JULY 30, 2015
Abductions Hurt U.S. Bid to Train Anti-ISIS Rebels in Syria
By KARAM SHOUMALI, ANNE BARNARD and ERIC SCHMITT
ANTAKYA, Turkey -- A Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian insurgents to fight the Islamic State has been vexed by problems of recruitment, screening, dismissals and desertions that have left only a tiny band of fighters ready to do battle.
Those fighters -- 54 in all -- suffered perhaps their most embarrassing setback yet on Thursday. One of their leaders, a Syrian Army defector who recruited them, was abducted in Syria near the Turkish border, along with his deputy who commands the trainees. They were seized not by the Islamic State but by its rival the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda that is another Islamist extremist byproduct of the four-year-old Syrian civil war.
The abductions illustrate the challenges confronting the Obama administration as it seeks to marshal local insurgents to fight the Islamic State, which it views as the region's biggest threat.
After a year of trying, the Pentagon still struggles to find recruits to fight the Islamic State without also battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, their original foe. The willing few face vetting meant to weed out extremists, so stringent that only dozens have been approved, and they are bit players in the rebellion. The program has not engaged with the biggest, most powerful groups, Islamist factions that are better funded, better equipped and more motivated.
The setback for the American effort in Syria comes just as the United States and Turkey have undertaken a joint plan to create an "Islamic State free-zone" in northern Syria, using warplanes flown from Turkish air bases to take the area with a ground force of Syrian insurgents, presumably including trainees of the Pentagon's program.
The biggest kidnapping prize on Thursday was a leader of the trainees, Nadeem Hassan. When the Pentagon announced the program last year, Mr. Hassan helped to gather several groups totaling 1,200 insurgents, who were already fighting in Syria and willing to join the training. They began fighting together as a unit called Division 30. Also abducted were at least six other fighters from Division 30, but an American official said they were not among the graduates.
In an interview just two days earlier, Mr. Hassan spoke about the troubles he had faced.
After screening, just 125 of his recruits were invited to the first course. Of those, more than half were thrown out or quit.
The rest, he said, had deployed back to Syria, but had not been told whether American warplanes would defend them if Syrian forces attacked.
Mr. Hassan said the Americans, worried about the lack of recruits, were recalling men they had once rejected. Some, expelled on suspicion of embracing "Islamic State doctrine," are unavailable: They have since died in Syria, he said -- battling the Islamic State.
Pentagon training courses in Turkey and Jordan have graduated only about 60 fighters, American officials say, an apparent reference to Mr. Hassan's men.
The training is often at cross-purposes with a covert C.I.A. training program for fighters battling Syrian security forces. Toppling Mr. Assad was the original goal of the Syrian revolt, before the Islamic State sprang from its most extreme Islamist wing.
Both programs have a common problem: Working with Americans makes recruits a target, not just of the Islamic State but also of the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front dealt a more serious blow to the C.I.A. program last year, attacking and dismantling its main groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm, and seizing some of their American-supplied, sophisticated antitank missiles.
New details about the Pentagon training and its problems were revealed in interviews over several months with about two dozen fighters and commanders, and with several senior American officials involved or briefed, who requested anonymity to discuss military planning.
Mr. Hassan said the Pentagon program had not provided night vision goggles to counter the Islamic State's expert night attacks. Yet, he said Tuesday, trainers had been pushing his men to quickly join front-line insurgent groups, "so they can get results to show their bosses."
Mr. Hassan's trainees were mainly from villages within the 68-mile strip along the Turkish border that the moderate insurgents are supposed to seize, and had long been slated for deployment there. But, Mr. Hassan said, they are so few "they can barely cover 200 meters."
Better-financed groups are luring recruits awaiting the next course; they make $225 a month, and with no budget, Mr. Hassan said, "I can't buy them lunch."
"The situation is bad," he said.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has acknowledged the shortfalls, citing strict screening standards, which have created a backlog of 7,000 recruits waiting to be vetted.
Mr. Carter has insisted the numbers will increase.
From the start, the Pentagon program was saddled with what most potential recruits see as a fatal flaw: It aims only at the Islamic State, not Mr. Assad.
