One of the militant Syrian rebel groups provided access to advanced U.S. missiles said that it is seeking "the return of all Syrian land occupied by Israel," a stance that could potentially complicate U.S. military support to the armed rebel group.
The leader of an official rebel group sanctioned by the Syrian Military Council and in possession of sophisticated U.S. arms expressed his opinion in an interview published over the weekend by the Syrian news organization Tahrir Souri.
Ahmad Al-Sa’oud, who heads the rebel unit Division 13, was asked by the interviewer to explain "your stance, as an armed opposition group, on Israel."
"We are for the return of all Syrian land occupied by Israel," Al-Sa’oud responded.
Al-Sa’oud’s 13th Division was among the first armed Syrian opposition groups to receive U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles from the Obama administration, which is said to have carefully vetted each of those rebel factions receiving American-made arms.
Al-Sa’oud’s stance on Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights—territory annexed from Syria during 1967’s Six Day War—caused concern among terrorism experts, who have long warned that U.S. arms could fall into the hands of radical militant groups that joined the years-long fight to depose President Bashar al-Assad.
"This is precisely the problem we've faced in arming the Syrian opposition," said terrorism analyst Patrick Poole. "Despite repeated promises that we would only arm ‘vetted rebels’ there's no confidence that anyone in the U.S. government has any idea who they're dealing with or what their agenda might be."
The Obama administration has been hesitant to provide a large quantity of arms to Syrian opposition fighters due to the wide diversity of those fighting against Assad and evidence that extremist Muslim groups have joined the fight, making it difficult for Western officials to differentiate between moderate rebels and those tied to al Qaeda and other terror organizations.
"Undoubtedly there is someone at the State Department that has vouched for Ahmad Al-Sa'oud and declared him ‘vetted’ for giving him TOW missiles and other heavy weaponry, completely unaware that he would like to retake the Golan Heights from Israel—our closest ally in the region—and would use weapons we provided to do it," Poole said.
These concerns have been bolstered by recent report that Islamist fighters in Syria recently used the U.S. TOW missiles during a fight in the town of Aleppo.
The Islamic Front was reported to have been fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-tied group designated as a terror organization by the U.S. government.
Asked how the 13th Division obtained the U.S. arms and the criteria used to vet it, Al-Sa’oud said that the unit’s legitimacy was bestowed by "the Syrian people."
The intermediary, and who has bestowed their trust upon us, are the Syrian people," Sa’oud was quoted as saying. "The Syrian people who trust that we will face these weapons at the tyrannical Assad regime."
The U.S. missiles were provided to rebel groups via an intermediary known as the Friends of Syria, a coalition of Western nations and Arab states seeking to bolster the opposition’s fight to depose Assad.
The rebel groups reportedly must return the empty missile shells and have promised not to resell the arms, according to the Washington Post.
Al-Sa’oud confirmed in the interview that the U.S. missiles had been provided to it by the Friends of Syria, which also provided training on how to use the advanced weaponry.
Al-Sa’oud said he expects to receive more shipments of U.S. arms because, "day after day, we are increasing our legitimacy and credibility on the ground."
Factions like the 13th Division also are exploring the possibility of sending some of the U.S. TOW missiles to other rebel factions fighting in Ghouta, the site of deadly chemical gas attacks.
"Right now, we have no way to deliver these missiles to the Eastern Ghouta," Al-Soud was quoted as saying. "When a path opens up, we will absolutely lend our support to the rebels there."