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February 24, 2019 7:30 am

US Envoy Met With Syrian Rebel Leader With Possible Ties to Al Qaeda

avatar by John Rossomando

Opinion

US soldiers surveil the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria, Nov. 1, 2018. Photo: Courtesy Zoe Garbarino / US Army / Handout via Reuters / File.

On Monday, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, reportedly met with a delegation that included a high-ranking, pro-Turkish Syrian rebel leader who has endorsed al Qaeda-linked rebels.

A photo posted by the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force, known by the Arabic acronym ETILAF, shows the group’s former president — Anas Al-Abdeh — attending the meeting. Al-Abdeh is not named in the post, but he appears in the upper left corner of the photo.

“They are all in the same trench,” Al-Abdeh said in 2016, about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front. “We cannot differentiate between fighters.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting.

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The gathering, which took place in Istanbul, focused on developments in Syria’s Idlib province, according to a statement on ETILAF’s website. The meeting otherwise went unreported.

Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor organization to al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, currently controls Idlib.

Al-Abdeh opposed the ultimately successful effort by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to cleanse ISIS from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The Obama administration spent $500 million training and equipping Syrian rebels linked with the FSA, but only succeeded in training four or five fighters before President Trump ended the program.

FSA forces formed a major portion of Turkey’s invasion force in the Kurdish-dominated Afrin region in northwestern Syria. Since the FSA took control, an extremist interpretation of Sharia law has been implemented, Yazidis have been forcibly converted to Islam, and possible ethnic cleansing has already taken place, Afrin native and current Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) Executive Director Ilham Ahmed said earlier this month during a visit to Washington. The SDC is the civilian political arm of the SDF.

Amnesty International, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch have made similar observations.

The FSA has been closely linked with Turkey’s security services since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Its operations are often undertaken in tandem with Turkey, which has used it as a proxy against the Kurds.

John Rossomando is a senior analyst at The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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