The shadowy flow of US weapons into Syria

For the past few years, and almost since the start of the civil war in Syria, the US has been quietly attempting to support the Syrian opposition by supplying aid to “vetted,” supposedly moderate rebel groups. The operation, which is run by the CIA and relies on partnerships with US allies including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar, has been cloaked in secrecy and rarely surfaces in the news media.

As extremist groups such as the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda offshoot, rose to dominance among the rebels over the past two years, other rebel groups also have emerged, most notably the Islamic Front, a large Islamist coalition that fights alongside Al Nusrah, and also the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, a smaller, supposedly more moderate rebel group.

At the outset, some basic questions arise: Why is there such secrecy as to which groups are being supplied with Western aid, including weapons? If they are legitimate, shouldn’t they be recognized as such? In Syria, a country roughly the size of Washington State, fighting has raged for over three years now; isn’t it becoming impossible to find “moderate” rebel groups that have not reached an accommodation, if not outright collaboration, with the Islamist forces that are dominating the rebel ranks? And finally, if the groups consist of Islamist extremists who are linked with al Qaeda or fight alongside them, how can the provision of such weapons be justified, and what is the plan if the extremists prevail in Syria?

These questions should be borne in mind when looking at recent developments involving the provision of Western aid to rebel groups in Syria.

On April 11, The New York Times ran a front-page article featuring the commander of the “moderate Islamist” Yarmouk Brigade, which has fought alongside Al Nusrah, complaining about the paltry flow of US weapons to the rebels. The Times article mentioned “an ‘operations room’ in Amman staffed by agents from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States,” called the Military Operations Command, where rebels solicit and receive weapons and funding. Amman, the Jordanian capital, lies a mere 50 miles south of the Syrian border.

The article went on to state that Syria’s “largely stagnant southern battlefield … is heavily influenced by outside powers whose main goals are to limit the rise of extremists and preserve stability in Jordan.” It further claimed that [i]In the south, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, is not a leading power.” [See Threat Matrix report, Arming the ‘moderate’ rebels in the Syrian south.]

But in fact, Al Nusrah has long been active in southern Syria. In September, the al Qaeda affiliate teamed up with the Yarmouk Brigade and the Aknaf Bait al Maqdis (“Defenders of Jerusalem”), another jihadist group allied with al Qaeda, to take control of the border crossing between the southern province of Deraa and Jordan. The Al Nusrah Front in Deraa is commanded by Iyad al Tubasi and Mustafa Abd al Latif Salih, two men with strong ties to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the notorious former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army seize border crossing to Jordan.]

And since the Times article was published, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front have unleashed an offensive in Deraa, bolstered possibly with US-made heavy weapons. According to Agence France Presse, which cited the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the rebel forces are trying to “connect territory they hold in Deraa and the Quneitra region, alongside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.” SOHR reported that “the battle to control over this strategic hills in the southern countryside of Al Qunaytera and the western countryside of Dar’a …has started since this month amid of retreating of the regime forces and progressing of the Islamic battalions and Jabhat Al Nusra.”

On April 18, we reported here at LWJ :”The US has begun supplying advanced antitank weapons to supposedly moderate Syrian rebel groups such as the Harakat Hazm, which works with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, whose leader has admitted to sharing weapons with al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front.” Indeed, Jamal Maarouf, the head of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, said he refuses to fight al Qaeda as it is “not our problem,” and admitted to fighting alongside it. [See Threat Matrix report, Chief of Syrian Revolutionaries Front says al Qaeda is ‘not our problem.’]

Harakat Hazm, founded in January by a merger of 12 groups under Bilal Atar a.k.a. Abu Abdaal Shambilal, has remained loyal to Salim Idriss, the former head of the Free Syrian Army who was dismissed on Feb. 16, according to IHS Jane’s. Earlier this month, the Huffington Post cited an unverified report that on March 6, seven vans loaded with BGM-71 TOW ATGMs destined for Harakat Hazm were waved through a border crossing between Turkey’s Hatay province and Syria’s Idlib province by the Islamic Front.

Four days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that video had emerged showing rebels in the Omari brigade, a southern affiliate of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, firing a US-made BGM-71 TOW missile.

