Fears grow over Syrian arms flow

2012-06-22 07:57
AFP

AFP

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Washington - As evidence mounts of Islamic militant forces among the Syrian opposition, senior US and European officials are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of sophisticated weapons falling into the hands of rebel groups that may be dangerous to Western interests, including al-Qaeda.

In an interview with Reuters, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta articulated US worries that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, also known as MANPADS, could find their way onto the Syrian battlefield.

Intelligence experts believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of such weapons were looted from arsenals accumulated by late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and are floating on the Middle East black market.

"I think it's fair to say that we have a concern about the MANPADS coming out of Libya," Panetta said in the Thursday interview. "We've had an ongoing view that it was important to try to determine where these MANPADS were going, not only the concern that some of them might wind up in Syria but elsewhere as well," he said.

Panetta added that he had seen no direct intelligence yet that such missiles had made their way to Syria. He did not specifically cite the rebels as potential recipients.

But other US and allied officials voiced that concern, while saying they had no evidence that Syrian rebels had yet acquired MANPADS.

Urgency

The urgency of Western concerns stems as much from the recipients of the weapons as the weapons themselves. High-level sources at multiple national intelligence services report increasing evidence that Islamic militants, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates and other hard-line Sunni groups, had joined forces with opponents of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who has advised President Barack Obama on counter-terrorism policy, said that al-Qaeda and other militants were "deeply engaged" with anti-Assad forces. He cited public pronouncements by senior al-Qaeda figures, including the group's leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, that urged Sunni rebels in Syria to kill members of Assad's Alawite Muslim minority.

A western government source said that Al-Nusrah, a "spinoff" from al-Qaeda's Iraq-based affiliate, was responsible for at least some atrocities that have occurred in Syria. The source said the group publicly confirmed its role in killings.

Worries that sophisticated weapons could make their way to the wrong kind of Syrian rebels are one reason Washington remains wary of deeper US involvement in the fighting.

"It stands to reason that if any Middle Eastern nation is even considering giving arms to the Syrian opposition, it would take a measured approach and think twice about providing arms that could have unintended consequences," a US official said.

Trouble spots

Nonetheless, US and allied officials say their Saudi and Qatari counterparts have discussed how MANPADS could be used by Assad opponents to bring down Russian-made helicopters the Syrian army is using to redeploy its troops rapidly between trouble spots.

But such missiles also could be used against other targets, including civilian airliners, one reason for the US and allied concern.

US and allied officials acknowledge Syrian rebels have been receiving arms supplies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate of Qatar. But they said that the sophistication of the weapons being delivered had until recently been low.

An allied government source said it was clear wealthy individuals in Qatar and Saudi Arabia also were helping to finance anti-Assad groups.

Some prominent US Republicans are urging a big step-up in US aid for Assad's opponents, including arms deliveries and even possible US military involvement.

At a conference on Thursday hosted by the website Bloomberg Government, US Senator John McCain suggested that the Obama administration's cautious policy regarding the Syrian rebels was "shameful" and urged a major escalation in US involvement.

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that a small number of CIA officers had been deployed to southern Turkey, where they were helping US allies decide which Syrian opposition elements should receive weapons deliveries.

The United States is understood to be supplying non-lethal support to Assad's opponents, such as financing and communications gear, possibly including monitoring equipment. The Times said that the Obama administration has held back on providing rebels with intelligence information, such as satellite photographs, on the activities of Assad's forces.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  syria  |  us  |  syria conflict  |  security
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