The White House announcement of covert military aid to Syrian rebels marks a major shift in the U.S.-led war on terrorism as the United States for the first time will be backing a coalition of groups that includes al Qaeda-affiliated rebels, according to U.S. intelligence officials and experts.
"We’ve come full circle from going after al Qaeda to indirectly backing al Qaeda," said one U.S. official opposed to the new policy, referring to the dominant rebel group now in Syria, the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
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Publicly, the Obama administration is opposing aid to al-Nusra and trying to bolster non-jihadist rebels in a last-ditch effort to shape the outcome of the post-Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
In doing so, the administration is joining 11 other states in arming the Syrian rebels, led mainly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Britain, and Qatar.
The main backing for al-Nusra and other jihadist groups has come from covert arms shipments provided by Saudi Arabia and Turkey for the past several months, according to U.S. officials. The Obama administration sought unsuccessfully to have both states end their backing of al-Nusra, whose fighters are transported in pick up trucks and who are known for wearing black clothes.
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MAT, has been the leading conduit for arms support to al-Nusra, a group widely identified as the strongest—both ideologically and materially—of all Syrian rebel groups.
The Syria conflict also is now evolving into a regional conflict, as proxies for major powers fight over Syria and eye a takeover of Lebanon.
On the side of Assad are Russia and Iran, along with Iran’s main proxy Hezbollah, a terrorist group that for the past few months had engaged in armed conflicts with jihadist Syrian rebels.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss their two nations’ differences on Syria at the G8 summit now underway in Britain.
U.S. intelligence agencies have identified at least 17 armed jihadists groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front, an officially designated al Qaeda rebel group after its merger in March with al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate. Numbers of jihadists are difficult to estimate, but more than 10,000 jihadists are fighting in this rebel faction.
By contrast, secular rebel groups led by the Free Syrian Army are believed to have around 20,000 fighters.
However, the jihadist groups sharply increased the number and lethality of attacks in Syria since the spring. Intelligence analysts believe they are positioned to take control of Syria after the ouster of Assad. Hundreds of jihadist rebel attacks have been claimed since March, including armed assaults, bombings, mortar attacks, and suicide strikes.
The ruthlessness of the jihadists was highlighted by an atrocity video that circulated on YouTube last month. The video [warning: graphic violence] showed a Syrian jihadist cut out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier with a knife and bite it as supporters shouted "Allah Akbar."
The widely-circulated video was used by Assad regime supporters to exposed the nature of all Syrian rebels.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Friday that U.S. military aid will go to the Supreme Military Council that he called "the principal fighting force on the ground that we’ve been working with."
The Supreme Military Council has called for a free, democratic, and multi-religious Syria. The overall rebel coalition is called the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from Assad’s armed forces and including large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria members as its top leaders. It is also believed to be infiltrated by jihadists who do not support its pluralistic goals.
The council and Free Syrian Army are opposing al-Nusra and the jihadist rebels groups.
The decision to send U.S. arms, mainly small arms, followed confirmation that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, something Obama had described as a "red line."
Rhodes said the U.S. relationship with the Syrian rebel military council would prevent arms from reaching Islamist rebels.
"That’s important because it both allows you to get assistance into the hands of those who need it, but it also allows you to have protections to try to keep assistance from reaching those who we don’t want to receive materiel—for instance, al-Nusra, which has generally been the most extremist element of the opposition," Rhodes said.
However, U.S. officials familiar with the Syrian opposition said other nations backing the rebels have not cut off support to the Islamists, namely Turkey’s government, which is covertly arming a number of Islamist rebel groups.
Egypt’s Islamist government also announced on Monday that it would begin backing Syrian rebels.
Angelo Codevilla, a former U.S. intelligence official, said arming the Syrian rebels is a bad idea.
"They are not our friends and are unlikely to become such," he said. "We have zero control over the situation and will not acquire any. In short, we are bringing water to others' mills, irresponsibly."
Codevilla said arming the rebels might bring "good to some and harm to others," but noted: "The only sure thing is that we are doing no good for the U.S.A."
"The fight there is between Sunni and Shia," said. "We are hated by both now and will make ourselves more hated and despised by getting involved."
Regionally, the struggle in Syria also links Russian efforts to control the Mediterranean.
"We are helping the rebels under the false assumption that Russia is somehow on our side," he said. "It is not."
On the plus side, the Syrian civil war is an opportunity to weaken Hezbollah, now fully engaged in the Syrian conflict. The United States should be covertly aiding people in Lebanon who want to oust Hezbollah and Iran, Codevilla said.
"The freedom of Lebanon is in our interest, and it is achievable," he said. "But who wins or loses in Syria is not in our interest and is beyond our control."
Former intelligence official and counterterrorism specialist Bruce Riedel also questioned the United States arming the rebels.
"If done well, this move can end a bloody civil war," Riedel said in a column in the Daily Beast. "If done poorly, it could lead to disaster."
Riedel warned that other states involved in arming the rebels likely have differing interests than those of the United States.
A worst case scenario: "Our arms could end up in al Qaeda’s hands not just in Syria but in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere," Riedel said. "They could be used to kill Americans."
Riedel said there are many unanswered questions about the covert arms aid, such as whether the mission is to stop the use of chemical arms or to oust the Assad regime.
Also, it is not clear whether the aid is meant to unite the rebels and purge the al-Nusra Front from the opposition, or to defeat Iran and Hezbollah in the region.
"We have yet to hear the answers to these questions," Riedel said.