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Rebel Group Encounters Setback In Syria

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the past several days northern Syria has witnessed some severe blows to rebel groups that were supported by the United States. Among them, a group called the Steadfast in this group, another, the Syrian Revolutionary Front. These were groups in whom the U.S. and other Western nations placed great hopes of being able to oppose both the Assad regime and also the radical group ISIS, or the Islamic State.

Liz Sly of The Washington Post reports on what happened in the north of Syria yesterday and the days just before that. What's gone on there?

LIZ SLY: Well, basically we saw this assault by the Jabhat al-Nusra front which is linked to al-Qaida, first against one rebel group called the Syrian Revolutionary Front and then after that, they seemed to sweep through other bases in other areas and basically all of the moderate rebels in northern Syria are now on the run.

SIEGEL: The Harakat Hazm, or the Steadfastness group - that's a force that I had read described by at least one expert at a Washington think tank as well-organized militarily, secular in orientation.

Was this a great blow to them, what happened yesterday?

SLY: Yes, this was a huge blow to them. They had been the first recipients of U.S. anti-tank missiles. They were supposed to prove that Syrian rebels could be trusted with American weapons and they had received other kinds of aid in the form of non-lethal aid, such as vehicles, food - they were hoping that they would become the vanguard of a moderate rebel force that could take on both the Islamic State and the regime and now they've just been ejected and scattered from their base and much of that gear has ended up with Nusra.

SIEGEL: What do the events of this past weekend mean for U.S. policy in the Syrian civil war?

SLY: It really is an incredible setback. What it really shows, I think, to a lot of Syrians on the ground who have been appealing for American help for over three years against Assad, now they see America coming in and fighting other Syrians who are affiliated with ISIS, but they're not joining in the fight against Assad. So Syrians feel that the Americans are supporting Assad and now the few friends that the Americans did have on the ground, which were these groups - which were already drawing some kind of derision for having accepted American support - have kind of been abandoned and left to kind of run away in the face of the militants and now the message that everybody's really receiving is, that if you get American help, they won't come and save you anyway; they won't really protect you and that there's not really much point in siding with America.

SIEGEL: What does this mean for the larger Free Syrian Army - the umbrella group that's opposed to the Assad regime? Are these the most important units of it that have been overrun?

SLY: These are the most important units in the North. Basically the whole of the North is now seated to either the Islamic State group or to the Nusra front, which is affiliated with al-Qaida. I think it's very clear that the extremist groups are winning on the battlefield. They seem to have more money and more weapons and the moderate groups do not have money and do not have weapons and they are losing support.

SIEGEL: The extremist groups appear to be winning the civil war within the civil war, that is, the groups that are opposed to the Assad regime. How is the Assad regime doing in all of this? That is, are they gaining any ground against the opposition?

SLY: Well, this is still going hunky-dory for the Assad regime because they've always wanted to portray this as a fight against extremists and that's what it's becoming and they've got America fighting those extremists, but not fighting them. They've actually taken advantage of the airstrikes against the extremist groups to intensify their attacks against the more moderate rebels who they see as a bigger threat to their existence because they know that the West will never countenance an Islamic extremist takeover of an important capital like Damascus, but they do know that there's a chance that the West will support a more moderate rebel takeover of their capital. So it's more important for the Assad regime to fight the moderate rebels and at the moment, you have both the extremists and the Assad regime overrunning the moderate rebels.

SIEGEL: Liz Sly, thank you very much.

SLY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief, Liz Sly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.