US harbored misgivings about Syrian fighters enlisted by Turkish intelligence agency MIT

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Source: Nordic Monitor

There had been a growing mistrust between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MIT) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on training and equipping what were called moderate Arab Syrian fighters in 2016, which eventually led to the cancellation of the program, Nordic Monitor has learned.

According to secret Turkish military documents that recorded daily developments in the program from April to June 2016 obtained by Nordic Monitor, there was a flurry of communications between MIT and the CIA, overseen by a joint contact group made up of the Turkish Armed Forces and the US military. MIT was enlisting Arab fighters from various groups in both Turkey and Syria and sending the names for vetting by the CIA. Once they were cleared, the Turkish military would undertake their training and the US military would provide arms, logistical supplies and funding for the program.

However, a review of the documents shows that the US side had increasingly grown concerned when a MIT officer, identified as Halil Ibrahim, suddenly came up with the names of hundreds of fighters who wanted to join the program from the Idlib region, and the CIA had to partially put the brakes on the vetting process, slowing the clearance of fighters. The Turkish General Staff contact group communicated the problems to the US military, asking for a speedy vetting process but was told that MIT had not provided enough information about the fighters who were selected.

The documents indicate the second phase of the training program was put into action on April 21, 2016, and the US military assigned Lt. Michael J. Hitzner to the Turkish General Staff as a liaison officer to provide coordination. Initially, the fighters who were already trained in the first Train and Equip program were selected, with new recruits put on a waiting list for clearance by the CIA.

Among the eight groups listed in the program were Jabhat ul-Sharqiyah (Doğu Cephesi), Hamza Shimali (Hazm Hareketi), the Emin Hasan Ibrahim Group, Saadettin Soma (Tay Tribe, or Tay Asireti in Turkish), the 99th Division, the Liva al-Mutassem (Lam) Group, the Mohammed Karahami Group (1st Aleppo Division) and one unnamed group. MIT had organized the enlistment of fighters in both Turkey and Syria, grouped them under different names, identified their leaders and sorted out rivalries and other problems among the groups.

Initially MIT provided the names of 180 fighters for Jabhat ul-Sharqiyah, assembled them at a site located in Şanlıurfa province and later transported them to another site in İskenderun for interviews and vetting. The group’s 11 leading fighters were brought from Syria on April 30, 2016, while other fighters were already present in Turkey.

However, there were some troubles with the group that was commanded by Noaf al-Basheri, who claimed that some people had offered money to commanders serving under him to join other groups. On May 2, 2016 only nine out of 153 enlisted fighters showed up at the Iskenderun base. The number-two commander of the group, Col. Imad Al-Saed, left Jabhat ul-Sharqiyah, causing disarray among the men in the group. In the end, only 16 people volunteered to join the Train and Equip program and completed training on May 12 at the Hirfanlı camp in the Turkish province of Kırşehir.

The military thought some of the trained people could organize their own groups in Syria, but six fighters left the program after they expressed their mistrust in al-Basheri and the US.

 

Daily developments on the training of Syrian rebel groups as recorded by the Turkish military:

Train_Equip_Calendar_04_13_May_2016

Hamza Shimali, the second group, with 246 fighters, had its own troubles after its leader Hamza Shimali was rejected by the Americans. When Lt. Hitzner talked to Shimali’s subordinates on April 25, 2016, he was told they would not join the Train and Equip program without their leader. Later on, Turkish officer Lt. Col. Cüneyt İşbilir was tasked with convincing the commanders to change their minds. İşbilir suggested that the commanders could choose one among themselves as their new leader to replace Shimali and join the program, at an April 29 meeting in Hatay province. The group said they would discuss the proposal and get back to him. It is not clear what happened with the group as the documents that were obtained only recorded developments up to May 16, 2016.

The Emin Hasan Ibrahim group, from Syria’s Atmah region near the Turkish border with 180 Arab fighters, had already announced their willingness to join the program on April 26. The note on the group stated that it would be attached to one of the other groups in Syria without going through a training program. It was suggested that the group could join groups such as LAH or the 51st Brigade later on. It appears that decision was later changed, with the Turkish side suggesting that some 60 to 70 fighters could join the training program. No explanation was provided for the sudden change of heart, but Turkey planned to bring the group’s fighters to the Turkish border city of Iskenderun for training. However, that created fresh problems between Turkey and the US because all the individual fighters had to be vetted before they were allowed to participate in the training program.

 

Another document that recorded daily developments in the training of Syrian rebel groups by the Turkish military:

Train_Equip_Calendar_8_16_May_2016_02_1

As a result, the US informed the Turkish side that it would review the proposal about the Emin Hasan Ibrahim group once the Jabhat ul-Sharqiyah group was assembled in Turkey for training and when all procedures for their participation were completed. It was also pointed out that a decision on the Emin Hasan group required approval by the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, which runs by the US-led international coalition. The proposal was eventually referred to Col. Kevin Laehy, the then-deputy commander, Special Operations Command Central, US Central Command.

In the notes that were kept in an Excel file and submitted to the General Staff in Ankara, the Turkish military contemplated bringing the group into Turkey without security screening and starting training at the Hirfanlı base. As part of a contingency scenario, it was even suggested that US personnel could be forced to move out of the training base on a temporary leave of absence so that the group could start the training. The General Staff said such a scenario could only be put into motion after an understanding was reached with the Americans.

