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Nusra Front Attacks U.S.-Backed Syrian Fighters

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A big part of the U.S. strategy in Syria has been to strengthen local rebel forces. That plan has endured a major setback. The al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, one of the most powerful insurgent groups in northern Syria, has attacked U.S.-backed rebels near the Turkish border. It's not the first time that the Nusra Front has gone after rebel groups supported and trained by the Pentagon. The New York Times reports that the attack took American officials by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure. I'm joined by Anne Barnard of The New York Times, who has been reporting on this from Baghdad. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE BARNARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Getting information out of Syria has proven to be really difficult for journalists. How did the attack come to light?

BARNARD: The attack happened - just by chance - at a time when we had been researching this program for months, with my Syrian colleague in Turkey and my American colleague at the Pentagon. So we'd been going deep to try to get information on the program primarily from its Syrian participants and the Syrians who have been approached and refused. But the attack was also announced by Division 30, the group that came under attack.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about how the attacks were carried out?

BARNARD: Well, it seems that soon after the first class of graduates from this Pentagon training program for Syrian insurgents returned back into Syria, they came under attack by a group of Nusra Front fighters who first on Thursday captured their leader and several other fighters. And then on Friday, they attacked them with what were said to be about 50 fighters using heavy and medium-grade weapons.

MARTIN: Does this call into question how well these fighters were trained?

BARNARD: You know, I'm not sure the issue is the quality of the training.

MARTIN: Or the underestimation of the enemy?

BARNARD: Yes. I think certainly journalists and other people who have been observing this situation for a long time - I think it was pretty plain to us that this group was going to be threatened not only by the Islamic State and the Syrian government but also by the Nusra Front because the Nusra Front in the past has attacked and routed other groups that the United States was trying to support. Basically, they want to kill in the crib, as it were, any potential rival that might grow more powerful.

MARTIN: What does this do to U.S. efforts to recruit and train more fighters on the ground in Syria?

BARNARD: Nothing good, although I have to say that the program seems to have been fundamentally flawed from the start in the sense that most of its target audience was just not interested in joining a program which required them to fight only ISIS and not also the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

MARTIN: So if this group was key to the American strategy to fight the Islamic State, what does that mean? Where is that fight at in this moment?

BARNARD: This effort was clearly not going well in the first place. They only had 54 total fighters trained. So on the one hand, this group was a centerpiece of that program. On the other hand, the program was really not very robust.

MARTIN: You say you've been working with your own Syrian contacts. Have you had conversations with them? What has been their response? What's the effect of this attack on morale?

BARNARD: The people involved in this effort - of course, they're very shaken up, very upset. But when you talk to other insurgents - we had one contact who had declined to join this program because he was happy to fight ISIS but not to stop fighting Assad. And he said, you know, these people accepted a mission that they really should have known was impossible because the Americans are not properly supporting them. He compared it to driving to a place in a car when you know you don't have enough fuel to get there.

MARTIN: Anne Barnard is a reporter for The New York Times. She joined us on the line from Baghdad. Thanks so much for talking with us.

BARNARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.