As militants join Syria revolt, fears grow over arms flow (REUTERS) By Mark Hosenball WASHINGTON 06/22/12 12:02am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - As evidence mounts of Islamic militant forces among the
Syrian opposition, senior U.S. and European officials are
increasingly alarmed by the prospect of sophisticated weapons falling
into the hands of rebel groups that may be dangerous to Western
interests, including al Qaeda.
In an interview with Reuters, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
articulated U.S. worries that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles,
also known as MANPADS, could find their way onto the Syrian
Intelligence experts believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of such
weapons were looted from arsenals accumulated by late Libyan leader
Muammar Gaddafi, and are floating on the Middle East black market.
"I think it´s fair to say that we have a concern about the MANPADS
coming out of Libya," Panetta said in the Thursday interview. "We´ve
had an ongoing view that it was important to try to determine where
these MANPADS were going, not only the concern that some of them
might wind up in Syria but elsewhere as well," he said.
Panetta added that he had seen no direct intelligence yet that such
missiles had made their way to Syria. He did not specifically cite
the rebels as potential recipients.
But other U.S. and allied officials voiced that concern, while saying
they had no evidence that Syrian rebels had yet acquired MANPADS.
SIGNS OF AL QAEDA JOINING REBELS
The urgency of Western concerns stems as much from the recipients of
the weapons as the weapons themselves. High-level sources at multiple
national intelligence services report increasing evidence that
Islamic militants, including al Qaeda and its affiliates and other
hard-line Sunni groups, had joined forces with opponents of the
government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who has advised President Barack
Obama on counter-terrorism policy, said that al Qaeda and other
militants were "deeply engaged" with anti-Assad forces. He cited
public pronouncements by senior al Qaeda figures, including the
group´s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, that urged Sunni rebels in Syria
to kill members of Assad´s Alawite Muslim minority.
A western government source said that Al-Nusrah, a "spinoff" from al
Qaeda´s Iraq-based affiliate, was responsible for at least some
atrocities that have occurred in Syria. The source said the group
publicly confirmed its role in killings.
Worries that sophisticated weapons could make their way to the wrong
kind of Syrian rebels are one reason Washington remains wary of
deeper U.S. involvement in the fighting.
"It stands to reason that if any Middle Eastern nation is even
considering giving arms to the Syrian opposition, it would take a
measured approach and think twice about providing arms that could
have unintended consequences," a U.S. official said.
Nonetheless, U.S. and allied officials say their Saudi and Qatari
counterparts have discussed how MANPADS could be used by Assad
opponents to bring down Russian-made helicopters the Syrian army is
using to redeploy its troops rapidly between trouble spots.
But such missiles also could be used against other targets, including
civilian airliners, one reason for the U.S. and allied concern.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the CIA, with Saudi
backing, provided sophisticated shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to
Islamic militants seeking to oust Soviet troops.
The missiles played a significant role in the Soviets´ ultimate
defeat in Afghanistan. But they also became a major headache for U.S.
and western counter-terrorism agencies when anti-Soviet militants
morphed into anti-Western militant factions including al Qaeda.
SAUDI ARABIA, QATAR ARMING REBELS
U.S. and allied officials acknowledge Syrian rebels have been
receiving arms supplies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate of
Qatar. But they said that the sophistication of the weapons being
delivered had until recently been low.
An allied government source said it was clear wealthy individuals in
Qatar and Saudi Arabia also were helping to finance anti-Assad groups.
The Saudis are on record calling for Assad´s ouster. Earlier this
year, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told an
international conference that Assad´s "regime has lost its legitimacy
and resembles an occupation authority...There is no way out of the
crisis except through a transition of power, peacefully or forcibly."
In January, Qatar went even further when its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin
Khalifa al-Thani, told the CBS TV program 60 Minutes that Arab troops
should be sent in to "stop the killing" by Assad´s forces.
A U.S. official who recently discussed the issue with Saudi and
Qatari representatives said the weaponry now being shipped to Syrian
rebels consists largely of small arms that would enable regime
opponents to "protect their children." Deliveries to the rebels of
MANPADS would represent a serious escalation.
US PROVIDING NON-LETHAL SUPPORT
Some prominent U.S. Republicans are urging a big step-up in U.S. aid
for Assad´s opponents, including arms deliveries and even possible
U.S. military involvement.
At a conference on Thursday hosted by the website Bloomberg
Government, U.S. Senator John McCain suggested that the Obama
administration´s cautious policy regarding the Syrian rebels
was "shameful" and urged a major escalation in U.S. involvement.
"So what do we do? First of all, we stand up for them. Second of all,
we get them weapons. Third of all, we establish a sanctuary with our
allies - no boots on the ground, no boots on the ground - and use our
and our allied air power to protect that zone and we help these
people in a fair fight," McCain said.
At the same conference, however, Representative Mike Rogers, the
Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned: "We
are just really not in a good position today to fully identify all of
the groups, all of the factions, who´s winning that leadership
fight," he said.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that a small number of CIA
officers had been deployed to southern Turkey, where they were
helping U.S. allies decide which Syrian opposition elements should
receive weapons deliveries.
The United States is understood to be supplying non-lethal support to
Assad´s opponents, such as financing and communications gear,
possibly including monitoring equipment. The Times said that the
Obama administration has held back on providing rebels with
intelligence information, such as satellite photographs, on the
activities of Assad´s forces.
Riedel warned that Qatar authorities might not be too choosy about
which Syrian rebels they are willing to supply with arms, though they
would try to avoid giving them directly to al Qaeda.
"I don´t think that Qatar and the Saudis are as concerned as we are
about surface-to-air missiles," Riedel added.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Tabassum Zakaria and David
Alexander. Editing by Warren Strobel and Lisa Shumaker) (© Thomson
Reuters 2012. 06/22/12)
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