Syria: Arming the Rebels

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Muhammad Ali


Jamie Doran

Frank Koughan

NARRATOR:  Journalist Muhammad Ali has been on the ground in Syria reporting for FRONTLINE from the beginning of the rebellion against dictator Bashar al Assad through the regime’s bombing of the ancient city of Aleppo, and as the opposition splintered into warring factions, moderate rebels fighting Islamic radicals aligned with al Qaeda.

Now, with the Assad regime gaining ground again, he is returning to Syria to find out about a covert U.S. program to help the rebels.

A group of fighters from the main moderate faction, The Free Syrian Army, agreed to meet Muhammad on their way back from a secret training mission overseas.  They told him to wait in this field, near the Syrian border with Turkey.

MUHAMMAD ALI, Reporter:  We are waiting here in this olive grove by the Turkish border for the newly trained group to cross over.

NARRATOR:  He was not allowed to film the rebels’ faces as they drove back to their camp in Idlib province.  These fighters are among the first to describe the secret arming and training they are receiving.

Their camp is in an area that has been under attack from the Assad regime.  The commander of the group, who only agreed to talk if we didn’t use his name, says his is one of a few moderate rebel factions that have been getting covert support from the United States.

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REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  American agents got in touch with us.  They had researched us from the beginning.  They had intelligence on us about all our work.  They wanted to know our political leanings or whether we had any connections with extremist groups.

NARRATOR:  The fighters get word there will be a nighttime meeting with their American contacts.  Muhammad rides with Ahmad, the battalion’s supply officer.


MUHAMMAD ALI:  Where are we going now?

AHMAD:  We’re going North towards the Turkish border.


AHMAD:  Towards the north, by the Turkish border.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  What are you going to receive there?

AHMAD:  We’re going to receive ammunition.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  Who has sent the weapons, the Americans or—

AHMAD:  Yes, the Americans.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  So the Americans get in contact with you and tell you to come and get the weapons?

AHMAD:  Exactly.  They tell us to prepare ourselves and meet them with a truck.  We manage the logistics and head to the border.

NARRATOR:  Ahmed won’t let Muhammad come all the way to the meeting.  He says he doesn’t want the American contacts to see him.

AHMAD:  [subtitles]  So I’m going to drop you off here at this guy’s house.  And on the way back, I’ll pick you up.

NARRATOR:  For most of war, the rebels have had to rely on capturing weapons from the battlefield itself.   They had shown Muhammad something they’d captured.


FIGHTER:  We captured this tank, and there is another one on the way, God willing.

FIGHTER:  This tank fired around 40 shells.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  This tank fired at you?

FIGHTER:  Yes, exactly.  This is the one that fired at us, and we took it over and killed its crew.  And there’s another we captured.

FIGHTERS:  A jet!  Turn off the lights!  Turn off the lights, guys.  Turn off the lights, guys.  Turn off the lights guys!  Where is it?  Near the moon.  The shine.  What was that?  MIG!

MUHAMMAD ALI:  The rebels are lucky.  The fighter jet didn’t spot them this time.


FIGHTERS:  It’s gone.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  What was that jet?

FIGHTER:  That’s a MIG aircraft that goes on night missions and targets any source of light, any car or house with lights on.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  So it goes on frequent night missions?

FIGHTER:  Yes, lots of nights, and continues until the morning.

NARRATOR:  Muhammad has now heard from Ahmad, the driver who dropped him off.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  Several hours have passed now.  The fighters are returning back from the Turkish border with a new shipment of ammunition.


AHMAD:  Come out, Muhammad Ali.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  Are you done?

AHMAD:  Yeah, we’re done.  Come on.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  Did it work out?

AHMAD:  Yeah, everything worked out.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  Aren’t you going to use the lights at all?

AHMAD:  No, I’m not going to.  The jets might come at any second.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  It’s hard for you to know if there are jets in the air even if—

AHMAD:  There can be a jet above you that you can’t see because it’s night.  You don’t see until it strikes you.

