Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict the United States have placed it’s bet on the opposition forces who protested, and then fought against the government of Bashar al Assad. The US provided the opposition with weapons, training and cash in addition to diplomatic and media support on a global scale. US-backed entities proved to be grateful allies, who gladly received everything they were given – except orders.
The US had to compete with Russia, who declared support for the Syrian government from the first days of the conflict and benefited from co-operating with a functioning albeit handicapped by international pressure state structures. Supporting the opposition suggested that US had to deal with loosely organized factions ranging from armed groups formed by Syrian army defectors to extremists organizations often led by or even exclusively comprised of foreign jihadists who received combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern Africa.
To make the mission even more complicated, two separate weapon supply channels were established: CIA-run “vetted opposition” program and Pentagon-run Train and Equip program. Despite minor differences in approaches and procedures both initiative shared the same fate: a spectacular failure.
The CIA project code-named Timber Sycamore involved as many as 50 armed opposition factions who were supplied with assault rifles, mortars, ATGMs, night vision goggles and other weapons and equipment. The program had a specific goal of enabling opposition to remove Bashar al Assad from power and was phased out in 2017 to redirect resources to the fight against ISIS.
Despite the massive scale of the initiative it did not result in substantial gains by the opposition forces. Although some quick successes were initially made, primarily due to effective use of ATGMs against the Syrian army vehicles, they were later reverted by the government troops. The opposition fighters complained that the weapons given to them were “enough to survive, not to win”, pointing out that no MANPADS were included in the program, making the opposition unable to deprive the Syrian army of it’s air supremacy.
Train and Equip Program yielded similar results. Unlike the CIA initiative, that was covert, Pentagon ran it’s project publicly, which made it all the more humiliating when the US military had to announced that a $500 million program resulted in only a group of 54 Syrian fighters successfully finishing their training. When deployed. the group, named Division 30, was almost immediately overrun by Jabhat al Nusra, affiliate of Al Qaeda in Syria at the time.
Both programs also faced accusations of fueling black market arms trade in the region. US-made weapons were stolen by Washington’s allies and enemies alike only to surface later in hands of irregular armed groups all over the Middle East. At some moment, the situation turned so bizarre that CIA-armed factions fought those armed by the Pentagon, both sides using US-supplied advanced weapons against each other.
Despite the initial struggle, the Pentagon has ultimately succeeded in finding a reliable partner: Kurdish-led People’s Protections Units proved instrumental in the fight against ISIS in Northern Syria and were quickly transformed into Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a large coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other armed groups comprised of the residents of Northern Syria.
Supported by air strikes carried out by the US-led International Coalition, SDF managed to deal a number of decisive defeats to ISIS, ultimately capturing de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa and putting an end to the “territorial caliphate” after the capture of Baghuz, the last village controlled by the terror group, this March.
However, the military victory was accompanied by a political setback: by establishing close relations with SDF US provoked anger of Turkey, one of its key partners in the region and a NATO ally.
Turkish authorities consider SDF an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has been at war with Turkey for decades and is designated as a terror group. With the US support, SDF was able to secure a large swathe of land alongside the Turkey-Syria border, fueling Ankara’s fears of attacks against it’s territory.
To curb the rising influence of SDF in Northern Syria Turkey has launched two cross-border operations: Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch with the aim to deny SDF freedom of movement along the border. Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition factions (some of which were previously supported by the US) managed to capture the city of Al Bab and the adjacent areas as well as Afrin region, effectively cutting it from the remaining areas under SDF control.
Finding itself in the middle of the fight between two of its closest allies, the US faced accusations of treason from both sides. Washington only managed to convince Turkey to reconsider its plans to capture the city of Manbij under condition of withdrawal of all SDF troops and transition of power to a local council. A “security zone” project introduced by the US was cautiously approached by both sides and has not seen approval yet.
The list of US allies in the Syrian conflict would not be full without it’s last participant, an unlikely remnant of the CIA covert initiative – Maghaweir al Thawra.
Based at a remote garrison of Al Tanf located in the desert on the border between Syria, Iraq and Jordan, the group counts several hundreds of fighters, most of whom are residents of eastern Deir Ezzor and Hasakah provinces.
The group’s members initially received US training in Jordan and then were included into the ranks of the so-called New Syrian Army. After several rebrandings, the group has finally settled as Maghaweir Al Thawra (Revolutionary Commandos) and limited its activities to a 55-km deconfliction zone around Al Tanf, that was turned into a US-led Coalition’s base.
Barring a small number of clashes with ISIS and the Syrian army, Maghaweir al Thawra fighters have never participated in combat. As many as 180 fighters were relieved of their duties due to “weak performance” in 2017. US Central Command denied the incident at the time, stating that the massive cuts happened because the fighters completed their military service.
Since then, the group’s numbers were brought back to roughly 300 fighters who continued to receive training from US instructors. Although the future perspectives of Maghaweir al Thawra are unclear, its members share rumors about coming deployments to confront Iran-backed militias in the neighboring Deir Ezzor province that would fall in line with the raising tensions between US and Iran.
Weak performance and lack of combat experience did not prevent Maghaweir Al Thawra from receiving weapons, ammunition and financial support from the US with the declared goal of “maintaining security” and “defending locals” in the 55-km zone. The problem with this claim is that there is not a single settlement in the zone that is located entirely in the desert.
The only exception in Rukban refugees camp that currently hosts up to 30,ooo people cramped in tents and temporary shelters. However, the US refuses to take responsibility over the camp, shifting the blame for the suffering of its residents on Jordan and the Syrian government. Not a single US soldier has set foot in Rukban since Al Tanf base was established in 2016.
And if Maghaweir al Thawra fighters do appear in Rukban, they do not come with good intentions. This January, former spokesman of the group was caught by the camp’s residents in the act of attempting to rape a 10-year-old girl. The group was quick to issue a statement where it expressed concert over “the incident involving the incident of a child” and claimed that the perpetrator was detained. No further details followed.