Arms for Syrian rebels go mostly to jihadists

Most of the arms funneled to Syrian rebels reportedly end up in the hands of hardline Islamist extremists, including those affiliated with Al-Qaeda. There is no way of vetting rebel groups to bolster only those with more secular views.

The Syrian armed opposition is supplied with small arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while their other foreign allies like the US provide logistical help for the transactions. However according to classified US assessments of the conflict, most of the weapons go to jihadists rather than to secular-minded groups, which the West wants to take power in the country, reports The New York Times.

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” an American official familiar with the outlines of those findings told the newspaper.

The reports suggest that the more plentiful shipments orchestrated by Qatar are particularly likely to go to hardline Islamists.

The situation may be favorable for short-term goals of toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad, but if and when this happens, the better-armed extremist groups are likely to fill in the power vacuum, American officials worry. This may mean an Islamist Syria hostile to the US in the future.

Some unconfirmed reports indicate that jihadist fighters are actually caching weapons for the post-Assad struggle for control over the country rather than use it against governmental troops now.

The US is frustrated there is no central clearinghouse for the arms shipments and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive the weapons. CIA head David Petraeus secretly visited Turkey last month, reportedly in an effort to steer up the supply through its territory, the NYT says.

But the agency is said to be hampered by a scarcity of intelligence on many Syrian rebel figures and factions, the newspaper says. The Syrian opposition is notoriously splintered in nature, lacking common military leadership or strategic planning for the period after the war, and plagued by infighting.

The complexity of the situation cuts the other way too, as the middlemen in Lebanon and Turkey, who funnel Saudi and Qatari weapons to the Syrian rebels, often cannot profile their customers too. Many rebels have grown the long, shaggy beards favored by hardline Salafi Muslims after hearing that Qatar was more inclined to give weapons to Islamists, the NYT reports.

The situation may have ramifications for the upcoming presidential election in the US. The Obama administration has been keeping the Syrian rebels at arm’s length, avoiding either sending arms to them directly or approving supply of heavy weapons. The reason was precisely the lack of confidence that those would not end up in the wrong hands.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last Monday indicated that he would have the rebels provided with antiaircraft and antitank weapons, although he didn’t say whether he would want America to supply them. It’s not clear if he has a plan on how not to allow Al-Qaeda fighters to get those weapons.

America has a recent history of fostering forces which later turn against it. The Taliban movement, which is waging an 11-year insurgency against US troops and their allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was initially armed and trained with Washington’s help to fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

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