From: The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.
“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.
The assessment of the arms flows comes at a crucial time for Mr. Obama, in the closing weeks of the election campaign with two debates looming that will focus on his foreign policy record. But it also calls into question the Syria strategy laid out by Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.
In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute last Monday, Mr. Romney said he would ensure that rebel groups “who share our values” would “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” That suggests he would approve the transfer of weapons like antiaircraft and antitank systems that are much more potent than any the United States has been willing to put into rebel hands so far, precisely because American officials cannot be certain who will ultimately be using them.
But Mr. Romney stopped short of saying that he would have the United States provide those arms directly, and his aides said he would instead rely on Arab allies to do it. That would leave him, like Mr. Obama, with little direct control over the distribution of the arms.
American officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments, and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them.
Those problems were central concerns for the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus, when he traveled secretly to Turkey last month, officials said.
The C.I.A. has not commented on Mr. Petraeus’s trip, made to a region he knows well from his days as the Army general in charge of Central Command, which is responsible for all American military operations in the Middle East. Officials of countries in the region say that Mr. Petraeus has been deeply involved in trying to steer the supply effort, though American officials dispute that assertion.
One Middle Eastern diplomat who has dealt extensively with the C.I.A. on the issue said that Mr. Petraeus’s goal was to oversee the process of “vetting, and then shaping, an opposition that the U.S. thinks it can work with.” According to American and Arab officials, the C.I.A. has sent officers to Turkey to help direct the aid, but the agency has been hampered by a lack of good intelligence about many rebel figures and factions.
Another Middle Eastern diplomat whose government has supported the Syrian rebels said his country’s political leadership was discouraged by the lack of organization and the ineffectiveness of the disjointed Syrian opposition movement, and had raised its concerns with American officials. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing delicate intelligence issues, said the various rebel groups had failed to assemble a clear military plan, lacked a coherent blueprint for governing Syria afterward if the Assad government fell, and quarreled too often among themselves, undercutting their military and political effectiveness.
“We haven’t seen anyone step up to take a leadership role for what happens after Assad,” the diplomat said. “There’s not much of anything that’s encouraging. We should have lowered our expectations.”
The disorganization is strengthening the hand of Islamic extremist groups in Syria, some with ties or affiliations with Al Qaeda, he said: “The longer this goes on, the more likely those groups will gain strength.”
American officials worry that, should Mr. Assad be ousted, Syria could erupt afterward into a new conflict over control of the country, in which the more hard-line Islamic groups would be the best armed. That depends on what happens in the arms bazaar that has been feeding the rebel groups. In several towns along the Turkey-Syria border, rebel commanders can be found seeking weapons and meeting with shadowy intermediaries, in a chaotic atmosphere where the true identities and affiliations of any party can be extremely difficult to ascertain.
Late last month in the Turkish border town of Antakya, at least two men who had recently been in Syria said they had seen Islamist rebels buying weapons in large quantities and then burying them in caches, to be used after the collapse of the Assad government. But it was impossible to verify these accounts, and other rebels derided the reports as wildly implausible.
Moreover, the rebels often adapt their language and appearance in ways they hope will appeal to those distributing weapons. For instance, many rebels have grown the long, scraggly beards favored by hard-line Salafi Muslims after hearing that Qatar was more inclined to give weapons to Islamists.
The Saudis and Qataris are themselves relying on intermediaries — some of them Lebanese — who have struggled to make sense of the complex affiliations of the rebels they deal with.
“We’re trying to improve the process,” said one Arab official involved in the effort to provide small arms to the rebels. “It is a very complex situation in Syria, but we are learning.”
Robert F. Worth and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
“The Obama administration has a habit of helping our enemies obtain weapons, with lethal consequences. The Fast & Furious operation resulted in guns going to Mexican drug lords. The Libyan “lead from behind” operation allowed weapons to get loose and ultimately into the hands of Islamist jihadists. The latest episode involves arms flowing from Islamic countries, who claim to be in our camp, to Islamist jihadists, some with ties or affiliations with al Qaeda.
While the United States has not been directly arming the Syrian rebels itself – at least not openly – the Obama administration has effectively outsourced this task to our allies in the region, principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They have done so in part through the Free Syrian Army, which operates from bases in Turkey.
As the New York Times reported on October 15th, most of the arms shipped are “going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.”
Qatar is reportedly the largest source of shipments going to the jihadists fighting in Syria. According to the Times, “American officials have been trying to understand why hardline Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia.”
