SEPT. 18, 2014
U.S. Goal Is to Make Syrian Rebels Viable
By BEN HUBBARD
REYHANLI, Turkey -- In a secret office near the Syrian border here, intelligence agents from the United States and its allies are laying the groundwork for what they hope will become an effective force of Syrian rebels to serve as ground troops in the international battle against the extremist Islamic State.
The office, the Military Operations Command, has slowed funding to Islamist groups, paid salaries to thousands of "vetted" rebels and given them ammunition to boost their battlefield mettle.
But even the program's biggest beneficiaries -- the rebels themselves -- acknowledge that turning this relatively small group into a force that can challenge the well-funded and well-armed Islamic State is a challenge that will require tremendous support from its foreign backers.
In President Obama's strategy of building an international coalition to fight the Islamic State without American troops, these moderate rebels loom large as the best force to fight the extremists in Syria. While the House approved an aid package for the rebels  on Wednesday and the Senate followed on Thursday, at present the rebels are a beleaguered lot, far from becoming a force that can take on the fanatical and seasoned fighters of the Islamic State.
Short of arms, they are struggling to hold their own against both the military of President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists of the Islamic State. Their leaders have been the targets of assassination attempts. And some acknowledge that battlefield necessity has put them in the trenches with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, an issue of obvious concern for the United States.
While they long for greater international support and hate the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, ousting Mr. Assad remains their primary goal, putting them at odds with their American patrons.
"Just as the priority of the international community is to fight ISIS, our priority is to fight Assad," said Hamza al-Shimali, the head of the Hazm Movement, which has received arms and salaries from the Military Operations Command.
On Tuesday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the fight against the militants would include the training and equipping of 5,000 Syrian rebels,  and Saudi Arabia has volunteered to host the training program on its territory.
This scaled-up training program would be overseen by the Defense Department, unlike the current covert program here and a similar program in Jordan, both overseen by the C.I.A.
While much about the new program remains unclear, the work of the command here since it began operations this year gives a sense both of how the United States seeks to build this force and the challenges it will face in doing so.
So far, the program has focused on a small number of vetted rebel groups from the hundreds  that are fighting across Syria, providing them with military and financial help, according to rebel commanders who have received support.
The process is run by intelligence officials from a number of countries. The United States provides overall guidance, while Turkey manages the border, and Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia provide much of the funding.
Throughout Syria's civil war, analysts have blamed the multitude of funding streams for creating a divided rebel movement with hundreds of groups seeking to please foreign backers.
This has changed in recent months. Turkey, which once allowed smugglers and fighters to move freely across its border with Syria, has clamped down, making it harder for private funders to get in.
At the same time, most of the support from governments who back the rebels is now channeled through the Military Operations Command.
This sidesteps the Syrian National Coalition, the exile body that is supposed to guide the rebellion but has little credibility inside Syria. Also sidelined was the coalition's Supreme Military Council, which was widely accused of mismanagement and all but collapsed  this year amid a leadership dispute.
Instead, the military command has built direct ties with rebel leaders it deems moderate and active inside Syria.
These groups include the Hazm Movement, which was founded this year; the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, whose leader, Jamal Maarouf, has vowed to fight both ISIS and Mr. Assad; and other groups that came to prominence while pushing the Islamic State out of parts of northern Syria.
The groups' leaders include a former aviation engineer in the Syrian Army and a fighter pilot who defected in his jet to Jordan in 2012. Others have more modest backgrounds. One was a farmer. Mr. Maarouf worked in construction in Lebanon. Mr. Shimali sold office supplies and real estate.
An opposition official involved in the program said that it now helped eight main groups, although others had received support, too. It is now paying monthly salaries of at least $100 to about 10,000 fighters in northern Syria, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program.
In debate Wednesday before the House approved Mr. Obama's request for aid to the rebels, questions were raised about whether there were, indeed, any moderates among them. Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks Syria, said the answer depends on definitions.
"There is definitely a moderate opposition if what you mean by that is nonjihadist, willing to confront the Islamic State and not working openly with other jihadists in the country," he said. "But are they Western liberals? No."
Mr. Tabler said that most of the rebels hail from rural, Sunni areas where Islamist thinking has long held sway and often colors their thinking.
The commanders have reacted cautiously to Mr. Obama's announcement that he would strike the Islamic State in Syria as well as in Iraq. Like most in Syria's opposition, they remain angry that the United States backed away from bombing Mr. Assad after his forces killed hundreds of people in chemical attacks  near Damascus last year.
While most support the strikes, they consider them proof that the United States only wants to protect itself, not save Syrian lives.
"The international position has to be to fight all kinds of terrorism, both ISIS and the regime," said Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, the head of the Nureddin Zengi Movement. "You can't treat only one part of the disease."
The program's results so far have been limited. While the groups receiving support can boast no major advances, they say they are gaining fighters, some of them from Islamist groups who now struggle to get funding, with the rerouting of state money and the Turkish clampdown on the border.
Still, the challenges are many.
Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayyoush, the former aviation engineer who now heads the Fursan al-Haq Brigade, acknowledged that his men had fought alongside the Nusra Front because they needed all the help they could get.
Sometimes, he said, that help comes in forms only a jihadi group can provide. He cited the rebel takeover of the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, saying that the rebels were unable to take out one government position until the Nusra Front sent a suicide bomber to blow it up.
In another town nearby, Nusra sent four bombers, including an American citizen. 
"We encourage them actually," Mr. Bayyoush said with a laugh. "And if they need vehicles, we provide them."
Geography is also a problem. Most of the groups are centered in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama, putting them at least 100 miles across open terrain from the Islamic State's stronghold in the northeastern city of Raqqa.  Moving fighters in that direction would mean abandoning fronts with the government.
The United States also participates in a similar command center  in Jordan that helps rebels in southern Syria, but its fighters are farther away.
Even if the training goes as planned, the rebels will be outnumbered. While the United States has proposed to train and equip 5,000 rebels, the Central Intelligence Agency has said it believes that the Islamic State has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
And in starting the process now, the United States will have to play catch-up with the group, which has been training its recruits at four camps in Raqqa Province, the largest of which is based in a seized oil company compound and named after Osama bin Laden.
Despite the challenges, the rebel commanders remain optimistic that the United States will provide the support they need to become an effective fighting force capable of taking on the Islamic State.
"We want to be hand in hand with the West, and for the future of Syria to be with the West," said Col. Hassan al-Hamada, the former fighter pilot. "The problem is that the Americans work very slowly, and we are paying the price in blood."
Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Reyhanli, and an employee of The New York Times from Raqqa, Syria.