The border operation planned with Turkey also avoids targeting the Syrian president, American officials insist. But they have not explained how it will have more success than the Pentagon in rallying fighters for a mission solely against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
"We can't start like that," said Abu Mahmoud, who commands a group called Liwa al-Haq. "Let's finish off the oppression we are facing now. You can't ask me to fight ISIS when the regime is pounding us with explosive barrels every single day."
He spoke in April in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, just after having heard American officials pitch the Pentagon program to 20 insurgent groups. Only four or five, he said, agreed to join. They were from Deir al-Zour and parts of eastern Aleppo Province, places where the Islamic State is the main threat. The government's main presence there is aerial bombardment, while the front lines on the ground face the Islamic State.
Abu Mahmoud, who uses a nom de guerre for security, said he had considered sending 100 fighters, but changed his mind on hearing that trainees would not fight government forces or get advanced weapons.
"What do I need training for?" he said. "Four years we're fighting."
Many Syrian insurgents -- including conservative Islamists -- agree. They will fight the Islamic State, but few are willing to forswear fighting Mr. Assad.
Several insurgent leaders, interviewed in the Turkish border town of Antakya, said the Pentagon should market its program as "protecting civilians," from both the Islamic State and government forces. "It would be more convincing," said Tayseer Darwish, a defected officer drinking tea at Antakya's Hotel Narine, an insurgent hangout.
Half a dozen Syrians came and went from the lobby bar, ordering Turkish coffee. All were among the first to take up arms against Mr. Assad. Some had been wounded; one was missing a foot. Others seemed weary, aged by war. They lamented an early mistake: welcoming foreign fighters who promised to help their cause, but then, in their view, tainted and betrayed it.
One, Mustafa Seijari, who follows the Salafist strain of conservative Islam, had signed up for the Pentagon program, and awaited vetting.
"Fighting ISIS is like fighting the regime," he said, calling the Islamic State "an arm" of Mr. Assad's government, which fights the militant group in places but also benefits from its attacks on less extreme rivals.
Another commander, Mohammad Zaatar, showed a picture of a favorite fighter, Hani, with a gun and a tank. In a voice message to the commander, Hani asked eagerly when training started.
But if the Pentagon calls, Hani might be busy. He is rolling south, advancing against government forces with a new insurgent coalition, the Army of Conquest, that includes the Nusra Front.
At the hotel, Mr. Seijari, the Salafist, vowed to quit training if asked to avoid fighting pro-Assad forces -- a pledge that insurgents widely believe is required.
Trainees must promise "to defend the Syrian people from Daesh" and to refrain from harming civilians and prisoners. An English translation of the pledge, circulated through American military channels, does not mention Mr. Assad or the government.
But the insurgents' misperception is understandable, given official statements. Trainees will lose American support, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the United States Central Command said recently, if they "vector off and do things that we haven't designed them to do initially."
A senior American official confirmed that "a small number" of recruits had quit over the Islamic State focus. Others left because they lacked skills or strength, or refused the pledge, or disliked the food or treatment. One group of fighters quit en masse to defend their villages from attack.
Just two main clusters have joined, according to many people involved, and they are marginal players acting on local considerations. One is from Deir al-Zour, an eastern desert province with little government presence where the Islamic State has massacred resistant tribes. Nawwaf al-Basheer, their leader, said 1,100 men were ready, but training has been postponed until September.
Then there is Mr. Hassan's group, mainly Turkmen, an ethnic minority, from a small patch of Aleppo Province. For now, battlefield dynamics mean that driving the Islamic State from the area also hurts Mr. Assad. The Islamic State has been attacking insurgents from the east, interrupting a rebel assault on the government-held half of Aleppo city.
The Syrian military, which regularly bombards the zone, knows that too, and could react. Turkish officials say the area will "naturally" become a "safe zone" from government attacks. But Americans deny such a commitment.
Mr. Hassan said he had asked trainers "if they are going to protect us" and got no clear reply. Two days later, the kidnapping showed how vulnerable he was.
Karam Shoumali reported from Antakya, Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.