The commander said that five years into a war that has killed some 400,000 people and created nearly 5 million refugees, Russia is recruiting current and former U.S. allies to its side. His revelation was confirmed by four people who said they, too, had been approached with offers from Russia and by two Syrian middlemen who said they delivered them.
The moves come as Russia ratchets up its involvement in Syria with troops and airstrikes. Russia says its military campaign is designed to target ISIS — in reality it has targeted all rebels, including some who are still backed by the U.S., while also wreaking havoc on civilians.
The secret outreach shows that as it works to muscle the U.S. out of Syria, Russia isn’t just bombing the U.S.’s current and former rebel allies — it’s also working to co-opt them, launching a shadowy campaign that seeks to highlight U.S. weakness in Syria. Ultimately, Russia could be hoping to help Assad win the war by dividing the opposition, driving a wedge between rebel groups and their traditional backers, and getting them to turn their guns on his enemies.
The commander said he found Russia’s offer appealing. Delivered by a Syrian agent who met him first in Antakya and then inside Syria, he said, the offer was this: Choose a rebel-held area in northern Syria and head there with his men, many of whom were trained as part of the CIA program. Russia would protect him — “from any group” and “any country” — with airstrikes, which he could personally call in. And it would give him all the money and weapons he would need.....