Three days ago, the Daily Beast noted that antitank weapons likely supplied by the US were being used by rebel forces in recent fighting in Deraa, and cited an NPR report saying the CIA was planning on sending more such weapons soon, in a ramped-up covert effort to force the Assad regime to agree to a political transition.

These developments are just a few among others signaling the futility of Western assurances that weapons can be provided in such a way that they do not fall into the hands of extremist groups. Al Nusrah, which while battling the ISIS (a group recently disowned by al Qaeda) continues to lead the fighting in key provinces, has demonstrated an ability to make strategic alliances with other rebel groups. For example, the Daily Star reported on April 26 that the Ahl al-Sham, an umbrella group incorporating Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and the Mujahedeen Army, formed a truce with Kurdish forces in Aleppo to fight against regime forces.

Al Qaeda’s General Command remains keenly interested and engaged in the Syrian conflict. Sanafi al Nasr, who leads al Qaeda’s “Victory Committee,” which is in charge of strategic planning and policy for the terrorist group, is now working with the Al Nusrah Front. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, continues to issue statements supporting the jihadist battle in Syria and urging an end to infighting between rival Islamist factions, particularly Al Nusrah and ISIS.

According to the NPR article, “[a]dvocates of the new American program hope that training the moderates will serve as a counterweight to al-Qaida and could peel away some of those fighters with the promise of more support.” A report in Reuters early this month on the US plan to increase the flow of weapons and other support, including training, to the rebels in Syria provided additional insight into the rationale: “US assistance could improve the chances that if Assad is deposed the United States will have allies among successful revolutionary forces. US and European officials say the most powerful anti-Assad factions are militant groups such as the Al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Given the fluid nature of opposition alliances in this conflict, and the possibly divergent interests of the various parties involved, which include nations sympathetic to Islamist ideology, these are misguided and dangerous rationales for an incoherent plan with little or no oversight, transparency, or likelihood of producing a favorable outcome.

The bottom line: The US and other nations seeking to support a moderate, democratic Syria should either go in big and occupy the country long enough to make sure reforms are implemented and the situation is stabilized (for which no Western nations, including the US, have shown any appetite, after Afghanistan); or they should restrict all support to humanitarian aid. The middle path being pursued by the US, of covertly training and arming assorted rebel groups, is likely to perpetuate the conflict, destabilize the region, and accelerate the growth of a new generation of international jihadists.

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  • Jeff Edelman says:

    Perpetuation of the conflict is not what the obama regime wants. Though, it’s probably what the regime will get. Destabilize the region? That’s OK. Accelerate the growth of a new generation of international jihadist? Bingo! Libya is the template. Egypt was a failure for the obama regime. The extent to which the current administration is involved in global jihad may never be known. Perhaps, thirty years after his $100 million library is built in Chicago, will we know. That is if the documents aren’t heavily redacted like those from Clinton’s library.

  • Jesse says:

    Isn’t keeping Syria destabilized by perpetuating the conflict a good thing for the USA. Let Russia, Iran and the jihadist pour their resources and men into Syria. They can’t send them at us or our allies then.

  • Scott J says:

    Your bottom line is exactly right.
    I see nothing positive arising out of the U.S. or anyone else arming the rebels. The U.S. public is in no mood for an invasion and occupation of Syria, so all these weapons are doing is fueling the bloodletting, extending the fight, and adding to the humanitarian disaster.
    And as you pointed out, these so-called “moderate” rebels are allied with our avowed enemies. Arming them in any way, shape, or form should be just simply out of the question.
    “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” – George Bush, Sept, 2001

  • m3fd2002 says:

    The US doesn’t need to or should arm any side in this quagmire. Other elements will be supporting each side for some time. It’s red on red. The Syrian regime was directly aiding the insurgency in Iraq against the Western forces and its people generally supported killing of the “infidel” allied forces in Iraq. Now those hostile elements are killing each other. Karma can be cruel.

