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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.

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CIA officers are keeping weapons out of hands of "terrorist groups?" Perhaps. But an anti-tank weapon given to rebels via the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is liable to end up anywhere once it crossed the border. Weapons are as fungible as cash in war zones, and typically flow to the best financed and effective. And some of the most effective rebel formations appear to be led by precisely the kinds of Islamists the US fears most.

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The AP's Ben Hubbard has a profile out today of one such group, the Falcons of Damascus based out of the northern Syrian town of Sarjeh and led by Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, who has lost 20 relatives fighting Assad over the past year, one of them his 16-year-old son. "One of northern Syria's most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don't shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints – turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers," wrote Hubbard, who just spent two weeks with rebel groups. 

He also points to the lack of coordination among rebel groups, the claims of the Free Syrian Army leadership notwithstanding. "Rebel coordination rarely extends beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels don't even know the commanders in towns two hours away."

The presence of hardcore Islamists, some of whom were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the US, was an issue in the Libyan civil war, as was weak levels of coordination between regionally based rebel commanders. But Libya is a fairly religiously homogeneous country in a much more stable neighborhood.

In Syria, the civil war is already heavily tinged by sectarian issues – with the governing minority Alawites squared off against the Sunni majority, with the country's Christian population watching nervously from the sidelines. The country shares borders with Iraq and Lebanon – which have suffered sectarian bloodletting of their own in the recent past – as well as Israel.

The difference between providing weapons yourself and merely directing who gets them is a vanishingly slim one – so slim that the jump from the latter to the former is an easy one to make. While the US isn't there yet, it's inching closer. US arms flows and support to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the South Vietnamese in the 1950s all began with a trickle.

There are various cries from politicians and activists in Washington for the Obama administration to create "safe zones" in Syria for civilians, to provide more weapons, or to extend a no-fly zone over the country. Those are set to grow louder as the conflict continues to deepen. It's hard to see to the kinds of weapons flowing to the rebels proving decisive against Assad's well-armed military, so the short-term prospect is for a longer conflict.

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