When 23 of 60 U.S.-trained fighters were captured by the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, earlier this month, it appeared to be the result of poor U.S. oversight, unrealistic planning, and plain bad luck. But now, reports indicate something more nefarious might have been going on. According to McClatchy:
The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, multiple rebel sources have told McClatchy.
The rebels say that the tipoff to al Qaida’s Nusra Front enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500 million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a humiliating blow to the Obama administration’s plans for confronting the Islamic State.
Rebels familiar with the events said they believe the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried that while the group’s intended target was the Islamic State, the U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham.
After the fighters were captured, the U.S. abandoned the training program, which had had a budget of $500 million but had produced only the 60 men.
Meanwhile, the Turks aren’t exactly denying the allegation:
A senior official at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, declined to respond to questions about the incident, saying any discussion of Turkey’s relationship with Nusra was off limits.
Other Turkish officials acknowledged the likely accuracy of the claims, though none was willing to discuss the topic for attribution. One official from southern Turkey said the arrival plans for the graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program were leaked to Nusra in hopes the rapid disintegration of the program would push the Americans into expanding the training and arming of rebel groups focused on toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Administration has never quite figured out how to handle Turkey since its dreams of Erdogan leading the way to a soft-Islamist, democratic future for the Middle East crumbled when the Arab Spring collapsed and the Turkish President’s hardliner tendencies started to emerge. If these allegations are true, they further highlight the contradictions and complications underlying our policy of rapprochement with Ankara.
And the alternative to the failed fighter program is supposed to be deeper coordination with Turkey and other groups in Syria. The Administration has to rouse itself to a more active policy with regard to Syria, or come up with a more sure-handed way to handle Ankara, lest we spend the next eighteen months taking little blows like this or worse.