Over the last two months, reports the Los Angeles Times, two Syrian militias have begun to fight each other, specifically on the plains between the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Turkish border. What is particularly noteworthy about these two militias is that one has been armed by the CIA and the other has been armed by the Pentagon.
The two militias involved are Fursan al Haq — also known as Knights of Righteousness — and Syrian Democratic Forces. The fact that these two militias have received support from organizations in the same country seems to be of little import. In an interview, Maj. Fares Bayoush, a leader of Fursan al Haq, said, “Any faction that attacks us, regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it.”
Fighting in Syria has grown complex, obviously and understandably, as the U.S. attempts to accomplish a variety of things, including coordinate with the armed groups trying to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and combat the Islamic State — ISIS. Rep. Adam Schiff has described the current situation in Syria as “an enormous challenge” and has called the fighting between two U.S.-backed militias, “a fairly new phenomenon.”
How did these two militias come to be? Last year, the Pentagon helped to create the Syrian Democratic Forces. The goal behind this group was to arm it and prepare it to take away territory from the Islamic State in eastern Syria, while at the same time providing information for U.S. airstrikes.
Approximately 80% of the fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces are Kurdish, and this high percentage has led to tensions between the U.S. and the Turkish government. Turkey even spoke out against the U.S.’s decision earlier this month.
At the same time that the Pentagon has been arming the Syrian Democratic Forces, the CIA has been directing aid to rebel groups in Syria, such as Fursan al Haq, out of their operations center in Turkey as part of a covert U.S. effort to place continued pressure on Assad’s government and convince him to begin negotiations.
Fighting was likely not a concern originally, as the two groups were initially located in separate areas of Syria, with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast and Fursan al Haq and other CIA-backed groups in the west. However, as Russian airstrikes have weakened rebel groups in the West, an opportunity has been provided for the Syrian Democratic Forces to expand their zone of control, leading to more frequent conflict.
Regarding these more frequent fights between the Pentagon and CIA-back groups, Nicholas A. Heras, who is an expert on the Syrian civil war, has said, “Fighting over territory…demonstrates how difficult it is for the U.S. to manage these really localized and in some cases entrenched conflicts. Preventing clashes is one of the constant topics in the joint operations room with Turkey.”
While the militias have temporarily withdrawn, it seems that this fighting starting up again is practically inevitable. A former Defense Intelligence Agency official, Jeffrey White, told the Los Angeles Times, “Once they cross the border into Syria, you lose a substantial amount of control or ability to control their actions. You certainly have the potential for it becoming a larger problem as people fight for territory and control of the northern border area in Aleppo.”