News / Middle East

    Syrian Advance Widening Discord Among US, Moderate Rebels

    Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad celebrate with residents of Nubul and al-Zahraa after breaking the siege of their towns in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, Feb. 4, 2016.
    Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad celebrate with residents of Nubul and al-Zahraa after breaking the siege of their towns in the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, Feb. 4, 2016.

    The northward push by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy backing from Russian air power, is frustrating U.S. officials while simultaneously deepening the divide between Washington and some of its would-be allies on the ground.

    U.S. military officials caution that the regime advance has yet to substantially weaken the American-directed fight against the Islamic State terror group in Syria. But they worry it may be only a matter of time.

    “We are concerned that forces that we're working with to focus on Daesh are focused on other things,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told Pentagon reporters Wednesday, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

    Already, the U.S. has seen indications that moderate rebel groups are shifting resources from their fight with Islamic State along the so-called Mare’ line, which extends from the northern town of Mare’ to the Turkish border, to try to counter the regime advance.

    “It bleeds combat power,” Warren said of the rebels’ response, describing the regime’s northward push as a “perceived threat.”

    Syrian Kurds

    Such comments have angered rebel commanders, who say the danger is not just from the south but also from Syrian Kurd YPG forces to the north, which until now have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State.

    Rebel groups accuse the Syrian Kurds of shifting tactics, lessening their focus on Islamic State to instead seize territory once held by various opposition groups. They accuse the Kurds of working in coordination with both the Assad regime and Russian air power.

    FILE - Members of the People's Protection Units (YPG), fighting alongside the Democratic Forces of Syria, ride on a truck during what they said was an offensive against Islamic State militants to take control of Tishrin dam near Kobani, Kobani, Syria, Dec. 26, 2015.
    FILE - Members of the People's Protection Units (YPG), fighting alongside the Democratic Forces of Syria, ride on a truck during what they said was an offensive against Islamic State militants to take control of Tishrin dam near Kobani, Kobani, Syria, Dec. 26, 2015.

    “Russian airstrikes are helping the YPG on the ground. We see it every day,” said Zakaria Malahefji, the political officer of the 3,000-member Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a brigade aligned with the rebel alliance Jaish al-Mujahideen (Army of Holy Warriors).

    U.S. officials deny such charges, reasoning the YPG offensive is actually helping by blocking regime efforts to move north and threaten moderate rebels battling Islamic State.

    “I don't know if we've seen any evidence to indicate that the Afrin Kurds are working with the regime,” Warren said.

    And while he admitted Syrian Kurdish forces have come under only “limited” pressure from the regime, he urged all U.S. allies to focus on the U.S.-led coalition's mission.

    “We want them to stop fighting each other and start fighting Daesh,” Warren said.

    Such words, however, may only serve to expand the growing rift between the U.S. and moderate Syrian rebel groups.

    “The YPG is acting as a spoiler, tactically,” General Salem Idris, former chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, told VOA last week in an exclusive interview. “They say they are not coordinating with the regime, but that is a lie.”

    Opportunistic moves

    Still, the feeling among many officials and analysts is that the Syrian Kurds are merely acting as opportunists.

    “The Kurds are playing their own games to have their own state,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who co-founded People Demand Change, an international development organization. “If they don’t get something from the U.S., they turn to Russia.”

    Yet with the Syrian Kurds focused on shoring up some gains in the short term, possibly at the expense of moderate Syrian opposition forces, it could leave the U.S. without a reliable partner on the ground in Syria to counter Islamic State.

    “More and more, the U.S. is disappointing regional allies and jeopardizing temporary alliances,” said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer who now is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It’s something the U.S. needs to look at.”

    VOA’s Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Washington.


    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: simple
    February 18, 2016 2:11 AM
    If US drops its desire to topple Assad in Syria, Syrian conflict can easily be solved with ease. Because, American blind support to unknown jihadist groups and militias against Assad has created many terrorist groups in Syria. so called terrorist groups in Syria are the same radical groups supported by the west in the past to topple Assad. If Assad is defeated, only jihadists will take over Syria. it is no use for America. Because, US has no one in Syria to replace Assad. Because, all groups and opposition leaders fighting assad now are nothing but jihadists and terrorists. So, Toppling assad will no way help American policy of defeating terrorism in middle east. America has wrong allies like Turkey,Saudi, Qatar which are sponsoring various jihadist groups in syria. Assad regime backed by Russia is the most effective force against jihadists and terrorists in Syria. US can easily defeat terrorists by supporting Assad and Russia which are really defeating terrorists. But, US is not willing to do so because of some geopolitical reasons.
    In Response

    by: Bird from: US
    February 18, 2016 8:41 AM
    American "support" to "unknown jihadist groups" is anything but "blind". You realize that the US has not really provided any substantial support for rebels? They've only been supporting the PYD.

    by: rebel_factory from: San Francisco, CA
    February 18, 2016 1:31 AM
    I don['t understand the surprise of some.... the main antagonism for Kurds is Turkey. They've been shelling them since they expanded out of kobane and linked with the eastern part. The US didn't do anything. Logically speaking, YPG and the Syrian Regime are natural allies: they both see both Turkey (and its militias) and Daesh the biggest threats, and after all my sense is the regime would be willing to agree that the northernmost part of Syria would be part of Kurdistan.

    by: AHMED from: INDIA
    February 17, 2016 8:56 PM
    If Sponsors of Terrorism will not give any aid to Terrorist then Syria problems will be solved. If USA, Saudi Arab, Qatar, Turkey, UAE, Jordan and Kuwait will support to Terrorism then there will be more Human Blood on Syrian street.
    All Sponsors must accept their Blunder Mistakes in Syria and try to feed Hungry and Thirsty Syrians. What is going on in Syria we cannot read and see those clips. Destruction is very easy job but Construction will take decades.
    Very very sad affairs in Syria and Sponsors will feel more pleasure to see endless tears in Syrians eyes.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    February 17, 2016 8:26 PM
    It seems to me that both the opposition forces and the Kurds have lost focus on the fact that their mutual enemies are IS, al Nusra, Assad's regime, Russians, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah. Once they start fighting among themselves, all hope for either of them will be lost. In the end it could hardly matter less. Syria is a badly broken country. There is no one in the world who would put up the kind of money it will take to even begin to rebuild it once the fighting ends whoever wins. A pipeline through Syria will always be a target to be destroyed by someone unless there is a strong inclusive central government. That doesn't look like a probable outcome. Syria will be one more failed state.
    In Response

    by: Igor from: Russia
    February 17, 2016 11:21 PM
    Funny enough. The US is playing chess in Syria. But now it has lost control of its chesspieces: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kurds, Western backed terrorist groups...They are now fighting each other...hahaha.
    To those chesspieces only the Kurds are the people who should use that chance to gain independence. I praize their efforts.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    February 17, 2016 10:53 PM
    Nice try.

    Trying to put the Kurds and "opposition forces" into the same bowl?

    There's no such thing as "opposition forces", all of them are AQ, and KURDS are fighting ISIS and AQ, or your so called "opposition".

    Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Kurds are fighting ISIS and AQ.

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