Toward the end of October and in the beginning of November, Jabhat al Nusrah, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, kicked out the Syrian Revolutionaries Front from a number of towns in Idlib. The quick offensive came as a shock, particularly for the US-led coalition, which was relying on groups like the SRF to take the fight to the Islamic State (and nominally to the Syrian government). Fairly soon after this occurred, the International Business Times ran an article claiming that “the U.S. is withdrawing its weapons support for the moderate rebel groups it previously backed in northern Syria after they suffered major defeats in Idlib province.” The only evidence provided was a statement by a member of the Syrian American Council (a pro-Rebel lobby group) who said it was likely that the weapons support had been withdrawn.
Verifying whether or not the support has been dropped is tough to do. After that initial article on the International Business Times, an important counter-point was raised that the rebels want guaranteed assurances of weapons shipments, which is not how the United States has pursued its program (to the extent that it has pursued assistance at all).
Regardless, the rumors have emerged again in the news, according to (mostly unnamed) rebel commanders who claim that the weapons and funds have dried up. The leader of Fursan al Haqq brigade was quoted by McClatchy DC as saying, “In November we received all kinds of support including salaries. This month support stopped completely.” This story, like the previous, has been re-posted on a number of other media sites and seems to validate the International Business Time’s piece from last month. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, however, stated recently that the United States is “increasingly doing a number of things to make a difference" in the north, suggesting that the United States is not entirely jumping ship.
So the question then becomes, just what is happening? The United States is clearly starting to understand that it cannot expect the rebels in the north to be successful against its well-armed and well-financed adversaries without some support of their own. Be it the Syrian government or the Islamic State (or Jabhat al Nusrah as the case may be), all of the northern rebels, particularly the moderate ones, have to contend with opponents with deep financial networks. Considering the damage already done to the moderates, it would appear that – assuming merit to the statements by rebel commanders – the United States is backing away from the north.
Or, more accurately, the United States is backing away from certain elements in the north. Alongside the campaigns around Aleppo and Idlib is the Islamic State’s offensive aimed at taking Kobane near the border with Turkey. With the help of coalition airstrikes, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Peshmerga, and apparently some FSA battalions, the People's Protection Units (YPG) has been able to stave off the Islamic State assault and even push the Islamic State back. Though the fighting still rages, the coalition is considering the (as yet) successful defense of the strategically not-important town an indication that, paired with the right partners, airstrikes can be effective tool of stopping Islamic State expansion. Even as the allegations are emerging that the United States is dropping groups like the SRF and others, the head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) sat down for meetings with the ex-US ambassador to Iraq. This reported meeting fits with assertions that the United States is actively coordinating with the Kurdish defenders to target the Islamic State.
A decision to assist the Syrian Kurds to a greater degree fits with the United States’ objectives in Syria surprisingly well. Specifically, the YPG (PYD’s armed wing) has fought the Islamic State to a stand-still and is determined to continue doing so, fitting the United States desire for armed factions to hold land in Syria, not take more against the Islamic State. Kobane is a stalemate at best for the Islamic State, which has otherwise seen victory after victory in Syria.
Additionally, the PYD is no friend to Syrian President Bashar al Assad – same with the United States – but has largely steered away from conflict with him in order to carve out its own enclave in the north. Unlike the majority of opposition factions in Syria, the PYD has at times stated that it believes a political solution should involve Mr. Assad. Though the United States nominally wants the ouster of Mr. Assad, it has done next to nothing to achieve such a removal. Its coalition against the Islamic state, which has targeted Jabhat al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham to some degree, is seen by the majority of the armed opposition as indicative of the United States working with Mr. Assad.
While the armed opposition continues to prioritize the need to remove Mr. Assad, the United States’ focus is not currently including that dynamic (regardless of whether or not it should). The PYD mirror that stance, something the United States has likely picked up on. This is not to say that the United States is entirely dumping the armed opposition. Training camps in the Gulf would do much to help the offensive in Daraa; which, despite government counterattacks, has fared well for the rebels, particularly in comparison to the north.
Whether or not the United States follows through with aid to them depends on the lessons it drew from Idlib: if strengthening aid to the moderates can be a successful enterprise or if they are a lost cause. Perhaps, sensing the changing winds as early as August, a number of rebel groups have been trying to improve their image, devising the Revolutionary Command Council, an umbrella that is very vague in terms of its mission or intended coordination but represents an effort by many of the major armed opposition to make themselves more appealing to foreign aid. What is becoming increasingly clear is that foreign assistance in Syria is a game changer – and this becomes apparently only in its absence.