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CIA aiding Syria rebels: Usually, that's just the beginning

The US is wading into ever murkier waters in Syria with unpredictable consequences.

By Staff writer / June 21, 2012

In this Friday photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian troops near Idlib, Syria.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File

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A Syrian government pilot defected to Jordan with his plane today, and Russia continued to complain that a British insurance company stood in the way of a shipment of armaments designed to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to survive.

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But the most interesting piece of news today is about weapons flowing to rebels inside the country.

The New York Times reports, citing anonymous sources, that CIA officers have been helping to pick and chose which Syrian opposition groups receive weapons supplied by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The light weapons are being smuggled into Syria by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, the Times reports. CIA "officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels," the Times writes.

The US is now wading into ever murkier waters in Syria with unpredictable consequences. That the Syrian rebels have been better armed in recent months was obvious by their ability to take out government tanks and the hundreds of Syrian government soldiers killed. Saudi Arabia sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad as little more than a client of its great rival, Iran, and would like nothing better than to see it replaced by a Sunni Islamist government that would realign in the direction of the oil-rich, religiously conservative monarchy. Qatar, a fellow Sunni monarchy, shares a similar view toward a government dominated by Syria's Alawite majority, followers of a offshoot of Shiite Islam – a religion that the Gulf monarchs view with fear and contempt.

The US, too, would like Assad to go. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been unequivocal on this point, and US officials hope that if Assad falls, that will further isolate Iran in its showdown with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program. But the US is far more squeamish about the sort of regime that might replace Assad than its friends in the Gulf, and that's where the road the US is following grows more perilous.

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