Are CIA-backed Syrian Rebels Really Fighting Pentagon-backed Syrian Rebels?

March 28, 2016

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The Los Angeles Times’ contention Sunday that “in Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA” is basically incorrect.

This is complicated, but bear with me. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are not a monolithic force. Like nearly every other faction in Syria, they’re spread across an archipelago of enclaves nationwide. The SDF units clashing with Syrian rebels reportedly supported by the CIA are not supported by the Pentagon —they’re from a different enclave. The U.S. military is exclusively supporting the SDF in northeastern Syria on the other side of the Euphrates River. The Pentagon-backed SDF east of the Euphrates is fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, not rebels with or without U.S. backing.

Map credit: “Agathocle de Syracuse,” 2 March 2016. Labels added. Map key: Red, regime; yellow, SDF; green, rebels; grey, Islamic State.

Allow me to explain.

The confusion around this news story is a result of wartime Syria’s jigsaw-like map of control. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the SDF umbrella under which they operate are primarily active in northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates River, where they’ve linked what had been two isolated Kurdish enclaves to form a zone of control along much of Turkey’s southern border. But they also control a still-isolated enclave west of the Euphrates River in northwestern Aleppo province called Afrin, as well as a single neighborhood in Aleppo city. Afrin remains separated from YPG/SDF territory east of the Euphrates by a long stretch of Islamic State territory that the U.S. government calls the “Manbij Pocket.”

Before February, SDF units in Afrin had periodically clashed with Arab and Turkmen rebels in northern Aleppo province, including some that reportedly receive arms via a combined intelligence cell in Turkey that includes the CIA. Then, in February, the SDF in Afrin took advantage of the chaos caused by a Russian-backed regime offensive around Aleppo city to attack the rebels from the west and grab large sections of the northern Aleppo countryside. The Afrin SDF allegedly enjoyed Russian close air support against these rebels, although they have publicly denied these reports. Some clashes have persisted since then, but the new SDF-drawn lines have mostly held.

Thus, the implication in the Los Angeles Times that the SDF drove west from northeastern Syria (east of the Euphrates) to the outskirts of Aleppo city is misleading. The story reports:

At first, the two different sets of fighters were primarily operating in widely separated areas of Syria — the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeastern part of the country and the CIA-backed groups farther west. But over the last several months, Russian airstrikes against anti-Assad fighters in northwestern Syria have weakened them. That created an opening which allowed the Kurdish-led groups to expand their zone of control to the outskirts of Aleppo, bringing them into more frequent conflict with the CIA-backed outfits.

In reality, the Kurdish SDF actually pushed east from Afrin in the northwest, where they had been all along. SDF presence east of the Euphrates largely remains static, although they have established a beachhead west of the Tishrin Dam that spans the river.

All this is relevant because the Pentagon has only supported the SDF east of the Euphrates in its battles with the Islamic State. The Afrin SDF is not Pentagon-backed — this sounds sort of ridiculous, but it’s true.

So yes, it is technically true that the SDF receives U.S. Department of Defense support and one of its components is fighting Arab and Turkmen rebels, some of whom received CIA backing. But the factions of the SDF that are fighting these rebels are not Pentagon-backed, so we’re not seeing the sort of interagency warfare the story implies.

Beyond the eastern SDF, some elements of the non-SDF, northern Aleppo Arab and Turkmen rebels have received arms and close air support from the U.S. DoD and the broader coalition. This has received essentially no media coverage, but the non-SDF northern Aleppo rebels are seeded with several units that graduated from the Department of Defense “train and equip” program and are conspicuously equipped with the arms stocks procured for that program.

One train-and-equip unit, the 30th Division, was very publicly destroyed by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra when it was infiltrated via northern Aleppo, an embarrassing failure for the program. (Some members of the 30th Division actually fled to Afrin and joined a part of the non-U.S.-backed Afrin SDF.)

But the 30th Division was just one cohort from the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program. Others — including Liwa al-Hamzah, Liwa al-Mu’tasem, and the 99th Division — are now fighting alongside CIA-backed rebels with coalition close air support against the Islamic State in northern Aleppo. These U.S.-backed forces have consciously avoided the rebel-SDF fighting, instead focusing exclusively on fighting the Islamic State. Elsewhere, another train-and-equip unit, the New Syrian Army, recently collaborated with other rebels to seize Syria’s southern al-Tanaf border crossing with Iraq from the Islamic State.

So, to sum up: The non-Pentagon-backed SDF are fighting the CIA-backed northern Aleppo rebels, who are fighting alongside Pentagon-backed train-and-equip rebels against the Islamic State. The CIA-backed rebels are not fighting the Pentagon-backed SDF. They are fighting a different faction that does not enjoy U.S. support (and may have actually recently enjoyed Russian support). And the Pentagon-backed SDF is fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, half a country away.

