Syrian Rebels: Turkey Tipped al Qaida Group to
Nusra quickly captured graduates of $500 million train-and-equip
Motive: Humiliate program, press U.S. to change its focus
Pentagon says it sees ‘no indications’ allegations are true
By James Rosen, Duygu Gevenc and Zakaria Zakaria
August 25, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "McClatchy"
- The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained
moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to
confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence,
multiple rebel sources have told McClatchy.
The rebels say that the tipoff to al Qaida’s Nusra Front
enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500
million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a
humiliating blow to the Obama administration’s plans for confronting
the Islamic State.
Rebels familiar with the events said they believe
the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried
that while the group’s intended target was the Islamic State, the
U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist
fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major
Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham.
A senior official at the Turkish Foreign Ministry,
who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, declined to respond to
questions about the incident, saying any discussion of Turkey’s
relationship with Nusra was off limits.
Other Turkish officials acknowledged the likely
accuracy of the claims, though none was willing to discuss the topic
for attribution. One official from southern Turkey said the arrival
plans for the graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program
were leaked to Nusra in hopes the rapid disintegration of the
program would push the Americans into expanding the training and
arming of rebel groups focused on toppling the government of Syrian
President Bashar Assad.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff
Davis said the U.S. military, which oversees the program, had seen
“no indications that Turkish officials alerted the Nusra Front to
the movements” of the U.S.-trained forces.
“Turkey is a NATO ally, close friend of the United
States and an important partner in the international coalition”
against the Islamic State, he said in an email.
The United States and Turkey have clashed for years
over what U.S. officials characterize as Turkey’s willingness to
work with Nusra, which the U.S. declared a
foreign terrorist organization nearly three years ago. Turkey also
has openly criticized the train-and-equip program for its insistence
that participants agree to focus their efforts on defeating the
Islamic State, not on battling Assad.
The abductions opened the program to ridicule in
the United States, where supporters of arming Syrian rebels quickly
used it to make their case that Obama administration policy toward
the Syrian conflict is inept.
“Only the Americans and the Turks knew” about the
plans for the train-and-equip fighters to enter Syria, said an
officer of Division 30, the rebel group with which the newly trained
Syrians were to work. “We have sources who tell us the Turks warned
Nusra that they would be targeted by this group.”
The Division 30 officer asked not to be identified
for his own safety and because Nusra still holds 22 of his comrades
in Azzaz, a Syrian town just south of the Turkish border.
“Right now the only thing keeping our men alive is
that Turkey does not want them executed – al Qaida always executes
Arabs who work for the CIA,” he said. He suggested that Turkey was
trying “to leverage the incident into an expanded role in the north
for the Islamists in Nusra and Ahrar” and to persuade the United
States to “speed up the training of rebels.”
Division 30 spokesman Capt. Ammar al Wawi stopped
short of saying Turkey had betrayed the operation, though he agreed
that the only people aware of the trainees’ plans to enter Syria
were Turkish and American staffers at a joint command center in
Gaziantep. He grew visibly uncomfortable when pressed on the
“I have to live here in Turkey and have been
targeted for kidnapping or assassination twice in the last month,”
he said. “But we know someone aligned with Nusra informed them of
our presence. They were taken within 10 minutes.”
Among those abducted was the Division 30
commander, Col. Nadim Hassan. “We would have never allowed him to go
inside if we had known that Nusra would target them,” al Wawi said.
Another rebel commander, interviewed in the
Turkish city of Sanliurfa, about 30 miles north of the Syrian
border, said he was not surprised Nusra would target the
U.S.-trained fighters. In the end, he said, the ideologies of Nusra
and Ahrar al Sham are not all that different from that of the
Islamic State, which he referred to as “Daash,” its Arabic acronym.
“Nusra are al Qaida by their own admission,” said
the commander, who asked not to be named because his unit received
some weapons and support from Turkey. “And there’s no ideological
difference between Daash and the Nusra Front, just a political fight
for control. All of the top Nusra commanders were once in the
He said Nusra hostility toward U.S.-trained rebels
would be understandable. “Remember,” he said, “America has targeted
Nusra with some airstrikes.”
He said that while some Syrian rebels have been
willing to coordinate with Nusra and Ahrar al Sham in offensives
against Syrian government positions, that cooperation is likely to
end at some point and Turkey was aware of that.
“They don’t want anything bad to happen to their
allies – Nusra and Ahrar al Sham – along the border and they know
that both the Americans and the Syrian people will eventually
recognize that there’s no difference between groups like Nusra,
Ahrar and Daash,” he said.
Mustafa Abdi, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s
Protection Units, or YPG by their Kurdish initials, said he, too,
has been told Turkey leaked the arrival of the U.S.-trained
fighters. He suggested the effort was part of a Turkish effort to
persuade the United States to cooperate more with the groups Turkey
views as its allies in Syria.
“They want the Americans to train and equip rebels
but only on their terms and to confront both the regime and the
Islamic State,” he said. “This incident not only embarrassed the
Americans and made the Free Syrian Army programs look weak compared
to Nusra, but also makes working with Turkey on their terms even
Turkish officials have been openly critical of the
United States for coordinating its bombing campaign in northern
Syria with the YPG, which has proved to be the most successful group
battling the Islamic State in Syria.
Turkey sees the YPG as aligned with its longtime
nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has fought a
three-decade-long insurgency for greater autonomy for Turkey’s large
Kurdish population. But in coordination with U.S. airstrikes, the
YPG has driven Islamic State fighters from at least a dozen Syrian
towns, including Tal Abyad, a major crossing point on the Turkish
The Turkey-U.S. conflict over how to confront the
Islamic State has been a key
point of friction between the two NATO allies since the U.S.
began its bombing campaign against the group a year ago. Only last
month did Turkey agree to allow manned American aircraft to launch
missions from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The first
mission took off Aug. 12.
But the disagreement on strategy dates to much
earlier in the Syrian conflict, when American officials declared
Nusra to be just another name for al Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic
State’s predecessor organization. Turkey said the designation
overlooked the fact that it was by far the most effective force
fighting the Syrian government, and Turkish officials resisted U.S.
efforts to persuade them to stop working with Nusra, even though
Turkey also declared the group a terrorist organization.
Aymenn al Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi
jihadist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said
Turkish support for what he called “the Salafi-Jihadi-Islamist
coalition in the north” is clear.
He said that support is likely both ideological
and tactical. Noting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s
political party also espouses Islamist goals, Tamimi suggested
“Erdogan and his allies would ideologically be sympathetic to
Islamist groups.” Tactically, the success Nusra and Ahrar al Sham
have had against the Assad government would also be attractive.
“There’s a case to be made they are the most effective forces in the
north,” he said.
James Rosen in
Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Duygu Gevenc in
Ankara, Turkey, and Zakaria Zakaria in Sanliurfa, Turkey,
contributed to this report.