NARRATOR:  Back at the camp, the rebels unload their new munitions.  The next morning, they show Muhammad what they’ve received.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  [subtitles]  What is this?

AHMAD:  [subtitles]  This is a 82 mortar, size 82.  It’s Russian, made in Russia.

NARRATOR:  Like most of the weapons used in the war, these U.S. supplies are Russian-made.

AHMAD:   [subtitles]  14.5 and Doshka 12.7-millimeter cartridges, bullets for Russian automatic rifles, as well as PKC bullets.

FIGHTER:  [subtitles]  Hold the box for me.  All right, come on.

NARRATOR:  The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide anything other than nonlethal support to the rebels, fearing weapons could make their way into the hands of extremists.  The rebels’ arsenal is full of second-hand equipment.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  [subtitles]  So what’s this?

REBEL COMMANDER: [through interpreter]  This is a launcher we got last night from the army.  The problem is that we only have 14 missiles, not enough to take it to a battle.  But we’ll take it anyway and shoot the missiles until they’re gone.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  [subtitles]  So yesterday, you got a tank, this launcher, and that.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [subtitles]  Yes, thank God.

NARRATOR:  They make weapons out of salvaged parts.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  This is a locally-made mortar.  It’s a 120-caliber round.  We captured a destroyed tank from the army.  So guys from our weapon-making team removed it from the tank.  We used this piece, cut it and put it on a reamer and turned it into this.  And this is how we make missiles.

NARRATOR:  But in recent weeks, they have been receiving more sophisticated weapons.  It appears the Obama administration is now allowing select groups of rebels like them to receive U.S.-made anti-tank missiles, known as TOWs.  Many of the fighters have filmed themselves firing the missiles.  In addition to receiving weapons, the commander says he and his men were taken on a long journey to a secret training camp.

[ Watch on line]

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter] They asked for a group of 80 or 90 fighters from our command, and we headed towards the Turkish border.

NARRATOR:  Based on their accounts, we retraced their journey across the border into Turkey.  After a 14-hour drive, they say they arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara and were brought to a hotel.  They were kept inside and questioned by Americans, who would only say they were from the military.  But the rebels believed they were from the CIA.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter] We met them for six to seven hours a day.  It was medical examinations, questions for each person individually, like, “When did you join the uprising?”  And “What was your profession or military rank?”

They had tracked our work and asked us to verify information about attacks we carried out, such as who was present and how many men were martyred.  Your responses have to match the entire group’s.

NARRATOR:  A week later, the rebels say they were surprised by what happened next.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter] We only found out where we were going to be trained on the last day in Ankara, when the Americans said goodbye and that, “Tomorrow, we’ll see you in Qatar.”

NARRATOR:  They were flown 1,500 miles away to Doha, the capital of Qatar, which is a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  We drove for about two, two-and-a-half hours to reach the training ground.  It was close to the Saudi border.  We didn’t know where we were because it was desert all around.

NARRATOR:  Over the course of three weeks, they say they were trained by Americans at a base in the desert guarded by Qatari soldiers.  Like many of the rebels who were sent to Qatar, 21-year-old Hussein had never had any previous military training.

HUSSEIN:  [through interpreter]  They trained us to ambush regime or enemy vehicles and cut off the road.  They also trained us on how to attack a vehicle, raid it, retrieve information or weapons and munitions, and how to finish off soldiers still alive after an ambush.

NARRATOR:  The rebels were outfitted with brand-new uniforms and boots.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  [subtitles]  Those trousers are from them, right?

HUSSEIN:  [subtitles]  Yeah.  We got these boots in training.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  The Americans were warning the fighters not to tell this story at all.  And even at one point, they told them, “If in any case this story will be published, we will stop funding you or arming you.”

