Conflict & Justice

CIA secretly steering arms to Syria opposition


Abu Ibrahim, a Free Syrian Army rebel, examines a new gun purchased from corrupt regime officials at the Al Muhajereen Wal Ansar rebel base in Jabal al-Zawiya.


Tracey Shelton

CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government.

The New York Times' exclusive report said the weapons include automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and antitank weapons. The arms are being taken mostly across the Turkish border by what the Times calls a "shadowy network of intermediaries," including Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. They are said to have been paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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A senior American official said the CIA officers have been carrying out the operation for several weeks in order to keep any weapons from landing in the possession of fighters allied with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. President Barack Obama's administration said it is not providing arms to any opposition groups, but said it knows that Syrian neighbors do.

While vetting arms going to the rebels, the CIA officers in Turkey are trying to learn more about the ever-changing opposition network in Syria as well as establish new alliances.

"CIA officers are there and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people," said one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by American counterparts, according to the Times.

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Other aid to rebels is also being considered, like providing satellite imagery and other detailed intelligence on the locations and movements of Syrian troops, setting up an intelligence service and, more aggressively, sending CIA officers into Syria itself. But no decisions have been made on any of the measures.

With weapons flowing into the country and ending up in the hands of both the government and the opposition, Obama and his top aides are trying to pressure Russia into slowing its shipment of arms, like attack helicopters.

"We'd like to see arms sales to the Assad regime come to an end, because we believe they've demonstrated that they will only use their military against their own civilian population," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

The Times also reported that the US State Department has authorized $15 million in nonlethal aid, like medical supplies and communications equipment, to civilian opposition groups in Syria.

According to Agence France-Presse, Syria's revolt started in March 2011 with numerous peaceful protests against the Assad family's 42-year reign, but has become increasingly violent over the past 15 months. More than 14,400 people have been killed since the uprising began.

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