The Top U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Has Fled the Country

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A Syrian woman holds a flag featuring Assad's photo after his forces captured the town of Nabak on Dec. 9, 2013. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. may soon have to decide if it wants to work with Islamist rebel groups in Syria, or cede control of the opposition to more extreme factions, including groups linked to al-Qaeda. Just a month before peace talks with the Assad regime are set to start, Western-backed moderate opposition groups suffered several blows. On Friday warehouses controlled by the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, the main recipient of U.S. aid, were seized by the Islamic Front, an alliance of six powerful Islamic rebel groups. The U.S. and Britain responded Wednesday by suspending nonlethal aid to rebels in northern Syria. To make matters worse, Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army, the top Western-backed rebel commander in the country, was driven from his headquarters and forced to flee to Turkey.

While the details are still hazy, according to The Wall Street Journal, it appears that the Islamic Front seized control by claiming that al-Qaeda affiliated rebel groups were planning to attack the warehouses and Idris's military headquarters, and offering to help protect the sites. It's unclear if there was any real threat, but a senior U.S. official said that once they secured they sites, "they asserted themselves and said: 'All right, we're taking over.'" The Washington Post reports that the warehouses contained small-arms ammunition and nonlethal supplies from America, such as vehicles, food, medical kits, and communications equipment. 

The contents of the buildings weren't as valuable as the legitimacy they gave Gen. Idris and the Western-backed factions of the opposition. With the rebel groups fighting amongst themselves, Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, tells the New York Times the chances of making progress at the peace conference are "pretty grim." Hof explained, "For all practical purposes, the moderate armed opposition that the administration really wanted to support — albeit in a hesitant and halfhearted way — is now on the sidelines."