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US munitions delivery to Syria rebels stirs confusion on the ground

Pentagon says it will provide military aid to Kurdish and Arab rebels, but hasn't said which ones

Washington made its inaugural delivery over the weekend in its new strategy to provide military aid for established anti-ISIL factions in Syria, with U.S. Air Force cargo planes dropping 50 tons of ammunition to what the Pentagon calls “Arab groups” somewhere in the country’s fractured north. But few other details have emerged, leaving many of Syria’s myriad rebel groups — including the so-called moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — in the dark about who will be receiving the revamped American support.

The delivery was the first since the Obama administration last week abandoned its "train-and-equip" program, a $500 million project that was hosted in neighboring countries, and that tried and failed to build a viable Syrian force to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In its place, the Pentagon last week announced a new strategy aimed at bolstering forces that are already on the ground in Syria and have proven their commitment and ability to fight ISIL — in other words, less “training” and more “equipping.”

But Washington has not named which groups will be equipped, other than to say they were groups the United States had "worked with" in the past. Many assumed they meant the Kurds; in announcing the new strategy, administration officials repeatedly cited the example of the joint U.S.-Kurdish success in rolling back ISIL from the Kurdish town of Kobane earlier this year. That battle, in which U.S. aerial support and weapons cleared ground for Kurdish YPG militias — the only proven, pro-Western force on the ground against ISIL — was “exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria, going forward,” said Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith told Al Jazeera, however, that the first shipment went not to Kurds but to “Arab groups” whose leaders were “appropriately vetted by the United States and who have been fighting to remove ISIL from northern Syria.” And she added: “We share the concern of our Turkish partners over the sensitivity of expanding Kurdish control into traditionally non-Kurdish areas in Syria.”

The decision to make the first delivery to Arab factions could indicate unresolved tensions with Turkey over Washington’s plans to boost support for the YPG, the sister party of the Turkey-based separatist PKK insurgency. Both Washington and Ankara have deemed the PKK a terrorist organization, but while Turkey considers Kurdish separatism to be a greater security threat than ISIL, there is a growing sense in Western policy circles that the Kurds are the only viable partner on the ground in Syria.

Rebels reached by Al Jazeera on Tuesday said they fully expected the new American aid to mostly wind up in the hands of the Kurds, whose priorities — expanding their semi-autonomous territory in northern Syria by carving deeper into what ISIL calls its “caliphate” — is more in line with those of the U.S.

“Since the beginning of the revolution the U.S. has given nothing but promises to the Free Syrian Army," a disjointed collection of rebel militias that is fighting for a civil state, said Suhaib Ali, an activist in the FSA-held town of Rastan in Homs Province  — close to where Russian jets have been striking various anti-Assad rebel factions. "But for the Kurds, they’ve given them air coverage and soon ammunition will be falling on them from the sky.” 

The skepticism expressed by Ali and others reflects a sense of abandonment felt by many in the FSA, which has weakened considerably over the years amid a stream of defections to better-funded, mostly hardline groups. The Obama administration has offered just a trickle of military aid for the rebels, mainly through an ongoing covert CIA program  separate from the "train and equip" program  but is unwilling to delve deeper into Syria's war. Meanwhile, hardline groups like the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have flourished on a healthy stream of funds from more committed Assad foes, mainly Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

As the U.S. focuses its efforts almost exclusively on ISIL, new reports have indicated that Washington's frustrated allies in the rebel camp are ready to go toe-to-toe with Russia. Ever since Moscow launched air strikes last month at an array of rebel targets — Russia considers all rebel groups fighting Assad, a close Moscow ally, to be "terrorists" — Gulf Arab countries have reportedly ramped up support for their rebel proxies. 

As the strategic priorities of the powers backing the rebels diverge, commanders including Hassan Hamadeh find themselves torn over how to present themselves. Speaking over Skype, Hamadeh, a Syrian Air Force colonel who defected and now leads the FSA’s 101st division in and around the cities of Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, sought to portray his men as worthy of U.S. arms because they were fighting both the regime and “its allies in ISIL” — a reference to the opposition’s argument that Assad and ISIL work together to squeeze out the rebels in the middle.

But while he said his division had not yet seen evidence of heightened aid from the Gulf, he felt his men were deserving of that, too. “We hope its true,” Hamadeh said. “We’re more than ready to take on Russia.”

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