ISTANBUL, Turkey — On the afternoon of Nov. 26, near the border in southern Turkey, Mohamed al-Kadi got behind the wheel of a white Isuzu delivery truck and drove into Syria. In the back of the truck sat a shipment of advanced communications equipment, provided by the United States. Kadi’s mission was to bring it to the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, the U.S.-backed rebel coalition whose main base sat just a few miles into Syria.
Kadi, a deeply religious man partial to Muslim prayer beads and oddball humor, was a tech whiz with a degree in computer engineering. He’d been a young lieutenant in Damascus at the war’s outset but defected early to the rebel side, where his computer skills saw him pulled from the front lines. He worked as a senior technician for the FSA’s high command, based mainly inside Syria. But shortly after he crossed into Syria that afternoon, Kadi and the delivery truck disappeared. Days later, his body was found in a farm field, shot at point-blank range in the back of the head, hands tied behind his back.
The FSA blamed Kadi’s death on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which claims to be Al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, saying the group had captured Kadi’s truck along a critical supply route and stolen the equipment inside.
The incident alarmed the U.S., which had long worried about the possibility of the supplies it sends the FSA falling into the hands of extremists. Some U.S. allies inside the rebellion shared those concerns. “We warned the U.S. government for over a year about ISIS gathering strength and spreading in the North,” said one opposition official involved in channeling U.S. assistance to the FSA.
Now many are questioning how much longer the FSA can survive, following news that fighters from a new, hardline coalition called the Islamic Front, which boasts an estimated 45,000 fighters in Syria, overtook its main bases and warehouses in Atimeh, a town near the Turkish border late last week. The powerful Islamist faction now stands poised to overtake the FSA as the country’s dominant rebel force.
The FSA’s loss of those key facilities — and the U.S.-provided supplies likely stored inside the warehouses — prompted the U.S. to suspend all shipments of non-lethal aid into northern Syria, dealing the FSA yet another blow.
Some in the Syrian opposition even saw the aid suspension as a pre-cursor for U.S. abandonment of the FSA. Rami Nakhla, a prominent Syrian activist based in Turkey, said the move signaled a “course-correction” for a U.S. administration anxious to disengage from an increasingly sectarian war. “U.S. government support to the FSA is nothing worth mentioning in the first place. [But] it is an important sign,” he said. “The international community … needs a reason to stop supporting any player in this war. They just got their reason.”
FSA officials have suggested that the struggle with the Islamic Front might be resolved through negotiations, and that U.S. shipments might eventually resume. But speculation is already swirling that the FSA and its leadership under Gen. Salim Idriss — officially called the Supreme Military Command, or SMC, the political opposition’s military wing — might be at its end. One source close to the SMC called the Islamic Front’s recent aggression in Atimeh “an attack and overthrow, basically.”
“There is no longer an SMC headquarters under Idriss in northern Syria,” the source said. “Everyone is now working to develop a new strategy.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the Islamic Front offensive had even forced Idriss to flee Syria, though he denied this in a CNN interview on Thursday, saying he hadn’t been in Syria at the time. He is currently in Turkey.
Recent events raise a critical question for the FSA. If it can’t secure its supply routes into Syria from Turkey, its most important base for international support, how can it survive? The FSA is also bleeding fighters to its more Islamist counterparts; several key battalions bolted for the Islamic Front last month. “You’ve got to ask: What does Selim Idriss control right now?” said Michael Stephens, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. “How does he get supplies and weapons to his fighters? And how is he going to get this stuff across the border without Islamic Front or one of the more extreme groups taking a cut? And the answer is he can’t. This was almost like an internal coup.”
The Islamic Front has received significant backing from Gulf countries. It says it want to establish an Islamic state in Syria, governed by Sharia Law — a far cry from the secular, democratic platform espoused by the SMC and main political opposition backed by the U.S. and its western allies. But while the Islamic Front is on the upswing, the FSA has been withering for months as its leaders plead for more meaningful support. “I think Western opposition policy is collapsing,” Stephens said.
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki reiterated U.S. support for the SMC and Idriss, leaving the door open for future aid shipments. But U.S. officials also gave divergent accounts of what took place on Friday — telling the Journal that Idriss had been in Atimeh and was forced to flee, while other outlets reported officials saying that he’d been in Turkey all along — suggesting that the U.S. is still working to make sense of the events. “The SMC continues to be, and this has not changed, the group that we work through and that we want other countries to provide aid and assistance to,” Psaki said in a briefing with reporters.
The rise of the Islamic Front complicates Washington’s plans for a Syria peace conference in Geneva next month, where it will push for a negotiated solution to the conflict. While Idriss has said he’s open to the idea of negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic Front flatly rejects the idea. “The Islamic Front has made clear that negotiating with Damascus is treasonous,” said Michael Weiss, a Syria analyst and columnist with NOW Lebanon. “And whatever motivated it to seize the Atimeh warehouse from the SMC, it wants outside parties to know that the future Syria, at least as far as the rebels are concerned, will be determined by Syrians inside Syria.” And meanwhile: without a viable armed ally on the ground inside Syria, “no one who matters will listen to the U.S,” Weiss said.
In Turkey, a key backer of the rebellion, there seems to be a more open-minded approach to the Islamic Front. Fighters from the front have cooperated with Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, but those groups were excluded from the alliance, and some proponents see the Islamic Front, while undoubtedly hardline, as a way to check Al-Qaeda’s growing power in Syria. Turkish officials note that almost 60 percent of the fighters on the ground are now with the Islamic Front, and that some of its main groups either worked with or were part of the SMC until recently. “They’re not completely new players on the ground, and it’s not like they came from the outside with a completely radical agenda and ideas that are unworkable,” one official said.
Idriss and the SMC, meanwhile, are still Turkey’s main counterpart in Syria, Turkish diplomats stress. “He’s still in place, and trying to deal with those different rebel groups with a view to keeping them under his authority. Much depends on how the international community responds to this new situation” the official said. “In order to be taken seriously on the ground, you must have the resources to be able to give a prospect to your troops. Otherwise you become irrelevant. This is why it is important to continue supporting İdriss and the SMC.”
The SMC was founded last year, in a process pushed aggressively by the U.S. Rebels hoped then that its formation might lead to increased support, particularly in the form of the heavy weapons and reliable supplies of arms and ammunition that FSA leaders have long said they need to topple Assad — and also to keep their own soldiers in line.
But Washington’s assistance has focused instead on non-lethal aid, which can range from ready-to-eat meals and medical equipment to vehicles and satellite phones. Small shipments of light weapons also began arriving via the CIA this fall. “It’s been almost a year to the date that this thing was formed, and yet there has been very little support,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “We haven’t had the right level of the training, or the intelligence, or the logistics, or the supplies that the FSA needed to become a true fighting force that could attract other fighters. I don’t think those who are predicting complete demise are wrong, unless there’s a major change in Western policy.”