Turkish soldiers

Another group Turkey was pushing was Saadettin Soma, whose Arab and Turkmen fighters came mainly from the Tay Tribe in the Syrian cities of Manbij, Jarablus and Azaz. It was organized by the Turkish military’s Special Forces Command (Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı). Lt. Col. İşbilir reported on April 25 that the group had enlisted 158 fighters and was willing to join the program. One hundred thirteen fighters were already in Turkey, while the rest were in Syria. In a May 10 report the list went up to 166 with 77 fighters located in Turkey. An additional list of 67 was forwarded to the US side for clearance.

MIT officer Ibrahim met with group leader Sadettin Soma on April 26 and cleared him for further meetings with US/Turkish military officers. In a meeting held on May 5, Soma expressed his desire to set up his own separate group but agreed to join with others for the time being because the number of fighters enlisted under his command was not that many. The list was referred to the CIA for vetting.

On June 6, 2016 a group of 82 was taken to a base in Iskenderun, and only 62 were selected for training at the Hirfanli base.

As for the 99th Division, the US side informed Turkey in a meeting attended by MIT and US officials in Iskenderun on April 23, 2016 that group leader Ziyad Haj Abdul Nasser had failed the vetting process and that a negative opinion was issued against his participation in the program. The group’s former leader, Ahmet Matar al-Cedya, had previously resigned and already announced his withdrawal from the program. Lt. Hitzner suggested the abolishment of the 99th Division and asked that its fighters be distributed to other groups. The group’s commanders, Halid Junid, Ala Junid and Abu Emin, joined LAH group with their own fighters, while commanders Ali Siraj and Abu Hakem joined the 51st Brigade. Col. Ziyad and three other leaders of the abolished 99th Division announced their departure from the Train and Equip program.

The Liva al-Mutassem (Lam) Group boasted 300 fighters from Syria’s Azaz region after it was organized with the help of the Turkish intelligence agency. It had already been fighting in Syria with the backing of Turkey. The US said it would sponsor the group provided that MIT submit the full details of the group’s leaders and fighters and that the vetting process was positive. The group was equipped and funded as of May 23, 2016.

The surprise in the Train and Equip program came on April 25, 2016 when MIT suddenly came up with a list for the CIA of 944 fighters under a group named Mohammed Karahami from Azaz and the Idlib region. It was stated that the group wanted to join the program and establish its own independent group. That appears to have spooked the Americans, who insisted that the group’s leaders and fighters be screened individually before making any decision as to what to do with this group. On May 4, Lt. Hitzner said the US had misgivings about the group’s leader and fighters and requested more detailed information about the group.

The summary note on rebel groups as of June 6, 2016:

Summary_note_on_rebels_20160606

MIT was not forthcoming with full details on the Karahami group, its leaders and fighters and sent an incomplete list to the CIA. Frustrated with the lack of speedy progress in the program, the Turkish military contacted MIT point man Halil Ibrahim on May 5 and asked him to complete the missing information about the group and forward it to the US side. In his defense Ibrahim said he had sent all the information he had and claimed that the CIA did not contact him about the list. On the same day, the Turkish military also called Karahami, who claimed he had given all the information to MIT.

It turned out that the MIT officer had sent the list to his American contacts as a photo from WhatsApp on April 23, 2016. He was asked to resend it in Excel format with full details for each name on the list.

In a separate note the Turkish military interpreted the unwillingness by the Americans to push forward on Karahami as a sign that the US side did not trust MIT and believed that it was specially organized by the Turkish intelligence agency.

At one point, the Turkish side suggested training the group in smaller divisions with 200 to 250 fighters without waiting for the vetting process, but the Americans balked at the idea and asked the Turkish side to wait until security checks were completed.

In order to build up the pressure on the US side, Turkish Maj. Gen. Baki Kavun even wrote a letter on May 10, 2016 to Maj. Gen. James E. Kraft, US Special Forces, and commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, an arm of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He asked the US to facilitate clearance of the Karahami group.

The draft letter by Turkish Maj. Gen. Baki Kavun to US Maj. Gen. James E. Kraft:

Baki_Kavun_Letter_Kraft

On May 8 MIT compiled another list of 808 fighters for an unnamed group and sent the names of 658 people to the US side the next day. The Turkish military asked MIT to provide more information about the group, such where the fighters came from and its leadership. Similar questions were also raised by the US side, with Lt. Hitzner asking for more detailed information about the list from the Turkish intelligence agency. He said no action would be taken on the list until MIT came up with full and detailed information about the new group.

MIT later presented this group as the Abdulffetah Al-Sheikh group and increased its fighting force to 983.

In total, some 2,500 fighters were tapped by the Turkish side, and lists with their names and details were shared with the Americans. The CIA had cleared only 361 fighters as of June 6, 2016 according to another document

The US had already spent $500 million in 2015 to train and equip rebels to establish a 5,000-strong rebel force during the Obama administration, but the plan was shut down in October 2015 after most fighters either deserted and joined radical groups including ISIS or were captured by rival factions. The Pentagon continued the program with some adjustments in 2016, only to cancel it in 2017 at the order of President Donald Trump.

Since then, Turkey has continued to train, arm and equip rebels on its own, even expanding its program.

Summary note on the list of groups:

Summary_List_forwarded_to_Americans