US Prepares to Vet Syrian Rebels for Indirect Shipments of Arms

The US is already coordinating with Gulf Arab states to send arms to the opposition

by John Glaser, May 24, 2012

The Obama administration is preparing a plan that would attempt to vet rebel militias in Syria to determine whether they would be suitable recipients of munitions coming through Gulf Arab states with U.S. help, according to officials.

The officials, who remained anonymous when talking to the press, claimed that up to this point, the U.S. has only been sending the insurgents and the Free Syrian Army non-lethal aid. But the process of sending arms through Arab allies with U.S. coordination is already taking place.

The rebel fighters, the Washington Post reported earlier this month, “have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States.” This, despite acknowledgement of rebel ties to al-Qaeda and evidence of serious atrocities committed by the rebel fighters.

What the Obama administration is apparently working on then, the Associated Press reports, is a plan that “would vet members of the Free Syrian Army and other groups to determine whether they are suitable recipients of munitions to fight the Assad government and to ensure that weapons don’t wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists or other extremist groups.”

But there is no obvious way to do that. The opposition in Syria is an unorganized, unreliable, unaccountable group of localized rebel militias, at least some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Access to the fighters and to Syria itself is very difficult and no so-called vetting process could ensure the weapons wouldn’t be used by unscrupulous groups. Even if it could, arming one side in a virtual civil war would not be a legitimate, or a prudent foreign policy.

As of right now, the weapons are already being sent without this vetting process. The U.S. is colluding with its Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have reportedly been sending arms to Syria’s Sunni rebels in a bid to help topple Assad. Weapons have also slipped into Syria from Turkey.

George Washington University professor and Middle East expert Marc Lynch has argued that “arming the Syrian opposition, would likely spread the violence and increase the numbers of Syrian dead without increasing the likelihood of regime collapse.” Also, as we saw in Libya, “fighting groups will rise in political power, while those who have advocated nonviolence or who advance political strategies will be marginalized.”

The potential for this meddling to escalate the violence and exacerbate the suffering is very, very high, and recent UN investigations suggest the Syrian rebels have committed atrocities in recent weeks. The humanitarian concerns in Syria are real, but military intervention does not offer a compelling alternative, especially since Washington would undoubtedly be getting involved in a geopolitical game against Iran, as opposed to for humanitarian concerns.

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