CIA-Armed ‘Moderates’ in Syria Included al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front

Defected Groups Kept FSA Branding to Keep Weapons Flowing

A new report citing former CIA officers has revealed that the agency was knowingly providing weapons, including tow missiles to fighters that were effectively part of al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, continuing to arm “moderates” so long as they at least nominally kept their moderate names.

The report reveals that the vetting process amounted to little more than checking the names of fighters they were given against outdated terrorist databases, and that often they didn’t even have real names to check in the first place. It was in this way that the “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) started getting arms in the first place.

But as the war continued, the FSA fighters were defecting en masse to the Nusra Front. Even being directly affiliated with al-Qaeda’s affiliate didn’t stop the arms flow to these groups, either, so long as they retained their FSA name so the CIA could feign arming “moderates.”

The report concludes that the FSA was quickly becoming a cover name for Nusra, a fact which apparently didn’t phase the CIA, which was just as eager to use this pretense, so long as they were arming a group that was fighting against the Syrian government.

This has been a long-standing issue with the CIA’s operations in Syria, as they were entirely Assad-centric, and dismissive of fighting against ISIS. It quickly put them at cross-purposes with the Pentagon, whose own operations were focused on ISIS, and oftentimes saw the CIA undermining their efforts.

This new understanding of the FSA also explains Friday’s fiasco, in which US special forces were chased out of the Syrian town of al-Rai by US-backed and Turkey-backed FSA fighters threatening to “slaughter” them as infidels. Turkey has long been seen as cozy with Nusra anyhow, and likely didn’t care about the connections, while the FSA fighters, who were fine taking weapons from the CIA, rightly saw the US troops as a different force entirely, and one with a significantly different agenda.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.