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Mitt Romney wants to arm Syrian rebels: What are the risks?

Extremist elements, some affiliated with Al Qaeda, appear to be playing a growing role in the fight against the Assad regime, posing a challenge to proposals, such as Romney's, to arm the Syrian rebels.

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Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who visited Libya, Jordan, and the Syrian-Jordanian border over the weekend, issued a statement emphasizing the threat posed by Islamist extremism in the region.

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“I am convinced more than ever that Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other violent extremist organizations continue to be a serious threat to America and other countries around the world who share our free democratic values,” Senator Corker said after his trip.

Corker’s visit to Jordan coincided with reports that the Pentagon has dispatched a task force to that country to work with the Jordanian military on a range of security issues stemming from the Syrian conflict. The US military advisers, who arrived in Jordan this summer, are working with their local counterparts on handling the growing influx of Syrian refugees and on contingency planning in the event of Assad's losing control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, according to The New York Times.

Jordan has also made clear to the US its concerns over the growing presence of Islamist extremists in a conflict-torn Syria.

Many regional and national security experts concur that the presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria makes arming the rebels a complex issue. But some also say there are ways to track – and potentially disable – any heavy weapons that end up with extremist, anti-US elements.

“The risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups – as has the US inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a commentary this week on the CSIS website.

Noting the problem of uncontrolled weapons stockpiles in Libya, Mr. Cordesman adds, “The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of ‘incidents’ than extremists and dictators [are] if things go wrong.”

But he also says that “technological solutions” exist to reduce the risks of transferring the kinds of weapons he refers to as “equalizers” to Syria’s rebels.

“As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated,” Cordesman says. “If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.”

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

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