Report: Russia Working to Pick Off U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebels

Rebel leader blames U.S. policy

Russian army pilot in Syria
Russian army pilot in Syria / AP
August 5, 2016

The Russian government is working to pick off Syrian rebels armed and trained by the U.S. to fight against the Islamic State who have often been dissatisfied with Washington’s assistance.

The political leader of a prominent U.S.-backed brigade in Aleppo said he met with a Russian official nearly two weeks ago, who offered him "unlimited amounts of weaponry and close air support" to wage war with ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Syria, the Daily Beast reported Friday.

Mustafa Sejry said members of his Liwa al-Mu’tasim Brigade were concerned about shifting their loyalties to Russia given Moscow’s close alliance with their enemy—the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"Honestly, I would have never ever even thought about working with the Russians after their horrific atrocities against us and their slaughtering thousands of my own people," Sejry said. "But this change of mindset I blame on the Americans."

Sejry said the Russians told him they wanted to "go back to 2012 when there was a government and an opposition," which would divert resources from the fights against ISIS and other militant groups in the region.

Sejry said he hoped to use Moscow’s offer to leverage improved support from the U.S., but expressed doubt as he described a year and a half of weak American backing and "broken promises," the Daily Beast reported.

He said he told two U.S. military officials about the Russian offer, but has yet to receive a response.

Sejry’s claims of Russians attempting to poach U.S.-backed Syrian rebels come roughly three weeks after the Obama administration reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that instructs the two military forces to coordinate joint bombing operations against al Nusra.

The provisional deal mandates the U.S. military to share information with Russia about specific targets in Syria, in exchange for Moscow halting its bombing campaign against U.S.-supported rebels.

Opponents of the pact at the Pentagon and CIA said the Obama administration caved into "Russian bullying" and that Moscow could not be trusted to honor the agreement’s provisions.

Sejry is among the 1,000 Syrian rebels who enlisted in the Pentagon’s train and equip operation. The group threatened to leave the program after U.S. Central Command imposed stern restrictions, including a prohibition on rebels from using their U.S.-provided training or weaponry against Assad’s government.

Sejry said the U.S. pays his fighters infrequently, claiming they’ve received only a months-worth pay during the last three months.

"We feel betrayed. Now other options are on the table," Sejry said. [The Russians] said, ‘We are more reliable and trustworthy. Just look how we stood with Assad all this time. And look at the Americans. They are not truthful, they’re not supporting you guys. We’ll be 100 percent with you.’"