US and Turkey failing to aid ISIL opponents

“There are promises of air cover and support for the fighters on the ground, but we have grown tired of these promises,” said Mustafa Birru, the head of a prominent rebel group in Aleppo Province.
Internationally, the decision by Turkey and the United States to work together to clear the Islamic State from a 60-mile-long area along the Turkish border in Aleppo Province and from territory about 30 miles south was hailed as a critical rapprochement between allies who had long disagreed on an approach to the civil war in Syria.
Turkey has considered the ouster of Mr. Assad a priority while resisting direct involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The United States avoided intervening in the civil war between rebels and the government of Mr. Assad until the jihadist group took advantage of the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq.
Now comes the hard part, beginning with the question of who will fight on the ground.
A senior official in the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the plan was to use intensive airstrikes and military support to allow Syrian rebels to push Islamic State fighters from the border zone.
Already, a number of steps have been taken to begin putting the plan into effect. This week, six F-16 fighter jets and 300 American military personnel arrived at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base after Ankara decided to allow an anti-Islamic State military coalition led by the United States to conduct the airstrikes from its territory.
Another hurdle was removed when the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front, withdrew from its positions near the proposed zone to avoid a clash with international powers, other rebel groups said. And in recent weeks, Turkish and American intelligence officials have talked with Syrian rebels who have received covert support about fighting the Islamic State along the Turkish border, rebel leaders said.
Yet the plan’s success is likely to hinge on the ability of the United States and Turkey to marshal rebel forces to drive the jihadist group from the border area. The province has a complicated mosaic of more than a dozen groups that follow a range of ideologies, from Syrian nationalists to members of Al Qaeda.

These groups now occupy complex front lines against both Islamic State and Syrian government forces. While the rebels compete for fighters and resources, they tend to know one another after years of sharing battlefields and joining forces to face common enemies. And most of Aleppo’s rebels would rather fight Mr. Assad than the Islamic State.
The United States Defense Department is running a program to train and equip moderate rebels, but that effort has struggled to get off the ground and has yet to have any obvious effect on the battlefield.
Fewer than 60 fighters have graduated from a program that was supposed to train 5,400 per year. And the group that sent the trainees, known as Division 30, faced major setbacks last month when two of its top officers and six others were captured by the Nusra Front, which also attacked the group’s base, killing one of the American-trained fighters.
In an email, Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the coalition had supported Syrian Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman forces in the fight against the jihadist group, with nearly 2,300 airstrikes since the campaign started in September 2014. But she declined to say which forces would be used to clear the border area.
“This project is not serious,” Bassam Hajj Mustafa, a political representative for an Aleppo-based rebel group, said of the training mission, adding that Division 30 had been newly formed and lacked the ties to other rebels that could have protected it from the Nusra Front.
“You can’t take a small group and put them in training that is not connected to the groups on the ground,” he said.
Instead of backing a new, untested group, the United States and its allies could step up support for rebel groups in Aleppo that have already received covert aid from the United States and its allies.
For more than a year, the intelligence services of the United States, Turkey and other countries have been running a covert program known as the Military Operations Command in Turkey, which gives vetted rebel groups cash and ammunition.
About a dozen rebel groups in Aleppo Province receive support through the program, and most are already fighting the Islamic State, although they do not coordinate as closely with the anti-ISIS air campaign as Kurdish forces do farther east.
Mr. Birru, whose group is supported by the program, said the United States and its allies had recently begun talking to these rebels about supporting their fight against the Islamic State. But like many of the program’s beneficiaries, he said the aid was often too limited to allow the rebels to make real gains.
Enabling these groups to move against the Islamic State would require a large increase in support, including arms and ammunition, coordination on airstrikes and technology to detect and defuse the extensive explosives that the jihadist fighters use to protect their positions, Mr. Birru said.
With their present level of support, Aleppo’s rebels are scarcely able to hold their positions against the group.

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