The public – and private – reasons the US isn't arming Syrian rebels

The US has said publicly that it doesn't want to feed the violence that is largely affecting civilian populations in Syria. Privately, officials have concerns about what hands US arms might fall into.

Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS/File
A Free Syrian Army fighter prepares to fire a rocket-propelled grenade as a Syrian Army tank shell hits a building across the street during heavy fighting in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo in this August 11 file photo.

As evidence grows of human rights abuses and war crimes being committed on both sides in Syria’s civil war, the United States is sticking publicly with its decision to provide only nonlethal equipment to the rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

A new report from Amnesty International Thursday confirms what the United Nations found on its own fact-finding mission last week: The large majority of civilian deaths and human rights abuses are coming at the hands of government forces and militias, but evidence of summary executions and other abuses at the hands of rebel forces is also growing. Overall, an environment is mounting of tit-for-tat violence and rising atrocities.

“Amnesty International is alarmed that a pattern of extrajudicial and summary executions by all parties in the conflict appears to be gathering pace,” the human rights group said in its report, which focuses on a 10-day, on-the-ground investigation of violence in the embattled city of Aleppo.

The Amnesty report comes out a day after The New York Times released a video allegedly showing rebels telling a captive pro-government fighter that he can gain his freedom by driving a truck to a Syrian Army checkpoint. Unbeknown to the captive, the truck is loaded with a bomb, but a remote detonation fails.

In the face of mounting evidence of violations of international rules of conduct on all sides, the US is remaining firm for now in its position that it is providing the rebels with only nonlethal support, such as communications equipment, because it does not want to feed the violence that is largely affecting civilian populations.

“We have made a decision to only provide nonlethal assistance, but we do coordinate with others who have made other decisions,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week, in discussing US condemnation of Iran’s growing involvement in the conflict, supporting the Assad regime.

The American view is that Iran’s on-the-ground support for Mr. Assad is only “prolonging the misery of the Syrian people,” although the US is “coordinating” with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are among the sources of the heavier arms that the rebels have been able to deploy recently.

After the UN human rights chief issued a report last week faulting the Assad regime for most but not all of the indiscriminate violence and abuses, the State Department said the UN report confirmed its own perception of the situation.

“Our reading of the report is that the [UN] finds the same thing that we have been saying, which is that the preponderance of the violence, the preponderance of the abuses are on the side of the regime ... which is not to say that there have been no problems on the rebel side,” Ms. Nuland said. “Obviously there have been problems, but the preponderance of violence has been with government-led forces.”

But privately, US officials say that part of the reluctance to arm the rebels stems from concerns about what hands American arms might fall into and how they might be used. US officials have long worried about signs that Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups are infiltrating Syria to fight Assad. As a result, the US has beefed up on-the-ground efforts to know who the rebel groups are.

The US is also supporting international efforts to instill a “code of conduct” in the Syrian opposition and the forces fighting on its behalf – in part to try to head off a round of reprisal violence when, as most regional experts expect, the Assad regime falls.

But signs of rising abuses and a growing presence of extremist elements on the anti-regime side appear to be prompting more public warnings from the US.

“We do have concerns and we’ve had concerns that extremist elements will try to exploit the violence, will try to pursue their own agenda inside Syria,” Nuland said Monday.

The US has been stressing the importance of renouncing extremism and terrorism in all its “interactions” with the opposition forces, she said.

But Nuland suggested that if the US has focused on ending the violence – rather than feeding it by providing arms – one reason is the concern about a growing extremist presence that does not envision the same kind of post-Assad Syria that the US does.

“This is why we’ve got to end the violence, because the longer it goes on, the more scope there will be for these kinds of groups to abuse Syrian territory, abuse the situation for their own agendas,” she said. Those agendas, she added, “have nothing to do with peace or democracy or a positive future for the people of Syria.”

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