Reuters reported Wednesday that President Obama "signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government." This latest leak of classified information was attributed to "U.S. sources familiar with the matter." Lethal covert assistance undoubtedly will help the rebel cause, but the United States is risking letting advanced weapons fall into the hands of the country's most deadly terrorist foes.
The Reuters report alleges covert assistance, perhaps including sophisticated man-fired anti-aircraft weapons, is being funneled to the Free Syrian Army through neighboring Turkey. The White House thus far has admitted only to providing nonlethal aid. The administration also has made it possible for U.S. private citizens and other groups to support the rebels. Last month, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a license to the nonprofit Syrian Support Group to raise money intended to purchase arms and ammunition, rather than being limited to humanitarian assistance.
Providing sophisticated weaponry to the rebels may aid their cause, but it also could assist America's enemies. The State Department recently confirmed that al Qaeda fighters are moving into Syria from Iraq and elsewhere, and the terror group will seek to exploit the chaos, as it has done with the Arab Spring violence.
The North African franchise, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), established a de facto regime in the northern part of Mali following a coup there in March. The country's destabilization can be traced to fallout from the U.S.-supported fighting in Libya in 2011. The regime in Mali was overthrown by returning Taureg mercenaries who had been part of Moammar Gadhafi's defeated army. Then AQIM filled the resulting power vacuum in the north with arms looted from Gadhafi's forces. AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar said last fall that al Qaeda has been "one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world." Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was held hostage by the group in 2008 and lived to tell about it, recently told NPR, "We have caused one of the most unstable regions in the world to become awash in weapons," and "this is the first time that al Qaeda really has a country, a more or less secure base from which to operate."
Mali serves as a cautionary tale for those seeking to help rebellions. Arms sent into the caldron of civil war may not stay in the hands of those to whom they are given or be used in a way the United States approves. Advanced weapons may be stolen or sold on the black market. Rebel groups that profess friendship today may be chanting jihad tomorrow.
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