Whatever happened to the Western supplies stolen in Syria?

In an article in today’s Daily Star about the sacking of Salem Idriss, who headed the Free Syrian Army, the Lebanese news outlet said one reason for his departure was the handling of an incident involving the theft of Western supplies by rebel fighters.

In late November, the Daily Star reported, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham seized Western-supplied vehicles and warehouses at the Baba al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey packed with equipment destined for the Free Syrian Army. A week or so later, in early December, the same warehouses were reportedly taken over by the newly-formed Islamic Front. The warehouses are said to have contained nonlethal military gear, including US-supplied trucks and communications equipment, and weapons.

Idriss had already pledged to cooperate with the Islamic Front, which is the largest coalition of Islamist fighting groups in Syria. One of its leaders, Abu Khalid al Suri, a leader of the Ahrar al Sham, is Ayman al Zawahiri’s personal representative in Syria. The Islamic Front frequently fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

After the seizure of the warehouses by the Islamic Front, the US and Britain suspended the supply of nonlethal aid to rebels in the north. But looking for an ally in the complicated Syrian arena, US Secretary of State John Kerry said it “was possible” that the US would meet with the Islamic Front; State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, however, that if the US were to have such a meeting, it would expect the return of the stolen materiel, according to Agence France Presse. The following day US envoy Robert Ford said that the Islamic Front had refused to meet with US officials.

On Dec. 11, The Wall Street Journal reported that Idriss had been driven out of Syria by the Islamic Front and had fled to Doha, Qatar. In a Jan. 16 interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Idriss said that in a meeting with the Islamic Front a month earlier “all unresolved problems between us were resolved” and that it “welcomed the project of uniting military forces on the ground” with the SMC.

On Jan. 27, the Associated Press reported that the US had resumed the shipment of nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels. US officials said the aid was now being sent only to nonarmed opposition groups, and that the distribution of the aid was being handled by the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, headed by Idriss. They described the prior suspension of aid shipments as only a “precautionary measure” until the Obama administration could verify that the aid was in secure hands.

The unnamed US officials cited in the AP article also told the news agency, interestingly, that “[i]tems taken in December from the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey have since been returned … and US-supported rebel groups have taken steps to prevent future supplies from being diverted,” the article stated.

That same day, Reuters reported that the US was planning to resume the supply of nonlethal aid to the Supreme Military Council, according to another unnamed US official, who said: “We hope to be able to resume assistance to the SMC shortly, pending security and logistics considerations.”

Whether or not the supply of aid to rebels in the north is currently flowing (McClatchy noted today that some $56 million in nonlethal aid is reportedly on hold), it appears that the stolen equipment was never returned, despite statements to the contrary by US officials.

Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council, recently told al Arabiya of the SMC’s frustration after three months of waiting for the return of the stolen materiel:

The spokesman said other council members were outraged when Idriss did not publicly blame the rival rebels for the theft. “[The rebels] did not return a single weapon, and he [Idris] did not do a thing. All the officers went to their tents and the warehouses were empty, and nothing remained of the FSA.”

Saadeddine also said that during that three-month period, “[t]here began to be divisions in the armed opposition. There was no military leadership. The military leadership was scattered, each leader of a brigade worked alone.”

Al-Bashir, the new chief of the Free Syrian Army, formerly headed the military council of Quneitra. It remains to be seen whether he will do any better than Idriss in maintaining some sort of control over the flow of weapons and other equipment to Islamist rebels in Syria.

In the meantime, the conflicting statements by US and SMC officials over the fate of the stolen equipment raise a host of uncomfortable questions about US efforts to support whatever remains of the moderate opposition in Syria.

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  • m3fd2002 says:

    Regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of intervention. My question would be: If the US supplied non-lethal equipment. Why is it languishing in warehouses inside Syria or Turkey/Jordan for that matter. That should have been distributed immediately to front line units. It looks like a bureaucratic issue, with the bean counters involved. It’s not a difficult task. There are significant contiguous rat lines throughout Syria. They’ve been doing it for centuries. It’s easy to identify the bottle-necks and eliminate them, with extreme prejudice. Civil wars are a contact sport.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    It is sad times, indeed, when one is inclined to believe the foreign source more credible than one’s own government. And, when someone mentions credible “Along comes Mary.”
    Can’t you hear it now, “Gee. Do we really have to bring the stuff back? All of it!? Oh. Ok. We’ll bring it back.”
    Weapons are nonlethal? Must have shipped them nerf guns. That will make people angry enough to raid a warehouse. American humor doesn’t play well in the Middle East.

  • Scott J says:

    Good example of why we shouldn’t be sending arms, other aid, or money to so-called “moderates” in Syria. Inevitably, this aid will end up in the hands of the same AQ types who were blowing up our boys in Iraq a few years ago.
    We need to just let them fight it out. Our country is strong and capable enough to deal with any outcome.

  • 5150 says:

    Jeff E.,
    I agree with your sentiments. I find it difficult to believe that Islamist insurgents returned US aid materiel. I mean, the US was incapable of facilitating the return transfer of few M1114 Humvees even after politely asking Russia post South Ossetia conflict. What does an ideological extremist group comprised of hostile nonstate actors gain by complying with plausible American requests?

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    My cynicism, sharpened by the almost daily actions and words of our current regime, compels me to say that things happened as they HOPEd they would.

  • Les says:

    The warehouse incident is misrepresented, The If, who took control back from ISIS found that weapons were missing but that the warehouses were not empty. ISIS being the thief and being a project of the assad regime was in no way going to return weapons taken
    And the FSA and IF, not having them could not possibly return them. And as someone already pointed out what was all this stuff just sitting in warehouses?
    The truth is that the US is playing a double game, acting like its supports opposition to the assad regime while really making sure the opposition cannot win.
    Also, the “removal’ of Idtis has already been effectively revoked by the actual FSA commanders inside Syria, The “removal’ was really an attempted coup orchestrated by Jarba and associates in the interest of the US who want military backing for the geneva process.

  • Aez says:

    Ilooked up waht 5150 said about the Humvees. It checked out
    Humvees reference
    See Page 11


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