No, they don’t say it quite like that. But after years of hypocrisy, the Obama administration has admitted that while it declined to arm Syrian rebels directly for fear that weapons would end up in the hands of al-Qaeda forces, it has been quietly vetting and training anti-Assad forces while others provided weapons all around. Now the training is out in the open, and Secretary of State Kerry has pledged $60 million in “non-lethal aid” to the rebels. (Plus $250 million to Egypt, while Israel may take a hit of $150 million from sequestration — makes you wonder.)
American assistance is supposed to go only to “moderate” rebels, but arms have been flowing freely, paid for by American “allies” Qatar and Saudi Arabia and moving through Turkey. Recently, a source with ties to Israeli intelligence claimed that a supply line has been running from Bosnian extremist groups, outside the control, influence, or even vision of the U.S. and its allies. Libya and al-Qaeda in Iraq have also been conduits for weapons to rebel militias, and last week, 48 Syrian government soldiers and officials were killed in Anbar Province, an al-Qaeda stronghold.
Israel expects to see any and all weapons, including some of the estimated 15,000 surface-to-air missiles the U.S. admits “disappeared” from Libya, aimed in its direction.
More than a year ago, Maj. Gen. Avi Kochavi, chief of IDF Intelligence, warned that al-Qaeda had moved into the buffer zone that separates Israel and Syria, which had been at least nominally in the hands of U.N. peacekeepers since 1974. Last week, Syrian rebel groups captured 21 Filipino peacekeepers from their Golan Heights enclave and caused others to flee into Israel. Croatia announced that it is removing its 100 soldiers, and Israel fears that others may follow. Kochavi said that should Assad fall, the rebels would aim straight at Israel; Syrian rebel groups agree.
It was Israeli intelligence reports that Assad was moving his chemical weapons that first brought American Special Forces to Turkey and Jordan in 2012, hoping to train Syrian rebels to secure the arsenal before Assad or Hezb’allah moved it to Lebanon or used it. The irony of planning to entrust chemical weapons capability to rebels to whom they wouldn’t give guns appears to have escaped the Americans.
British papers report that the U.S., Britain, and France are now working together with high-ranking Syrian defectors at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center near Amman. EU guidelines on the Syrian arms embargo allow military training as long as the aim is “the protection of civilians.” This is nebulous at best, harking back to “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), the announced basis of American intervention in Libya. Only this time, we’re apparently training Syrians to do the protecting, raising the question of what weapons they will use, since the U.S. doesn’t yet admit to providing any.
The Guardian (U.K.) quotes an EU official in Brussels acknowledging, “It’s deliberately hazy. When it comes to technical assistance, what it means in practice depends on whom you ask. The Brits and the French, for example, are much more forward leaning than others. The principle is that the assistance should be for the protection of civilians, but as we saw in Libya, that can be interpreted in different ways.”
In Libya, “technical assistance” was interpreted by the Western allies to include bombing government assets and permitting militias, including known al-Qaeda militias, to oust Gaddafi and take control of the government’s arsenal. The arsenal was then distributed. Some went to Tuareg militias and their al-Qaeda partners, resulting in the war in Mali. Some traveled through Sinai, headed for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Some went to Syrian rebels. Shortly after Gaddafi’s death, Libyan rebel leaders met with Syrian rebels under Turkish auspices and offered them arms. It wasn’t a secret; Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi of the al-Qaeda-related Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIF) was interviewed in Il Sole and the U.K. Telegraph. Throughout 2012, weapons shipments from Libya to Syria via Turkey or Lebanon were openly reported in the press (here and here, for example).
The United States, France, and Britain claim to be training their own Syrian rebel force, either to help overthrow Assad or to help ensure a peaceful transition after he’s gone. But there’s that pesky weapons question again. Whether the rebels are supposed to kill government soldiers, or be prepared to kill “jihadists” after the war to prevent a jihadist government, with what are they supposed to do it?
Is the U.S. honestly sure our “moderate” rebel friends aren’t using the al-Qaeda pipeline on the side? Or are we cynically sure they are? If the former, what makes us believe they will be able to defeat al-Qaeda-related groups after the revolution? And if the latter, what makes us think they will want to?
Israel, not for the first time, will be left to cope with a situation born of the inability of its neighbors to fashion a tolerant society and the failure of the West to understand and protect its interests and its friends.