Some of the U.S. weapons flowing to rebels in Syria are bound to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, say analysts and a retired Army general just back from touring the country.
The prediction is based on at least two realities.
First, the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Council, which Washington selected to distribute the weapons, includes various groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to bring Islamic law to Damascus.
A report from a think tank at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., says the council’s top official, former Syrian army Gen. Salim Idriss, has no real control over rebel units, though Washington is trusting him to keep American arms from extremists.
Second, the council’s fighting group — the Free Syrian Army — operates brigades living and working with the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group with about 6,000 members. Sometimes they fight among themselves; sometimes they cooperate.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who in late August visited Free Syrian Army commanders in northern Syria, including the key city of Aleppo, said the two factions see themselves as allies, for now, and will share weapons.
“In Aleppo, you see some of the al Qaeda units in some of the districts and you’ll see the Free Syrian Army,” Gen. Vallely said. “They are coexisting only to bring [President Bashar] Assad down. But the FSA have a plan. They will run al Qaeda out of the country, and they will form a new government.”
Although Gen. Vallely vouches for the 40 Free Syrian Army commanders with whom he met, he picked up on a disturbing theme: The commanders are deeply skeptical of Gen. Idriss, who spends his days in Istanbul.
Commanders told Gen. Vallely that they think the CIA-delivered arms will fall into the hands of the “wrong elements” before any reach secular Free Syrian Army brigades in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and economic center.
Frederic Hof, who was a special adviser on Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, supports Gen. Idriss as the best way to get arms to the right people. He said food and medical aid have been delivered through the general’s staff. The U.S. has tracked the shipments and believes the supplies ended up in the right places.
Still, Mr. Hof, now an analyst at the Atlantic Council, concedes: “There is no 100 percent guarantee that every single thing is going to get to its intended source. I don’t think even UPS can do that. These extremists are already armed to the teeth. I don’t want to sound blase about it. It is a big issue. We’ll shoot for 100 percent, but our chances of getting it in a situation like this are not too good.”
James Russell, a former Pentagon official who focused on foreign arms sales, said history shows that when U.S. officials introduce weapons into a foreign war, those arms come back to bite them.
“I don’t know how we could possibly categorically state that the arms we provide will only remain with the groups we are supporting,” said Mr. Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “War is chaotic and confusing. We are not there to provide oversight.