This was not one of those Syrian firefights that take everyone unawares – even closely involved intelligence watchers. Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which has proved to be the most powerful Syrian rebel force fighting Bashar Assad, took the time and trouble to thoroughly prepare the attack it launched Thursday, July 30 on a fellow rival group, the “30th Division” of the Free Syrian Army, near the small town of Azaz, some 32 km northwest of Aleppo.
Nusra brought in a large force and waged a well-planned, systematical assault with the clear intent of destroying its rival.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts analyze the importance of this event and its game-changing ramifications.
The unit Nusra attacked was not a “division” in the conventional military sense, but rather a group of 500-600 combatants clustered around a hard core of 60 rebel fighters led by Nadim al-Hassan, under whose command they received special training from CIA instructors outside Syria.
Last month, they crossed into Syria from Turkey, equipped to battle the Syrian army and Hizballah forces with US-made all-terrain vehicles, arms and ammunition. They had the backing of the US Central Command Forward-Jordan, based near Amman, and the CIA command center based Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey, from where it controls the clandestine aspects of the American operation in Syria.
Washington’s hopes for “moderate rebel army” dashed
Washington’s strategy for the Syrian conflict counted heavily on this group. The emergence of a commander of Nadim al-Hassan’s caliber was one of the few successes of the administration’s policy of supporting and training “moderate Syrian insurgents,” in which the Pentagon had invested more than half a billion dollars. So Washington had high hopes of Al-Hassan.
Those hopes were dashed in the two-day battle Nusra waged against the “30th Division” on July 30-31.
It took place barely a week after Presidents Barack Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to coordinate their operations inside Syria against the Islamic State and other al Qaeda groups, relegating the brunt of the combat to “moderate Syrian rebel forces” under such talented commanders as Al-Hassan.
His defeat at Azaz was a death blow to the pro-American crack force and knocked over a central pillar of the US-Turkish plan for the next stage of the Syrian conflict.
Nusra fighters liquidated the entire 30th division’s core command and took a handful of officers prisoner, including Hassan. The rest of the FSA force tried to fight without its officers but threw in the towel after a few hours and fled. The smart new American weapons and equipment were left behind for the Al Qaeda fighters to collect.
An urgent CIA and Pentagon request to the White House Friday, July 31, for the president’s permission to send US warplanes over Syria, was not meant to save the “30th Division,” which was beyond rescuing, but to destroy the US-made all-terrain vehicles before they fell into Nusra’s hands.
Both a military and an intelligence flop
They were determined never to permit the recurrence of the images seen in Iraq a year ago of triumphant Islamists riding high and waving ISIS flags aboard captured US-made tanks taken booty from fleeing Iraqi divisions.
All the Pentagon had to say about this incident was that US air power has been used for the first time “to defend US-trained forces fighting in Syria.”
A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis, commented that “defensive support fire” was “provided last Friday.”
This was not the first reverse the CIA training program had suffered in Syria. Last year, the Nusra Front defeated another CIA-trained force, consisting of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Harakat Hazm Force.
The Azaz defeat had six important consequences, according to our military and intelligence sources:
1. The Obama policy of fielding “moderate Syrian forces” for ground combat crashed.
2. Not a single effective rebel fighting force has been produced by the CIA training program. After the rout of the “30th Division,” it is hard to see rebels and commanders queuing up to fight Assad under the US aegis.
3. The Pentagon and CIA are tightlipped about the prisoners taken by Nusra. But they may expect to hear soon that they are hostages, which Nusra will ransom for some advantage.
4. Nusra must have had an informant planted inside the Hassan command group, which provided the key to its success. So this was not just a military defeat but also an intelligence failure.
US air strikes raise temperatures in Moscow
5. The US air strikes for demolishing captured FSA equipment sparked a sharp rise in tensions between Washington and Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called it “counter-productive.” In a special statement he issued from Qatar Monday, Aug. 3, he warned that extra US measures to defend US-trained rebels “could complicate the task of fighting terrorism” in Syria.
Moscow clearly views the onset of US air strikes over Syria as a turning-point in the war and an undesirable precedent that could lead to American aerial action against the Assad regime and a repetition of the events that unfolded in Libya from NATO’s 2011campaign against Muammar Qaddafi.
President Vladimir Putin has pledged never to allow the United States to import into Syria the tactics pursued in Libya.
6. Following the defeat of the US-backed and trained rebel force in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived fairly empty-handed in Doha this week for a conference with Lavrov and the Gulf foreign ministers, that was topped by a discussion of combined action for terminating the Syrian conflict.