ANTAKYA, Turkey — Ahmed Saoud was sitting in the restaurant of a four-star hotel in the Turkish city of Antakya, a short drive from the border with Syria, when he got an alarming call on his cell phone. An American voice was on the line. He said something that seemed to rile Saoud, a colonel who defected from the Syrian army and now commands a battalion of moderate rebels based in the country's turbulent north.
Saoud's group gets covert U.S. military support as part of a small CIA program to arm and train moderate rebels. Called the 13th Division, the battalion boasts a number of military defectors like Saoud, a common trait in the select club of rebel groups that America has decided it can trust in the murky war. One U.S. official involved in Syria policy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 13th Division gets strong reviews in Washington: "They sit at the rare intersection of combat-effective and responsible."
Such groups are rare in Syria — and all are weak compared to the Islamist battalions that now dominate the war. The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has been reduced to a shadow of the force that once aspired to be the revolution's standard-bearer.
Yet these same groups are a key component of the U.S. campaign against extremist groups in the country that saw sweeping airstrikes this week — even as their role in U.S. intervention in Syria puts them in an increasingly precarious place. One consequence of the U.S. strikes may be that its allies face their toughest fight for survival to date.
The relatively moderate outlook of groups like Saoud's, coupled with the U.S. support they receive, makes them stand out clearly on the side of the West in a conflict where survival often depends on carefully navigating a complex web of rivalries. Inside the Antakya hotel on a recent summer afternoon, Saoud detailed village by village what territory his men controlled, where they could pass and where it was too dangerous for them to go.
Like other moderates, Saoud's battalion was already mired in one war with the regime and another with the extremist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The call from the American — Saoud didn't say who exactly he was, but another commander at the table whispered, "he must be CIA" — warned that yet another front might be opening. Tensions had already been rising between U.S.-backed groups and Jabhat al-Nusra, the local branch of al-Qaeda and one of the strongest rebel forces in Syria. Now a de facto alliance between the sides — Nusra was likewise warring with ISIS and the regime — risked breaking down. The American said Nusra had moved forces into a strategic town near the border, a potential prelude to a conflict breaking out.
"We are fighting the regime, and we are fighting ISIS, we are fighting criminal groups, and now we are fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra," Saoud said. "We need all kinds of support."
Saoud's deputy, Hassan Jaweesh, another defected colonel, wryly added: "We don't know who we'll have to fight next."
That standoff with Nusra eased over the next few weeks. But with the start of U.S. airstrikes, it risks flaring more than ever, and groups like Saoud's have found themselves at the center of a storm of conflicts that might swallow them up. In addition to ISIS, the U.S. strikes targeted a Nusra cell, setting the stage for an open battle with the group that could draw in its allies on the ground. Rumors have swirled since that other Islamist battalions may have been hit as well.
But the U.S.-backed rebels remain undermanned and badly outgunned, even if they did receive a reported uptick in new weapons ahead of the strikes. An upcoming $500-million program by the Pentagon to arm and train moderate rebels, meanwhile, remains months away from meaningful results. Groups like Saoud's have typically received small arms along with U.S.-made anti-tank missiles, which come with limited and closely monitored ammunition supplies.
Advocates for the rebels warn that it will take far greater support for them to survive now. "These guys have always had a target on their backs from these extremist groups," said one Syrian opposition official who has coordinated with the U.S. on military support for rebels, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Now you're in a make-or-break moment. You can't just launch airstrikes and leave these forces on the ground exposed to retaliation."
The official added: "A line in the sand has been drawn, and it's going to be an existential fight against al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS."
Even with planned U.S. support for moderate rebels pushing ahead at full steam, however, it might not be what commanders like Saoud have in mind. They still seek to topple the regime and establish a democracy in Syria — while the U.S. is concerned with stopping ISIS and other extremists in order to combat a terrorism threat that U.S. officials warn about more loudly by the day.
The U.S. official said any support would be unlikely to help the rebels make the kind of gains — such as taking the city of Aleppo, or winning back their one-time stronghold of Homs — that would see them really threaten the regime. "I think that you will see tactical shifts in momentum," the U.S. official said. "But I think the prospect of winning back provinces or retaking major cities or even securing Aleppo or reversing losses in Aleppo is years away. I think in the short- and medium-term we're talking about stabilizing and reducing pressure and so on."
On a recent night, Saoud sat with a group of friends and colleagues who shared his vision for Syria, smoking tobacco in big puffs from a narghile. They discussed a bakery the battalion runs to feed people in the province of Idlib, a campaign to help Syrian refugees, and other efforts at the kind of governance that could help them win the trust of locals and eventually replace the regime. "Without the people's support, we are nothing," Saoud said. "Now we are ready to manage the country. Now we are preparing to make people ready to take the second step in this revolution."
But the mood at the table was more wary than optimistic. "You know, we as Syrian people are afraid of one thing, really. We are afraid that the West doesn't want to finish this," said Samer Tennari, an engineer who risks his life to keep the power running in parts of rebel-held Syria. "If the West gives us only limited support to fight Islamists, the war will continue. And it will kill us all, my dear."