U.S. officials say arms shipped to supply Syrian rebel groups are going to hard-line Islamic fighters, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster
WASHINGTON — Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to U.S. officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
That conclusion, which President Obama and other senior officials have been briefed about in classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government.
“The opposition groups that are receiving most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one U.S. official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.
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The assessment of the arms flows comes at a crucial time for Obama, in the closing weeks of the election campaign with two debates looming that will focus on his foreign-policy record. But it also calls into question the Syria strategy laid out by Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.
In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute last Monday, Romney said he would ensure that rebel groups “who share our values” would “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” That suggests he would approve the transfer of weapons like anti-aircraft and antitank systems that are much more potent than any the United States has been willing to put into rebel hands so far, precisely because U.S. officials cannot be certain who ultimately will be using them.
But Romney stopped short of saying that he would have the United States provide those arms directly, and his aides said he, instead, would rely on Arab allies to do it. That would leave him, like Obama, with little direct control over the distribution of the arms.
U.S. officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them.
Those problems were central concerns for the director of the CIA, David Petraeus, when he traveled secretly to Turkey last month, officials said. Officials of countries in the region say Petraeus has been deeply involved in trying to steer the supply effort, though U.S. officials dispute that assertion.
According to U.S. and Arab officials, the CIA has sent officers to Turkey to help direct the aid, but the agency has been hampered by lack of good intelligence about many rebel figures and factions.
Another Middle Eastern diplomat whose government has supported the Syrian rebels said his country’s political leadership was discouraged by the lack of organization and the ineffectiveness of the disjointed Syrian opposition movement and had raised its concerns with U.S. officials. “There’s not much of anything that’s encouraging. We should have lowered our expectations,” the diplomat said.
Airspace: Turkey’s foreign minister announced Sunday a ban on all Syrian aircraft entering his country’s airspace, days after the authorities discovered what they said were Russian military munitions on board a passenger plane bound for Damascus.
Cluster bombs: The Syrian military has used cluster bombs against civilians throughout the country in recent months, Human Rights Watch charged Sunday. Cluster munitions explode in the air, sending smaller bombs over a large area. But the smaller bombs often don’t explode on initial impact, leaving the munitions to act like land mines and explode when handled.