  • C-Low says:

    Man cannot believe I am disagreeing with you BUT.
    I think we should be arming them hell if needed possible both sides. Bottom line to me is the only thing better than getting to kill your is getting to provide two enemies with the means to kill each other. Ala Iran/Iraq war we should balance the situation so neither side wins but instead they just grind each other into exhaustion.
    I can see the big negative to letting manpads proliferate but anti tank missiles will really help the grinder turn but will keep the blow-back negligible especially with US troops withdrawn from the region.
    The cure for terrorism (unless we go Roman) is cutting the grass by drawing in the volunteers then grinding them up. Iraq was a good grinder were we could leverage our armor/air/firepower, Afghanistan not so good infantry/infantry grinder, but Syria is perfect because instead of US boots its Sunni vs Shia radicals perfection all we must do is balance the fuel supply just right.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    There is a third option you don’t mention, carpet bomb Al-Qaeda (and ISIS) while arming the Kurds to fight them. The Kurds are the only real pro-western force in Iraq and the only ones who have shown an unwavering resolve to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda.
    Keeping the rebels strong enough to maintain their rebellion against Assad, but not strong enough to win also is somewhat in America’s interests. As every year the Syrian Civil War rages on means another year the Iranian economy is stripped of billions of dollars through its Syrian quagmire.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    Correction: In the above comment, i meant to state that the Kurd’s were the only real pro-western force in Syria.

  • Ericc says:

    Thought-provoking piece this is, to be sure. The US has political obligations to keep the faith with the West, and so cannot intervene militarily in the conflict without contradicting the preeminent European political position: Do not commit NATO to a war of occupation at Europe’s doorstep.
    The UK, France, Denmark, and Italy are covertly supplying weapons and ammo. So are Russia and Iran, more to the point. The US chooses to vett and monitor the US flow of arms through the CIA and its Intelligence partners. So of course they will maintain a low a profile as possible to protect their operational security. Op-sec demands that all journalists have at least a modicum of respect for the safety of those involved, even if their overall mission is held in doubt. I think. So we can insist that the West keep their actions above board when we discuss the political implications for us if and when Al Nusra Front militants armed with anti-tank weapons conduct some morally reprehensible operation killing people who would be considered innocents by parties outside Syria.
    What I simply do not agree with is the argument that any of this activity is impugned by the presence of extremist groups in some way that is “signaling the futility of Western assurances” the weapons will never reach Al Qaeda operators.
    If we hold to a perfect standard of zero weapons to Al Qaeda, this mandates that we embed with troops in Syria, or that we simply do nothing so that evil men can triumph – using Russian and Iranian( incl Chinese mfg) supplied armaments.
    The US cannot condone actively managing a proxy war between Shiite and Sunni, and cannot empower Kurdistan with Turkey in NATO. Not politically acceptable to our alliances.
    The West has been increasingly unwilling to contradict its treaty obligations and has performed well as far as keeping actions acceptable to all involved nations. This has kind of huge implications for the Arab nations: If Libya and Egypt can do no better for themselves than this, then they will be stuck with living in national miseries of their own making, with no western intercession. Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria may yet follow suit.
    Their primary political tool is use of the complaint that foreign powers are trying to interfere in their internal affairs. That means the West will not assist them in making those accusations seem plausible, doesn’t it? Shiite versus Sunni has been going around for a couple hundred years already. If the Russians and Iranians are arming Assad, we will arm rebels or they will be slaughtered, including their women and kids. Either way you cut it, it is a humanitarian disaster in the making, because what war hasn’t been? So the lesser evil may indeed be to perpetuate the conflict at the lowest possible level of intensity, rather than allow Assad and his Qods Force and Hezbollah minions to follow in Hafez’ footsteps and indiscriminately slaughter entire communites of Sunni people. Which is exactly what started the civil war in Syria in the first place.

  • Lisa Lundquist says:

    To C-Low and Ericc: Re your arguments that the US should be mowing the grass in Syria by drawing in volunteers and then grinding them up in Sunni-Shia fighting, and that subsidizing rebel fighting and thus perpetuating conflict is a lesser evil: The Al Nusrah-ISIS feud has not resulted in the obliteration of one or the other, but it has enhanced Al Nusrah’s ability to make strategic alliances with other groups in Syria. There are well over 50,000 militants fighting in or alongside al Qaeda-linked groups now in Syria, and their numbers, including foreign fighters, are growing, not shrinking. And for every foreign fighter killed in Syria, about 10 likely survive, and many leave Syria. How does subsidizing these fighters reduce their ranks and the dangers they present to the West? Moreover, the West’s desire to avoid facing the bitter realities of the Syrian conflict has minimized coverage of the extent of the Islamist fighters’ grip on the country; they control all but one of the border crossings with Turkey, and a good part of the oil and gas production in the east. They have conducted countless suicide attacks in civilian areas, and regularly obstruct humanitarian aid efforts. Realpolitik that disregards morality to the extent that we are actively supporting our enemies is absurd, dangerous, and unlikely to win the loyalty of our allies or our enemies’ respect.

