AMMAN, Jordan – Al-Qaida-linked fighters have overrun key northern bastions of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels and were menacing a major border crossing Monday, dealing a blow to American hopes that moderate Syrian factions would provide significant aid in the battle against another militant group, Islamic State.
U.S. officials downplayed the setback as temporary.
The onslaught by the al-Qaida-linked Al Nusra Front in the northern province of Idlib routed the U.S.-equipped fighters, the group boasted in a statement Sunday that was largely corroborated by activists in the area Monday.
Al Nusra fighters were also massing near the Bab Hawa crossing into Turkey, activists said, threatening an important supply line for the Western-backed fighters.
Internecine fighting among rebel factions had been going on for months in Idlib, but over the weekend Al Nusra Front seized major positions of the U.S.-supported Syrian Revolutionaries Front, then members of another Western-backed faction, Harakat Hazm, fled or surrendered, activists reported.
Dozens defected to Al Nusra Front, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group. An undetermined amount of U.S.-provided weaponry also fell into the attackers’ hands, with Al Nusra Front supporters taking to social media to gloat.
Working with moderate Syrian rebels is a linchpin of the Western strategy against Islamic State, with the U.S. and its allies staging airstrikes but not providing ground troops, so the rout of Western-backed factions represents a serious setback.
White House officials appeared chagrined by reports of the Free Syrian Army’s failures and said they were still assessing the setbacks on Monday. One senior official said he wasn’t ready to call it a total collapse.
The multi-front nature of the conflict is “taking a toll” on the fighters, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. However, he said the U.S. government never thought the effort to equip moderate Syrian fighters was something that could be achieved overnight.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, played down the significance of the reports.
“There are battles all the time between these various groups, and territory trades hands in these local areas regularly,” Warren said at a news briefing. “Often these battles and trading of territory are talked about in exaggerated terms for various reasons, but right now we haven’t seen any indications of something big or catastrophic.”
Although Al Nusra Front is not considered to be as extremist as Islamic State, it has been designated a terrorist group and targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes. Unlike Islamic State, Al Nusra enjoys wide support among rebels and civilians living in areas it controls.
The Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm had been the first to receive heavy weaponry from the United States, such as TOW antitank missiles.
The Islamic State juggernaut has been concentrated in northern and eastern Syria and large stretches of western Iraq. In Iraq’s Anbar province, IS extremists have been reported by tribal figures to have executed several hundred members of the Albu Nimr, a tribe that had tried to hold them off.
IS militants also were reported to have seized another Syrian energy installation, the Jahar gas field in Homs province.
The killings of 36 more tribespeople were reported Monday by tribal head Naim Kaood, who spoke to local news outlets.
The group has also been besieging the northern Syrian town of Kobani for more than six weeks. Defenders have managed to hold the militants off, but Islamic State has bragged in propaganda videos that the town is about to fall.
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