GAZIANTEP, – The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, multiple rebel sources have told McClatchy.
The rebels say that the tipoff to al Qaida’s Nusra Front enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500 million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a humiliating blow to the Obama administration’s plans for confronting the Islamic State.
Rebels familiar with the events said they believe the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried that while the group’s intended target was the Islamic State, the U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham.
A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, declined to respond to questions about the incident, saying any discussion of Turkey’s relationship with Nusra was off limits.
Other Turkish officials acknowledged the likely accuracy of the claims, though none was willing to discuss the topic for attribution. One official from southern Turkey said the arrival plans for the graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program were leaked to Nusra in hopes the rapid disintegration of the program would push the Americans into expanding the training and arming of rebel groups focused on toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Officials at the U.S. Defense Department, which is responsible for the training program, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The United States and Turkey have clashed for years over what U.S. officials characterize as Turkey’s willingness to work with Nusra, which the U.S. declared a foreign terrorist organization nearly three years ago. Turkey also has openly criticized the train-and-equip program for its insistence that participants agree to focus their efforts on defeating the Islamic State, not on battling Assad.
The abductions opened the program to ridicule in the United States, where supporters of arming Syrian rebels quickly used it to make their case that Obama administration policy toward the Syrian conflict is inept.
“Only the Americans and the Turks knew” about the plans for the train-and-equip fighters to enter Syria, said an officer of Division 30, the rebel group with which the newly trained Syrians were to work. “We have sources who tell us the Turks warned Nusra that they would be targeted by this group.”
The Division 30 officer asked not to be identified for his own safety and because Nusra still holds 22 of his comrades in Azzaz, a Syrian town just south of the Turkish border.
“Right now the only thing keeping our men alive is that Turkey does not want them executed – al Qaida always executes Arabs who work for the CIA,” he said. He suggested that Turkey was trying “to leverage the incident into an expanded role in the north for the Islamists in Nusra and Ahrar” and to persuade the United States to “speed up the training of rebels.”
Division 30 spokesman Capt. Ammar al Wawi stopped short of saying Turkey had betrayed the operation, though he agreed that the only people aware of the trainees’ plans to enter Syria were Turkish and American staffers at a joint command center in Gaziantep. He grew visibly uncomfortable when pressed on the subject.
“I have to live here in Turkey and have been targeted for kidnapping or assassination twice in the last month,” he said. “But we know someone aligned with Nusra informed them of our presence. They were taken within 10 minutes.”
Among those abducted was the Division 30 commander, Col. Nadim Hassan. “We would have never allowed him to go inside if we had known that Nusra would target them,” al Wawi said.
Another rebel commander, interviewed in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, about 30 miles north of the Syrian border, said he was not surprised Nusra would target the U.S.-trained fighters. In the end, he said, the ideologies of Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are not all that different from that of the Islamic State, which he referred to as “Daash,” its Arabic acronym.
“Nusra are al Qaida by their own admission,” said the commander, who asked not to be named because his unit received some weapons and support from Turkey. “And there’s no ideological difference between Daash and the Nusra Front, just a political fight for control. All of the top Nusra commanders were once in the Islamic State.”
He said Nusra hostility toward U.S.-trained rebels would be understandable. “Remember,” he said, “America has targeted Nusra with some airstrikes.”
He said that while some Syrian rebels have been willing to coordinate with Nusra and Ahrar al Sham in offensives against Syrian government positions, that cooperation is likely to end at some point and Turkey was aware of that.
“They don’t want anything bad to happen to their allies – Nusra and Ahrar al Sham – along the border and they know that both the Americans and the Syrian people will eventually recognize that there’s no difference between groups like Nusra, Ahrar and Daash,” he said.
Mustafa Abdi, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG by their Kurdish initials, said he, too, has been told Turkey leaked the arrival of the U.S.-trained fighters. He suggested the effort was part of a Turkish effort to persuade the United States to cooperate more with the groups Turkey views as its allies in Syria.
“They want the Americans to train and equip rebels but only on their terms and to confront both the regime and the Islamic State,” he said. “This incident not only embarrassed the Americans and made the Free Syrian Army programs look weak compared to Nusra, but also makes working with Turkey on their terms even more important.”
Turkish officials have been openly critical of the United States for coordinating its bombing campaign in northern Syria with the YPG, which has proved to be the most successful group battling the Islamic State in Syria.
Turkey sees the YPG as aligned with its longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has fought a three-decade-long insurgency for greater autonomy for Turkey’s large Kurdish population. But in coordination with U.S. airstrikes, the YPG has driven Islamic State fighters from at least a dozen Syrian towns, including Tal Abyad, a major crossing point on the Turkish border.
The Turkey-U.S. conflict over how to confront the Islamic State has been a key point of friction between the two NATO allies since the U.S. began its bombing campaign against the group a year ago. Only last month did Turkey agree to allow manned American aircraft to launch missions from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The first mission took off Aug. 12.
But the disagreement on strategy dates to much earlier in the Syrian conflict, when American officials declared Nusra to be just another name for al Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor organization. Turkey said the designation overlooked the fact that it was by far the most effective force fighting the Syrian government, and Turkish officials resisted U.S. efforts to persuade them to stop working with Nusra, even though Turkey also declared the group a terrorist organization.
Aymenn al Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi jihadist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said Turkish support for what he called “the Salafi-Jihadi-Islamist coalition in the north” is clear.
He said that support is likely both ideological and tactical. Noting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party also espouses Islamist goals, Tamimi suggested “Erdogan and his allies would ideologically be sympathetic to Islamist groups.” Tactically, the success Nusra and Ahrar al Sham have had against the Assad government would also be attractive. “There’s a case to be made they are the most effective forces in the north,” he said.
BY MITCHELL PROTHERO – McClatchyDc
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero