FSA fighters and civilians at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey (file)
SMC fighters were reportedly “asked” to leave Bab al-Hawa by the Islamic Front

The US and UK have suspended all “non-lethal” support for rebels in northern Syria, but not humanitarian aid.

A US spokesman said it was concerned about reports that Islamist rebels had seized bases belonging to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Fighters from the Islamic Front, a new alliance of rebel groups, ousted FSA-aligned fighters from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey last week.

The non-lethal aid includes medicine, vehicles and communications equipment.

The US and European countries have been reluctant to supply weapons and ammunition directly to rebel groups in Syria because of concerns that they might end up in the possession of jihadists affiliated to al-Qaeda.

However, they have reportedly facilitated secret arms shipments.

The US and the UK face a fundamental problem in Syria – how can they support the moderate Syrian opposition without also, indirectly, supporting the increasingly powerful Islamist opposition?

This year, the US promised to send $250m of non-lethal supplies to the moderates represented by the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. The aid is reported to include vehicles, communications equipment and night-vision goggles. This year, the UK has provided more than £20m of non-lethal aid – including communications and search and rescue equipment.

Crucially, some of these supplies may now be with the Islamists. Rebels from the newly formed Islamist Front have taken over warehouses in northern Syria belonging to the FSA. This takeover reflects the growing power of Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition movement.

For this reason, the US and the UK have suspended their delivery of aid. For the White House and for Downing Street, the idea of supporting the Syrian opposition is getting increasingly complicated.


White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed the US had “suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria” as a result of events at Bab al-Hawa.

But he stressed that humanitarian aid was not affected by the decision.

UK Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson told the BBC that “as far as we know at the moment” no British equipment had passed into the hands of Islamist militants, but he added: “It does make sense to suspend that aid until we know exactly what’s happened.”

The FSA said the suspension was a mistake. “We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer,” spokesman Louay Meqdad was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

Last month, seven leading rebel groups – the Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front – declared that they were forming the largest alliance yet in the 33-month conflict, with an estimated 45,000 fighters.

They said the new Islamic Front was an “independent political, military and social formation” that aimed to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government and build an Islamic state.

The front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, but its charter welcomes “muhajirin”, or foreign fighters, as “brothers who supported us in jihad”, and suggests it is willing to co-operate with them.

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According to the BBC, both the US and Britain have suspended “non-lethal” aid to northern Syria. The decision follows the seizure of Western-backed Free Syrian Army bases by Islamist rebels.

Last week, fighters from the Islamic Front ousted FSA-aligned fighters from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. The Islamic Front is a new alliance of rebel fighters dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Syria. The front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, but its charter welcomes “muhajirin”, or foreign fighters and expresses willingness to co-operate with them.

During the raid, the Islamic Front took over FSA warehouses believed to contain vehicles, communications equipment, and night-vision goggles donated by the US and Britain.

In the past few months, the foreign fighters in ISIS have also been making news  by shooting and beheading FSA fighters and civilians linked to the Syrian opposition.


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