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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an overview of the United State's last military confrontation with Syria – in Lebanon in 1982 – earlier this year that shows how limited interventions can end with disastrous and unpredictable consequences. The fight was in Lebanon, where Israel had invaded the south to try to wipe out the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Syria had vast influence in the north. Zenko writes:

The October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut claimed 241 US lives and later came to be blamed on the militant group Hezbollah, a Shiite organization radicalized by the Israeli invasion and the war in Lebanon that was in its formative stages in 1983. Hezbollah has long been a client of Iran and Syria, and today is a stronger military force than at any time in its history. Russia remains close to Assad, just as it was to his father, Hafez, in 1983, and the politics of the region remain as explosive and byzantine as they were a generation ago.

The US must tread carefully.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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