NARRATOR:  The CIA and the State Department declined to comment on the fighters’ accounts of arming and training, though the Obama administration has said it plans to step up support to the rebels, and there have been other reports the CIA is running covert training out of Jordan.

FREDERIC HOF, Fmr. Special Adviser to Pres. Obama on Syria:  I don’t think that there is any potential source of support for nationalist Syrian rebels beyond the United States.  Without the United States, they’re basically finished.

NARRATOR:  Ambassador Frederic Hof was one of President Obama’s top advisers on Syria until late in 2012.  He says that whatever the U.S. is doing, either officially or covertly, is not enough.

FREDERIC HOF:  You have the Assad regime prevailing, and one of the big consequences of that is a mass terror campaign being directed against civilian populations that are not under the direct control of the regime.  You have artillery shelling.  You have helicopters dropping these horrific barrel bombs on densely populated areas.

NARRATOR:  The barrel bombs are filled with explosives and shrapnel.

FREDERIC HOF:  The idea is to terrorize civilians, to try to convince them to turn against rebel fighters, to prevent the growth of any kind of local government in rebel areas.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  They drop barrel bombs indiscriminately.  Kids die, women die, and men die.  The majority of victims are civilians, not soldiers.

[ More on the human toll]

HUSSEIN:  [through interpreter]  The planes are the thing that are killing people the most.  It’s helping the regime advance.

NARRATOR:  None of the weapons, including the newly-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, can stop the bombs.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  We told them that, “The weapons you are giving us aren’t the weapons we were hoping to receive.  We were hoping for better than this.”

NARRATOR:  The rebels say the arms and the training they’re getting are no match for the regime’s tactics.

HUSSEIN:  [through interpreter]  We were told we would get training in anti-aircraft missiles.  The weapons training I got, I could have gotten here.  When I saw that there was no training in anti-aircraft weapons, my morale was destroyed.

NARRATOR:  Late at night at the rebels’ camp, a call comes over the radio.   There has been another attack from the skies.

FIGHTER:  [subtitles]  From 2 to 1, from 2 to 1, repeat, repeat.

MAN ON RADIO:  [subtitles]  There was a chemical attack on point 12.  There are many injuries.  The ambulances are transporting the wounded to the hospital.  If you could send us some gas masks to point 12— I mean, it’s necessary.

NARRATOR:  He’s told the Assad regime has dropped chlorine gas on a town to the south.  We couldn’t independently confirm the details of the attack, but witnesses would later post this video on line.

Even though the rebels are only a short distance away, they say it’s too dangerous for them to go out and help.

MAN ON RADIO:  [subtitles]  If you want to drive, there are no jets here now.

FIGHTER:  [subtitles]  Brother, I can’t go with the car now because we can’t use the lights because the jets are coming out at night.  Take care of the guys, and I’ll come by as soon as I can, God willing.

FREDERIC HOF:  Syrian civilians are being subjected to a true abomination.  There is a mass homicide program going on in Syria.  So the question is how to stop it.  It’s clear to me that whatever is being done here is fully inadequate.

NARRATOR:  For now, the rebels are taking what they can get from the Americans, though they are increasingly frustrated.

REBEL COMMANDER:  [through interpreter]  The impression I got from their support is that they don’t actually want us to defeat the regime, but they don’t want the regime to defeat us, either.  They told us they would train 30,000 to 40,000 men.  I asked them, “How can you ever train that many if our training course is limited to 85 recruits at a time?”  In a year, you can only train a thousand recruits.  You would have to keep training men for 30 or 40 years.  Is the revolution going to go on for that long?

NARRATOR:  Even still, he is sending another group of his fighters to be trained by the Americans in Qatar.

FIGHTER:  [subtitles]   Peace be upon you.  Anyone who has a cell phone or any communication device, turn it over to us.  We’re going to a place where there is complete secrecy.  The training will last for one or two months.  We will use what we learn there to defeat Bashar’s soldiers and allies.

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