GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda has announced its withdrawal from front-line positions against the Islamic State extremist group in northern Syria, saying that it disagrees with plans by Turkey and the United States to clear the extremists from an area along the Turkish border.
In a statement on Monday, the Qaeda group, the Nusra Front, said that the proposed plan was designed primarily to protect “Turkish national security” and not to advance the Syrian rebel cause.
Syrian activists in the area reported the withdrawal of the Nusra Front in recent days, saying that other rebel groups had taken up their vacated positions to prevent an advance by Islamic State forces.
But on Monday, a Defense Department official said the United States did not believe the statement.
“We’ve not yet seen any movements on the ground that would indicate they are following through with it,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss battlefield issues.
The Nusra Front’s withdrawal from rural positions northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo came amid newly announced steps by Turkey and the United States to fight the Islamic State in Syria.
American and Turkish officials last month described plans to provide military support to Syrian rebels to clear the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from a roughly 60-mile-long strip of territory along the Turkish border.
But two weeks later, much remains unclear about the plan, including how far into Syria the proposed Islamic State-free zone will extend; which rebel forces will push back the Islamic State fighters and hold any ground taken from them; and what sort of military support these forces will receive to do so.
At the same time, a United States plan to train and arm rebels to fight the Islamic State suffered a major setback when leaders of the United States-backed group, known as Division 30, were captured by the Nusra Front soon after entering Syria last month. Their fate remains unknown.
Last week, a senior American official confirmed that one of the newly trained fighters had been killed and two others wounded in an attack by the Nusra Front on their base. The United States launched airstrikes to try to defend the force, the first time it has provided direct air support to American-trained forces.
Syrian rebels and activists have criticized the American program, saying it is too small to make a difference and is focused on a rebel group that few people know. Division 30 is made up mostly of fighters from Syria’s Turkmen minority, and few other rebels had ever heard of it before it was attacked by the Nusra Front.
President Obama announced the program in May, saying that it would train and arm more than 5,000 fighters a year to fight the Islamic State. But the program faced a number of setbacks even before it was attacked.
A number of fighters in the first training group quit and returned to Syria before finishing the program, leaving a graduating class of fewer than 60 fighters.
The Nusra Front made no mention of the American-backed fighters in its statement Monday. It said that Turkey was interested in what its officials call a “safe zone” because it was worried about Kurdish forces that have seized much of the land across its border in Syria.
It said that the decision to push the Islamic State out of the proposed safe zone was not “the free choice of the fighting factions; in fact, its first goal is the national security of Turkey.”
The Nusra Front said it was deploying its fighters to other front lines to fight both the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
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(via NY Times)