REYHANLI, Turkey: The enthusiasm that surrounded the departure of thousands of tents, loaded onto trucks headed from Turkey’s Bab al-Hawa crossing to the town of Atmeh in northern Syria, couldn’t dim the dismal appearance of the supplies destined for the rebel Free Syrian Army. At the distribution warehouse in Reyhanli, Turkey, Col. Mahmoud, an effusive, defected colonel who now oversees the distribution of millions of dollars in lethal and nonlethal military aid to the FSA, was eager to explain how the tents would bolster his struggling forces on the ground.
He, along with representatives from USAID contractors Creative Associates International and their partners from the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, explained how, after a long interruption, new monitoring and receipt mechanisms had opened the floodgates for aid to the FSA, paving the way for tents and other military equipment to boost the mainstream, western-backed rebel group.
Unfortunately, the tents never made it to the intended recipients.
They, along with the commanders in charge of their distribution, were captured by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) shortly after they reached Atmeh. The FSA’s warehouse there has been taken over by ISIS and their FSA commanders await release from a nearby Shariah court.
Gains on the ground by Islamist militias and hard-line jihadist groups such as the Nusra Front and the more terrifying ISIS, have long posed setbacks for the beleaguered FSA.
Fears that aid might land in the hands of anti-western Islamists, whether through sale or force, have fueled Washington’s hesitation over arming the moderate FSA, and according to Mahmoud, prompted the Turkish authorities to close their borders for even nonlethal aid.
Mismanagement and the lack of money from the FSA’s Supreme Military Council culminated in the announcement last month that some several dozen units, primarily in southern Syria, were defecting from the group.
Now, the FSA is being armed with new inventory training, and stepped up receipt and delivery mechanisms to ensure that nonlethal and lethal weapons get into the right hands.
For-profit USAID grant recipients such as Creative work with the SMC and other intermediaries to ensure that the delivery of equipment – worth millions of dollars in contracts for everything from concrete to laptops, vehicles and armored vests – is adequately signed off for.
Under a new, yet to be signed agreement, seen by The Daily Star, Creative will work directly with the SMC to procure the desired materiel for receipt and distribution, provide inventory management, communications, logistics, as well as front command staff to boost the SMC’s ability to manage equipment and strengthen command systems.
Creative is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
Mahmoud and others close to the military aid distribution network said the new methodology appears to have convinced the right people in Washington to open the floodgates after weeks of stalling.
“We have the main warehouses for the FSA here in Turkey. Then, we take the equipment to the main warehouses inside Syria, where it is distributed to five main commands,” Mahmoud said.
“In the warehouse we decide who is the neediest ... the war is moving, so once it gets inside the FSA leadership decides according to the need, where it goes,” he said, waving a hand at the tents headed for Atmeh.
“There has been very little in the way of theft ... We haven’t been targets so far. We have our procedures. Our warehouses are protected,” he said, calling decisions by rebel groups to leave the SMC a “temporary overreaction.”
“There were no groups that left the SMC,” he argued.
“It makes no difference on the ground because they are still under the umbrella of the SMC and we will still support all fighters.”
There was no need to worry about FSA goods landing in the hands of Al-Qaeda, he added.
“They say that the FSA is disorganized and that there are terrorists. It’s not true. The FSA loves life and loves freedom ... We consider Syria is our homeland – that’s the most important thing.”
As of Sunday it wasn’t clear where the tents had ended up.
According to a distribution manager on the ground in Atmeh, a rebel commander from the Suqour al-Islam Brigades, an SMC-affiliated group, demanded more ammunition from the SMC. When the dispute escalated, the commander retaliated by seizing four tent-laden trucks but as violent clashes erupted, ISIS militants located nearby exploited the situation, capturing the Atmeh warehouse along with three SMC officers and the leader of Suqour al-Islam, according to the manager.
One U.S. military contractor, who asked to remain anonymous, described the monitoring and evaluation as “extremely important.”
“Seeing a video of a U.S. truck being driven by a jihadist from ISIS is a nightmare scenario for the U.S. State Department,” he said.
“It has been made abundantly clear to the SMC that if anything goes missing, or we don’t know where it is, the floodgates will be immediately closed again,” he added.
This week The Daily Star saw documents, signed by FSA leader Gen. Salim Idriss and FSA commanders from several fronts inside Syria, acknowledging the receipt of hundreds of Lenovo laptops and Toyota Hilux trucks.
Nonlethal military equipment – drawdown materiel from the war in Afghanistan – also arrived by aircraft in Turkey for delivery to the FSA, which took place on Friday.
According to Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and a former commissioner for the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the risks of aid and assistance provision are high under such conditions.
“It’s very difficult. The problem is when the military group you are trying to help – even if it were a highly unified force, nevertheless has parts controlled by individual figures – warlords, is what they are called in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.
“These individual figures will exaggerate the size of the forces required and the size of their needs. It’s not in the interests of the recipient to work hard at reducing the figures.”
“It is a risk in Syria. Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries on earth, and in the war in Syria, [at least] the rebel groups are more highly motivated. But I do think the impossibility of tightly ordered controls in Syria makes it a definite problem ... and you worry much more about lethal aid.”
A Syrian contractor working with the SMC to track the supplies admits some aid “has gone missing” but says that if the rebel body enjoyed the right support, “everyone thinking to defect from the SMC will think twice.”
As if to highlight those challenges, Friday saw the announcement of the biggest-yet merger of Islamist rebel groups, outside the SMC framework.
In Antakya, a former distribution manager with an independent Islamic organization primarily directing aid to ISIS said the FSA was becoming increasingly irrelevant.
“We saw millions and millions of dollars going to ISIS,” he said, “while the FSA is getting smaller and smaller.”
The fate of the trucks of tents remained unclear, as did the fate of the three captured FSA officers and the leader of Suqour al-Islam, awaiting trial at a Shariah court headed by ISIS in Dana, on the border with Turkey.
Those involved in distribution say that negotiations are underway and they have told Washington they are confident of the return of both the stock and personnel.