily Beast.

Washington has put its weight behind the FSA, providing it with military and financial support as well as intensive media coverage, and branding it as a homogeneous secular army representing the political Syrian opposition on the ground.

The Daily Beast report comes at the opportune time, when US President Barack Obama is pushing to increase the US military budget to $585 billion for 2016, covering spending on weapons, research and maintenance.

The request, which exceeds funding caps mandated by Congress, would invest $107.7 billion in weapons programs, an increase of $14.1 billion over the previous year, and provide $69.8 billion for research and development, up $6.3 billion from the last budget, an official said.

The budget would also devote $50.9 billion to the American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Washington has launched an international campaign against ISIS since August and September in Iraq and Syria respectively.

The anti-ISIS campaign is said to target the extremist group which declared a “caliphate” on large territories it seized in the northeastern provinces of Syria, and northwestern and western parts of Iraq.

The campaign has cost the Iraqi government more than $260 million, and the total cost of operations related to ISIS in Iraq reached $1.3 billion as of January 9. The average daily cost of US-led anti-ISIS coalition efforts is $8.3 million according to the Department of Defense’s website.

The US, along with other Arab and regional countries, have been criticized over their intervention in the region, ever since the Iraqi invasion which turned the country into a hotspot and a safe haven for extremist groups and predecessor of jihadist groups such as ISIS and Nusra.

(Al-Akhbar)

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