BAGHDAD — A Syrian insurgent group at the heart of the Pentagon’s effort to marshal local foot soldiers against Islamic State militants came under intense attack on Friday from a different hard-line Islamist faction, the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front said in a statement that its aim was to eliminate the American-aligned unit, known as Division 30, before it could gain a deeper foothold in Syria. The Nusra Front did much the same last year when it smashed the main groups that had been trained and equipped in a different American effort, one run covertly by the C.I.A.
The American-led coalition responded to the attack on Friday with airstrikes to help Division 30 fight off the assault, according to an American military spokesman and combatants on both sides. The strikes were the first known use of coalition air power in direct battlefield support of fighters in Syria who were trained by the Pentagon.
The airstrikes appeared to indicate that the Nusra Front’s assault had forced the Pentagon’s hand, after an extended internal debate about whether to use air power to defend Division 30 if it was attacked by other parties besides the Islamic State.
Graphic | Turkey Agrees to Assist U.S. With Airstrikes Against ISIS A visual guide to the rise of the Islamic State.
The intensified fighting came a day after the Nusra Front captured two leaders and at least six fighters of Division 30, which supplied the first trainees to graduate from the Pentagon’s anti-Islamic State training program.
Witnesses described the Nusra Front’s attack as an all-out assault with medium and heavy weapons, mounted against a Division 30 encampment west of the town of Azaz in Aleppo Province, near the border with Turkey.
The American military spokesman, Col. Patrick S. Ryder, wrote in an email statement that “we are confident that this attack will not deter Syrians from joining the program to fight for Syria,” and added that the program “is making progress.”
Division 30’s leaders expected to play a role in an ambitious new joint push by the United States and Turkey to help less radical Syrian insurgent groups seize territory from the fundamentalist militant fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
But the unit had no known plans to fight the Nusra Front, and the attacks on Thursday and Friday seemed to take it by surprise. Though the Nusra Front is allied with Al Qaeda, it is seen by many insurgents in Syria as preferable to the Islamic State, and it sometimes cooperates with other less radical groups against both the Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
In a statement on Friday, Division 30’s leaders called on all nationalist Syrian insurgents to “stand firm and proactively” against what they called an unprovoked attack, and asked “the brothers in the Nusra Front” to “stop the bloodshed and preserve the unity.”
Yet witnesses to the attack on Friday and insurgent leaders said that most of the other groups in the area failed to come to Division 30’s aid. By staying out of the fight, they may have signaled that they have not accepted a central feature of the Pentagon’s program: that it be directed only at the Islamic State and not at the Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad, against whom the rebels originally took up arms.
At a minimum, it appears that other insurgent groups were not ready to directly take on the Nusra Front, one of the strongest and best-financed forces on the ground in Syria. Neither did they join in the Nusra Front’s attack on Division 30, perhaps because of the coalition airstrikes. The Islamic State does not have a significant presence in that area.
Ahrar al-Sham, another powerful Islamist insurgent group, stayed on the sidelines, according to a spokesman, Ahmad Kara Ali. Ahrar al-Sham has often aligned with the Nusra Front, but it has been at odds with the group in some places lately over power and over how to govern areas they have conquered.
One group that apparently did side with Division 30 was Thuwar Al-Sham, a coalition based west of Azaz that includes several Arab and Kurdish factions. Thuwar Al-Sham said in a statement that it, too, had come under attack after Division 30 fighters had fallen back to areas under its control, and that it tried to assist Division 30 during the battle.
Division 30 said in a statement that five of its fighters were killed in the firefight on Friday, 18 were wounded and 20 were captured by the Nusra Front. It was not clear whether the 20 captives included the six fighters and two commanders captured a day earlier.
Division 30 was formed from a number of smaller groups to streamline the recruitment and training of fighters by the Pentagon to fight the Islamic State. The program has produced only a handful of graduates so far, in part because of a screening process to root out suspected extremists that Division 30’s leaders say is too stringent.
Its first contingent of trained fighters — just 54 in all — recently re-entered Syria to join the rest of the division. An American official said that none of those 54 were among the eight captured on Thursday by the Nusra Front.
But the captives did include Nadeem Hassan, a defector from the Syrian Army who helped organize Division 30’s 1,200 fighters, and Farhan Jasem, a deputy who commanded the 54 trained fighters, according to a statement from Division 30.
The Nusra Front’s statement offered its view of the American role in Syria. Referring to the C.I.A. program, the group said that when the United States tried to “plant its hands inside Syria,” the Nusra Front “cut those hands off,” and that Division 30 was merely another proxy “aiming to advance the projects and interests of America.”
Sunni Arabs have formed the backbone of the revolt against Mr. Assad’s rule, which exploded into civil war after his security forces cracked down on protesters. As the conflict has dragged on, more groups have come to frame it the way the Nusra Front does, as a sectarian struggle.
The group’s statement said Sunnis would not hand the sacrifices of four years of war “on a plate of gold” to the United States, “for it to establish its feet in the region over the graves of hundreds of thousands of the people of Syria.”
The war has killed at least 230,000 Syrians, wounded more than a million and displaced more than 9 million, half the country’s population.
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(via NY Times)