Vice President Joe Biden curiously omitted to mention Qatar at last week’s vice presidential debate when he discussed the countries supplying aid to “the free forces inside of Syria.” He listed only Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. Was this simply an oversight or an intentional omission to cover up the fact that an Islamic country in the Gulf region with whom we have close military and economic ties is in fact actively helping our enemies? Does Biden want us to forget how President Obama publicly praised the emir of Qatar in April 2011 during the emir’s visit to the Oval Office for his country’s role in supporting democracy in the Middle East, as a hedge just in case more evidence becomes known of Qatar’s complicity with the Islamist jihadists in Syria?
Here is what President Obama said publicly according to the White House transcript on April 14, 2011:
"Well, I want to welcome the Emir of Qatar, and we have just completed a very useful conversation. I expressed to him my appreciation of the leadership that the Emir has shown when it comes to democracy in the Middle East… In addition to our efforts in Libya, we have a strong relationship between our two countries. It is an economic relationship. It is a military relationship. It is a cultural relationship. And obviously, Qatar has done very well under His Highness’s leadership, but his influence extends beyond his borders. And so we’ve had discussions about how we can continue to promote democracy, human rights, increased freedom and reform throughout the Middle East."
In remarks Obama made privately to donors about the emir’s visit on th..., which were caught by CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller via an open mike, the president made fun of the notion that the emir is really a democratic reformer. However, at the same time he praised the emir for buying peace by redistributing the country’s riches:
The emir of Qatar come by the Oval Office today, and he owns Al-Jazeera basically. Pretty influential guy. He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform. You’re seeing it on Al-Jazeera. Now, he himself is not reforming significantly (laughter from the audience). There is no big move towards democracy in Qatar.
You know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict (quiet laughter) – $145,000 a year!
Now keep in mind they have like 1.7 million people, and 75 percent of them aren’t even Qatari. They’re from all over the world. You know, Filipinos and Pakistanis.
But you know the average income is $145,000 a year. Now granted, if you look at the curve, I’m sure not every laborer there is making (that), but I make this point only to say that if there’s opportunity, if people feel like their lives can get better, then a lot of these problems get solved.
Obama can joke about the Qatar emir’s dedication to democratic principles, but Qatar’s role in the arming of Islamist jihadists is no laughing matter. Obama knew by his own admission, when at the same time he was publicly extolling “the leadership that the Emir has shown when it comes to democracy in the Middle East,” that the emir was in reality no democratic reformer. However, the Obama administration decided to rely on Qatar to help “promote democracy, human rights, increased freedom and reform throughout the Middle East.” And now, as the Obama policy of outreach to the Islamists unravels in the aftermath of the Benghazi disaster, the administration is suddenly waking up and expressing alarm that our partner Qatar is helping to arm the hard-line Islamist jihadists!
There were red flags unheeded by the Obama administration. For example, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been directing fighters, cash, and arms, funneled through Turkey, to the same Free Syrian Army our allies are arming. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was designated an Al Qaeda affiliate by the United Nations pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011), in addition to being listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. Meetings between Libyan jihadists and senior Free Syrian Army leaders, held nearly a year ago, were reported on at the time by the Daily Telegraph.
According to reports by the Vatican’s Fides News Agency last June, jihadist rebels “heavily armed and bankrolled by Qatar and Saudi Arabia” have been wreaking havoc on Christian churches and communities in Syria.
“Peace in Syria could be saved if everyone told the truth. After a year of conflict, the reality on the ground is far from the picture that imposes disinformation in Western media,” said a testimony sent to Fides Agency by the French Bishop Philip Tournyol Clos, a Greek-Catholic Melkite Archimandrite, who visited Syria, by traveling to different cities, like Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. “In the capital car bombs and assassinations on behalf of Islamist suicide bombers, drawn by the desire of heaven, that cradle the dream of the end of the Alawite regime are feared. Currently the country, through the bloody work of adventurers who are not Syrian is trying to be destabilized.”
Islamist monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood now controlling the political levers of power in Egypt, seek a post-Syrian regime on the Islamist model, not on the secular democratic model that we fantasize for the Middle East. How many times do we have to be burnt before our foreign policy establishment acknowledges and acts upon that incontrovertible fact?
Could there be more disastrous unintended consequences from our allies arming Islamists, our most dangerous long-term enemies, in a conflict with the Syrian dictator for whom our short-term goal is regime change? Absolutely, because the Islamists our allies are arming will be in the strongest position to fill the vacuum of power if and when Assad is forced out. Another Benghazi-type tragedy, or worse, could then be in the offing.”