US restores support for Islamist rebels, moves to unify groups in Idlib

Fighters posing with the flags (from left to right) used by Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army, and the al-Nusra Front (now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham).

A Free Syrian Army commander told to Al Jazeera that the US has restored the funding and logistical support it froze in February for rebel factions in northern Syria.

A new military operation room, supported by the US, Turkey, Western European and Gulf states, is reportedly under discussion and efforts to unify groups in the Idlib area aim at consolidating military control over Idlib, western Aleppo and parts of Latakia.

The commander told Al Jazeera that the top priority of the new military alliance would be fighting the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. The alliance will be composed of Islamic fundamentalist groups and led by Fadlallah Haji of the Sham Legion (Failaq al-Sham) Salafist group.

Many of the groups, such as Fastaqim Union (Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt) and the Army of Mujahideen (Jaysh al-Mujahideen) are since January part of Ahrar al-Sham, actively backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which aims to create an Islamic state under Sharia law.

It is not clear if Ahrar al-Sham as a whole will join the unified command which will be led by the same backers of MOM – a Turkish acronym for Joint Operation Center (Musterek Operasyon Merkezi) – formed by the US, Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in early 2014.

The move comes following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Ankara and suggests that the US is trying to balance Russian influence in the region, especially following a deal between Moscow and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin Canton, northwestern Syria.

The Syrian army and Russia are aiming to push the rebels out from the Idlib province, advancing from the south while hoping that the Kurds establish a front line in Afrin in the north. The reported airstrike on Tuesday morning, allegedly a chemical attack, was carried out in rebel-held Idlib’s Khan Sheikhoun town.

The formation of a new military force could also have knock-on effects on the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’s advance on Islamic State (IS) stronghold Raqqa. The YPG are a leading force in the SDF and a force Ankara has prioritised targeting even before government forces and IS. The YPG has said it will stop the Raqqa offensive if there are attacks on Kurdish-led autonomous areas in Syria’s north. The group has also said it could head to Idlib to “fight terrorists”.

US support for FSA groups working with the MOM has been criticised as weapons delivered to the groups ended up on the black market and eventually in the hands of the Islamic State, al-Nusra or al-Nusra affiliated groups.

An opposition source close to MOM-backed commanders told Financial Times that “the CIA knew about this, of course, everyone in MOM did. It was the price of doing business.”

American journalist Theo Padnos recently told Russia Today that a second ISIS is being formed in Idlib near the Turkish border and that opposition groups defeated in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus were to join the new formation.

“All the rebels from the different areas have been shipped up to this north-western corner of Syria, around Idlib. That entire province is governing itself with Sharia law which involves shooting people on the street,” Padnos claimed.