West Concerned About Weapons Flow into Syria

Europe and the United States worry that arms could fall into the hands of Islamist groups.

Defense secretary Leon Panetta in Ankara, Turkey, December 16, 2011
Defense secretary Leon Panetta in Ankara, Turkey, December 16, 2011 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

With radical Islamist groups as Al Qaeda and Hamas throwing in their lot with the Syrian opposition, Western officials are growing concerned about the possibility of weapons falling into the hands of organizations that share their goal of ousting President Bashar al-Assad but are otherwise anti-Western.

The American defense secretary Leon Panetta told the Reuters news agency that he worried about anti-aircraft missiles that were looted from the arsenal of the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi last year flowing into Syria. He said that the United States have no direct intelligence yet that such missiles have indeed found their way into the wartorn Middle Eastern country though.

Western allies in the region including Qatar and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly raised the possibility of arming the Syrian rebels who are overwhelming Sunni, battling a minority Alawite regime. The sectarian nature of the Syrian uprising and the alignment of the interests of Western countries — who see Assad’s demise as weakening Iranian influence — with Islamic terrorist groups further dims the prospect of intervention but not for all. In the United States, hawkish conservative lawmakers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham insist that the Syrian rebels deserve weapons because they’re underarmed against a regime that is backed by the Russians.

It is unlikely that Russia has actually supplied weapons to its allies in Damascus since the beginning of the revolt. A cargo ship carrying Syrian attack helicopters that were refurbished in Russia turned around in the North Sea on Thursday after it was spotted by British and Dutch coast guards. Europeans nations have imposed an arms embargo on Syria.

Reports of Qatari and Saudi weapons having made their way into Syria remain unconfirmed. Officials of both Arab Gulf nations have been adamant about their intentions. Prince Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, earlier this year told an international conference, “There is no way out of the crisis except through a transition of power, peacefully or forcibly.”

In January, Qatar went further when its ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani told CBS News that Arab troops should be sent into Syria to “stop the killing” of civilians and opposition members by Assad loyalists.

The presence of Al Qaeda and apparent radicalization of at least segments of the Syrian opposition poses the question, just whose side is the West on? Europe and the United States have called on Assad to resign and sympathize with the rebel cause but if staunchly anti-Western forces are part of the uprising while religious minorities and the urban middle class continue to support the secular Ba’athist regime — although that support is crumbling as the atrocities mount — does either side deserve Western backing?

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