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Since the Syrian civil war broke out more than three years ago, U.S. officials have been reluctant to supply aid to the rebels who are often seen as weak and divided. But the ISIS threat has clearly changed that calculation. Rebels are already getting some U.S. backing despite bureaucratic hurdles. And as NPR's Deborah Amos found, they want more. Here's her report from southern Turkey, which serves as a rear base for the rebel groups.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The first American-made antitank missiles arrived in northern Syria earlier this spring. Just a handful delivered to only one rebel group carefully vetted by the CIA. The group Harakat Hazm - in English, the Steadfast Movement - hosted the first successful strike on YouTube. A media team documents every strike says Ahmed Abu Imad. He's in southern Turkey to upload those videos.
AHMED ABU IMAD: We're on Facebook, on Twitter. (Foreign Spoken).
AMOS: On Facebook, on Twitter and on the battalion's website, he says. But here's how it really works - the CIA keeps a tight rein on this covert program. Rebels say they have to document success and even bring back spent canisters from the weapons they fired before they can get resupplied. It's no way to fight a war, they say, but U.S. support has benefits, explains Noah Bonsey with the International Crisis Group. It boosts the ranks of moderate rebels.
NOAH BONSEY: Harakat Hazm quickly went from not existing to being one of the most powerful groups in the north as a result of an increase in the support from state backers.
AMOS: Now more than a dozen groups have been deemed moderate enough to also get support.
BONSEY: More groups have been steadily making their way through the vetting process and receiving various kinds of material support, including antitank weapons.
AMOS: Still, the weapons flow is modest, according to rebels, not enough to change battlefield dynamics, especially now that they're fighting two enemies - battling the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and fighting the powerful militants of ISIS. This media office is one hub for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella brand for dozens of battalions who say they meet the American definition of moderate not hard-core Islamists. They are desperate for the U.S. to quickly expand support, says Hussam al-Marie. And he shows me why, rolling out a map of the frontlines around the northern city of Aleppo.
HUSSAM AL-MARIE: So you can see here, the frontline against ISIS is here.
AMOS: This is a little east of Aleppo?
AL-MARIE: Yeah, Northeast Aleppo. We just need to defeat - ISIS is defeatable. We have done this before and we can do it again.
AMOS: These rebels all turned on ISIS in January. They pushed them east towards Iraq, but the victory was short-lived. ISIS came back to Syria, flushed with weapon, American weapons seized in the Iraqi city of Mosul in June when Iraqi forces fled there. Now ISIS is stronger than ever and is challenging Syria's rebels again.
AL-MARIE: And I saw by my own eyes ISIS using the yellow tank, the American tank. Sophisticated weapons they capture from Iraq - now they're using them against us.
AMOS: The ISIS threat has galvanized these battalions, say Western sources, and forced them to step up battlefield coordination. Still, they lack a clear chain of command says analyst Noah Bonsey, who tracks rebel movements.
BONSEY: This is a modest improvement that we've seen so far. There's still a long way to go if they're to hold their ground against the regime and ISIS and eventually regain territory from ISIS.
AMOS: President Obama is now betting on these rebels, determined to train and supply them to serve as ground troops against the militants. But unless the support is ramped up fast, say analysts, the rebels will continue to lose ground. That's the fear for the rebels with the Mujahedeen Army, the first fighters to publicly declare war on ISIS. Now they've been cleared for U.S. support.
ABU ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: We're crying out for weapons, says a rebel known as Abu Abdullah. We have a lot of good fighters, he says, but sometimes we don't have the means, no matter how brave our fighters are. Deborah Amos, NPR News in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.
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