On May 21, 2013, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 to arm “vetted elements of the Syrian opposition” against the government of Bashar al-Assad. This provision was part of a bill co-sponsored by the committee chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), and ranking member of the committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee). Hailed by its supporters as an overwhelming bipartisan show of support for the Syrian opposition, the bill, entitled “The Syria Transition Support Act,” now goes to the floor of the Senate where its fate is uncertain. Nor is the position of the Obama administration on directly arming the Syrian opposition very clear at this moment. Up to this time, the administration has proceeded cautiously.
“The time to act and turn the tide against Assad is now,” Senator Menendez said at a hearing on his bill. “The United States must play a role in tipping the scales toward opposition groups and working to build a free and democratic Syria.”
Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), along with Democratic Senators Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Tom Udall (New Mexico) voted against the bill. Senator Paul’s proposed amendments striking the bill’s weapons provision and ruling out the authorization of the use of military force in Syria were rejected.
Senator Paul tried to introduce a dose of reality into the committee deliberations on the bill, but the bill steamrolled ahead anyway. “This is an important moment,” Senator Paul warned. “You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It’s an irony you cannot overcome.”
The bill’s supporters took refuge in the bill’s stipulation that weapons and military training would go only to those members of the opposition forces who “have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States.”
This is sheer fantasy. The Syrian opposition is hopelessly fragmented, but it is al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist jihadist groups in Syria who dominate the opposition’s armed forces.
“In your rush to get involved in Syria, you may be arming Islamic rebels who will be shooting Christians,” Senator Paul said in responding to the bill sponsors’ assurances that the vetting process would provide sufficient protection against U.S.-supplied arms getting into the wrong hands. “We’re actually arming the side of al Qaeda.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey originally supported the idea of providing arms to the rebel forces, but now is not so sure. His current thinking has moved in the direction of Rand Paul’s position. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April, General Dempsey testified:
My military judgment is that now that we have seen the emergence of Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham notably, and now that we have seen photographs of some of the weapons that is have been flowing into Syria in the hands of those groups, now I am more concerned than I was before.
Libya provides good reason for General Dempsey’s concern. After the Obama administration had secretly given its blessing in 2011 for Qatar, a U.S. ally in the Gulf region, to ship arms to Libyan rebels, the administration belatedly woke up to the fact that these arms were ending up in the hands of jihadists who hate Americans.
They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official according to a December 5, 2012 New York Times article.
The same thing appears to be happening with arms transferred by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the Syrian rebels, with intelligence and logistical support from the United States.
“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 arms transfers was quoted by the New York Times as saying in October 2012.
Supporters of direct U.S. arms transfers to Syria seem to believe that the risk of arms getting into al Qaeda and its affiliates’ hands can be significantly reduced if the U.S. itself retains control over who receives its weapons by first carefully vetting the proposed recipients. This argument is fatally flawed.
The Syrian opposition has no effective centralized political or military leadership. Ahmed Mouaz al Khatib, a Sunni Islamist opposition activist, who had served as president of the U.S.-supported political opposition umbrella group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (National Coalition), resigned in April. His willingness to negotiate with Syrian government figures had drawn criticism from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has a seat in the umbrella National Coalition. At the same time, Khatib took issue with the Obama administration’s decision to designate the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.
The National Coalition incorporated the existing Syrian National Council (SNC) in which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has substantial influence. The Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy leader Mohammed Farouq Tayfour serves as the SNC’s deputy president. Tayfour said that the al Nusra Front is well-liked by the Syrian people. “They are seen as (a group that) can be relied on to defend the country and the civilians against the regular army and Assad’s gangs,” Tayfour said.
In other words, within the umbrella opposition group supported by the Obama administration is a national council with a Muslim Brotherhood leader as its deputy president who sees nothing wrong with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front.
If this were not confusing enough, there is a separate opposition Supreme Military Command Council, in which there are varying views of the legitimacy of the political umbrella National Coalition and the degree to which the opposition military forces should submit to the National Coalition’s oversight. In any case, Islamist militia groups who do not recognize the legitimacy of the National Coalition at all remain the most capable opposition armed groups on the ground.
Even assuming that U.S. military and intelligence officials can accurately pinpoint the friendly “moderate” elements within the Syrian opposition to receive our arms, there is no effective control that the U.S. can exercise once the arms are out of our hands. The recipients can decide to voluntarily turn over the weapons to Islamist jihadist forces on the grounds, stated by the Arab proverb, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Even more likely is that the jihadists will turn on the weaker “moderate” fighters and seize the U.S.-provided weapons for their own use against Americans and other “infidels” as well as Assad.
Finally, until the entire Libyan mess gets sorted out, it will be a grave mistake to court more trouble by getting any deeper into the Syrian civil war. Why did the United States maintain a presence in Benghazi in the first place after other delegations had left in the wake of Islamist attacks?
Reports have been recently circulating that President Obama’s State Department mistakenly sold Stinger missiles to al-Qaeda in Libya, thinking that they were more friendly insurgents. Then, according to a PJ Media story based on unnamed whistleblower accounts, Ambassador Chris Stevens went to Benghazi to try to buy the mistakenly transferred weapons back. If true, this incredibly botched operation may well have cost Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans their lives. Moreover, it would completely undermine any assurances that the Obama administration would be capable of limiting sales of arms to Syrian rebels who have been properly “vetted.”
PJ Media said in its article that it recognized it was based largely on hearsay, but indicated that its sources – two former U.S. diplomats – “sounded quite credible.” In any case, we already have reason for deep concern over the sorry record of the bungling Obama administration. Recall that this is the same administration which lost track of guns in Operation Fast and Furious – guns which ended up in the hands of Mexican drug lords and reportedly led to the death of one of our border guards.
At the very least, the Obama administration’s entire Libyan operation needs to be fully and publicly vetted before we even consider for one moment embarking on any vetting of Syrian oppositions forces to receive U.S. arms.
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