  • Eric says:

    @ Lisa L
    I definitely respect your argument that our policies will have major blow-back in the years to come. I personally argue for US air power over the entire Levant from Lebanon to Iraq’s gulf coast. Interdicting Iranian and Russian flights, denying Assad the use of his own skies over Aleppo, Hama and Damascus, and strikes against ISIS in Raqqah, as well as select targets of opportunity in the Golan and Bekaa to keep Hezbollah down. Not going to happen, but it definitely should be done, even at the cost of downed pilots and a loss of Northern Transport routes to Afghanistan thru Russia.
    Unfortunately this realpolitik is exactly what we find ourselves enmeshed in, because the houses of Europe will not overthrow the French and German view that we must support the Syrian rebels and enable a peace process with negotiations that the participants continue to betray at each juncture.
    Thousands of jihadists will return to Europe from Syrian battlefields in the coming years, and attacks against Europe’s people and state facilities will be increasingly brazen and difficult to thwart. The idea that avoiding direct NATO engagement on the ground will keep this from coming to Europe is delusional, but Turkey and Germany have proved impossible to reason with. Soon enough they will all need jailer’s laws like the one recently announced in Bos-Herz.
    High birth rates, dysfunctional education, and persistent underemployment will keep this tide of muslim unrest rising for decades to come. Many hundreds of thousands of people are living in sufficient hopelessness to swell the ranks of jihadist movements fro the rest of the 21st century. The West has shrunk from confrontation because it is religion and sovereignty of muslim nations that must be threatened, and our political leadership is unanimous in wanting to avoid that narrative about the long war. A war of religious persecution and interference in muslim governments is strictly off limits.
    I am all for a real intervention in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, in Nigeria, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in Iran. The West, writ large, does not want that war, and will pursue policies of engagement, then containment, and finally proxy wars and UN interdiction forces. In the long run it will cost at least 3 times more treasure and 4 times more blood to get to the same inevitable showdown, but will appeal to voters and survive legal scrutiny more. The confrontation between the West and the nations of islam was and will continue to be asserted by islamic factions pursuing the caliphate venture. They put forth a justification to fight dirty and lie cheat and steal as long as it is done in the name of their religious war.
    Whenever the West comes up with a successful idological counter for that – one that works on impoverished, illiterate and increasingly shell-shocked populations – the situation is likely to persist as we find it today for most of the next century.

  • blert says:

    Europe and America can grow food for centuries on end.
    The Ummah can ‘mine’ oil for only a few generations.
    It is for this reason that the policy wonks are kicking the can down the road.
    As the Cold War showed, if the other guy has an unsustainable system, one fine day it ends.
    Should jihadis start warming things up in Europe, politics can flip on a dime. The Arabs can quickly find that they have become China’s problem, India’s problem, Russia’s problem.
    Rarely properly discussed, fracking is a quantum shift in the oil markets. Not withstanding hysterical propaganda from Moscow, fracking is both economic and here to stay. Digital efficiency at the well and during consumption makes that equation true.
    About a century ago, the flotation cell began its rise to the top of the miner’s equation. It’s the reason that low grade hard metal deposits are now so viable. Due to geochemistry, low grade deposits are drastically larger in total metal content than was previously available.
    Fracking does for gas and oil what the flotation cell did for hard minerals: increase the target strata by 50 to 100 times.
    It’s only a matter of time before the Europeans start to tap their own oil and gas strata. Once done, the process will take off like a moon rocket.
    Then everything we now take for granted may spin into reverse.

  • Neil says:

    It is a very bad idea for the United States to provide weapons to encourage this civil war. I see only downside to this course of action.


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