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.
Reuters news agency reported Friday that two rebel groups, the Raqqah Revolutionary Brigades and God’s Victory Brigade, had abandoned the Free Syrian Army and pledged loyalty to al Qaeda.
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.
“There’s a long history to this, of course. American arms provided with the best of intentions to our erstwhile allies in Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq found their way into the hands of our enemies. I don’t expect Syria will be any different.”
Gen. Vallely founded the nonprofit group StandUpAmericaUS.org. One of its top projects is to persuade the Obama administration to order airstrikes to bring down the Assad regime, which launched a poison gas attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 in a neighborhood near Damascus. He has submitted a target list to the Pentagon.
He said Free Syrian Army commanders told him that some factions under the Supreme Military Council are “pawns” of the Muslim Brotherhood. The murky Islamist network has made a top priority of capitalizing on the chaos in Syria, especially since military leaders in Egypt are trying to destroy the movement there through attacks and arrests.
The oil-rich emirate of Qatar, which funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt, has sent huge cash payments to various rebel groups in Syria, Gen. Vallely said. Where one finds Qatari money, there is also the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a grand mafia,” he said. “They’re the smart guys. They’re planning everything. They’re getting the money.”
Hodgepodge of factions
Gen. Vallely said the best policy for getting arms to the right units is to assign the task not to Gen. Idriss but to another Syrian defector, air force Col. Riad al-Asaad. Gen. Vallely met Col. al-Asaad in Turkey, where the rebel leader is recovering from war wounds.
Obama administration representatives would not publicly discuss the arms shipments’ destination.
The administration previously designated the Supreme Military Council to receive nonlethal aid in the form of food and medical supplies. Former officials say the council also is handling the U.S. lethal aid, which consists of small arms and ammunition. President Obama, under pressure from hawks in Congress, reversed course in June and decided to arm anti-Assad forces.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has studied the Free Syrian Army, and its latest analysis is not reassuring. Rather than anything resembling a cohesive armed force, the Free Syrian Army is a hodgepodge of fronts, militias and factions.
“The FSA has always been more of a brand name than an actual organization,” the report says.
Of the year-old Supreme Military Council and Gen. Idriss, it says: “There is no evidence that it functions as a conventional military organization or that Idriss enjoys real control over member factions. To the contrary, member groups retain their separate identities and operational autonomy and proclaim loyalty to their own commanders.”
The council’s single largest coalition is the Syria Islamic Liberation Front, which comprises more than 20 rebel groups. They include the Islamist Tawhid Brigade, which claims about 30 subfactions, the West Point study says.
Another Supreme Military Council-sponsored fighting unit is the Durou al-Thawra Commission, which was set up in part by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Hof, who held the rank of ambassador in the Obama administration, endorses the policy of making Gen. Idriss the dispenser of arms.
“Unless we get into this business in earnest, we’re going to see things gravitate more and more toward radicals who have received a good deal of money from private sources from the Gulf, and who because they have the money and have the arms are able to attract young Syrians who want to be in the fight who don’t necessarily have anything to do or any attractions toward an al Qaeda-type philosophy,” Mr. Hof said.
He added: “The people with the resources have a certain magnetic quality in a situation likes this. This is why we have to make sure Idriss has the resources. If people inside the country see him as the exclusive source of everything coming in from the outside, I guarantee you we will begin to see a Free Syrian Army that actually has a chain of command, command and control, and all the other attributes of a normal military force.”
Gen. Vallely said Col. al-Asaad and other Free Syrian Army commanders have one main request for the U.S. — launch airstrikes against the attack helicopters and jets that keep the Assad regime in power.
“With that and logistical support, they will bring Assad down in 30 days,” he said.