The CIA has officers secretly operating in southern Turkey, helping allies to funnel arms to Syrian opposition fighters across the border into Syria to aid in the fight against the regime of President Bashar al Assad.
“The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” according to the New York Times.
The Times reports the CIA officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks aiming to help keep the weapons and ammunition flowing across the border out of the hands of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups within the rebel militias. This corresponds to reports in May that the Obama administration was preparing a plan that would attempt to vet rebel militias in Syria to determine whether they would be suitable recipients of munitions through US allies.
The rebel fighters, the Washington Post reported earlier in May, “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.”
Members of the exile group the Syrian National Council have said that the Turkish Army has provided such aid as antitank weaponry to the rebel fighters. They also claim that the US was consulted about these arms transfers.
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 Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria, wrote in Foreign Policy this month, “Let’s be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria. The United States, Europe, and the Gulf states want regime change, so they are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition.”
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.