Obviously, this is not an easy thing to explain properly, but I hold the U.S. government responsible for doing a poor job making these politically salient distinctions between its various proxies. I hope this doesn’t prejudice my access to various U.S. government spokespeople, but the official comment I’ve gotten to date on, for example, which section of the SDF receives Pentagon support has typically been muddled and unhelpful.

The facts here actually mean the fighting in northern Aleppo is not the absurd intra-U.S. government bloodletting it initially appears to be. But U.S. messaging on this has been sloppy, so you’d never know.


Sam Heller is a freelance writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.


Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle

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8 thoughts on “Are CIA-backed Syrian Rebels Really Fighting Pentagon-backed Syrian Rebels?

  1. I am not sure this is wholly correct. The Pentagon has certainly reined-in the YPG advancing westward from its Tishren Dam enclave on the Euphrates. However, the fact remains that the Free Syrian Army in Azaz, the key town in the northern corridor, has been attacked by a YPG pincer movement, from west and south, backed by Russian air strikes. So the LA Times is essentially correct.

    This hiccup has to be laid firmly at the door of the Kurdish YPG and its political masters, the PYD-PKK. Their number one priority is not fighting ISIS, it is expanding Kurdish territory across northern Syria to reach its Afrin enclave. It fights ISIS only to achieve that, as it now fights the US-backed opposition. Its ethnic land grab involves seizing 100 miles of Arab inhabited towns and villages with minimal Kurdish populations.

    Russia has of course been keen to assist, as it helps Assad militarily and also tweaks the American nose, with the poor FSA having to fight on three fronts, against Assad’s forces, ISIS and now this YPG stab in the back. The CIA seems to have reined them in for now but how much the PYD can be trusted is a large issue. They can complain about not being invited to Geneva, but, given they are in cahoots with Assad, they have no chance of sitting on the main opposition slate.

  2. Pure sophistry. The YPG (the overwhelming main component of the US fiction SDF) in Afrin is under the same political command structure as the YPG in the Cizre and Kobani cantons in the east. They are all under PYD and ultimately PKK control.

    The fact that the YPG in Afrin may not have received weapons from the Pentagon does not elude the fact that it is part of an overall cohesive military/political faction that has.

    It is thus perfectly correct to say that the CIA and the Pentagon are at war with each other in Syria.

  3. Fair explanation of a complicated situation, but what you miss out is is the Turkish view (a NATO ally remember) to them the YPG whether in either pocket of Northern Syria are evil terrorists fully linked to the PKK evil terrorists responsible for several of the recent attacks in Turkey.

    They also have the view that the worst thing in the world is for the two YPG / SDF enclaves to successfully join up, as would be logically in the strategic intrest of the YPG, and why should the US object as the MANBIJ pocket separating them is at present ISIS territory.

  4. Is a Coalition and NATO member attacking another coalition member? Well the answer is a dirty big yes and that would be Turkey!

    They have done nothing but hinder the fight against the Daesh and other Jihadist groups all along!

    The YPG/J/SDF could have closed the Manbij gap in September last year but the US has sided with Turkey rather than close the last remaining entry and exit points for the Jihadists in Northern Syria.

    Robert Cripes, you obviously have no idea who these so called FSA groups are in A’zaz because the are neither Democratic forces or really FSA. They are Jihadists intent on a Sharia law run Syria! For you information these groups allied with Jabhat Al Nusra and have repeatedly attacked Efrin and the Kurd’s in Aleppo.

    You just keep peddling pro Turkish vomit that fewer and fewer people can take seriously or support unless they are Jihadist supporting Neocons!

  5. Dear Sam —

    We are not confused. The headline is true. Your entire mental exercise is based on your contention that the western Afrin contingent of the SDF has not received direct military aid from the Pentagon.

    Okay, let’s say that’s true. It makes not a whit of difference. SDF is SDF no matter whether it’s fighting west or east of some arbitrary geographic marker. Turkey knows the two are one and the same. So does Syria. So does Russia. So does everybody else. Only you and your fellow apologists can be so obtuse as to contend that Pentagon-backed groups are not fighting CIA-backed groups.

  6. Considering the history of the CIA and The Pentagon over the last 65 years or so, this is most likely true. And you have to take the wars that are available in order to perpetuate bigger wars and more profits over the long term. Thankfully, there are only 26 letters in the english alphabet so eventually, we’ll run of factions fighting each other.

  7. Here’s a crazy idea, how about the U.S. stays the f**k out of the Syria. What started as a Syrian Civil war and quickly turned into the Saudi backed proxy war as well as an opportunity for Turkey to undermine the Kurdish population in the region. Oh and by the way on top of that, there’s been enough Chaos to allow some nutbags try and establish an Islamic state in the middle of all this.
    We need to stay out of it as far as any military, training or Intel support, because these half-a$$ attempts aren’t going to fix anything. We already broke Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and pretty much damaged our credibility across the Middle East and North Africa for the next 100 years, so why exactly do we think we can do any good at all in Syria at all?