Major setback: Al-Qaeda-linked force routs U.S.-backed fighters near Kobani

Major setback: Al-Qaeda-linked force routs U.S.-backed fighters near Kobani

The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners in its war against the Islamic State.

Moderate rebels who had been armed and trained by the United States either surrendered or defected to the extremists as the Jabhat al-Nusra group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through the towns and villages the moderates controlled in the northern province of Idlib, in what appeared to be a concerted push to vanquish the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to rebel commanders, activists and analysts.

Other moderate fighters were on the run, headed for the Turkish border as the extremists closed in, heralding a significant defeat for the rebel forces Washington had been counting on as a bulwark against the Islamic State. …

A senior Defense Department official said the Pentagon “is monitoring developments as closely as possible” but could “not independently verify” reports from the ground. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. …

Fleeing rebel fighters said they feared the defeat would spell the end of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella name used by the moderate rebel groups that the United States has somewhat erratically sought to promote as an alternative both to the Assad regime and the extremist Islamic State.

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