Publicly, the Obama administration opposes "further militarization" of the conflict in Syria. Covertly, the CIA is helping direct powerful weapons purchased by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Syrian opposition fighters. The seemingly contradictory military strategy was revealed this morning in a report by The New York Times' Eric Schmitt and gives the most detailed description yet of the U.S. government's delicate involvement in the weaponizing of Syria's opposition. To be sure, there are multiple ways of looking at the administration's public and private actions.
According to Schmitt, CIA officers in southern Turkey have been directing "automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons" for several weeks via a "shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar." How can the CIA justify this as White House press Secretary Jay Carney tells reporters "we don't want to contribute to the further militarization there"? It sounds complicated.
While The Washington Post's Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung were first to report whispers of the U.S. coordinating the supply of weapons into Syria in May, it wasn't clear how or why the program was being carried out. According to Schmitt, the CIA is doing this "in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups." For several months, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have voiced a willingness to arm Syrian rebels, so the U.S. could plausibly argue that if these countries are going to supply weapons anyway, the U.S. might as well make sure they stay out of the hands of extremist groups.
But tellingly, the Times report says this is merely "part" of why the U.S. is justifying its involvement. That opens up the possibility that the U.S. has acknowledged that Syrian rebeles are woefully outgunned by President Bashar al-Assad's regime and need a boost. The argument against arming the rebels is that they will never be strong enough to challenge Assad's military, which is seen as more united than Qaddafi's was. (For what it's worth, a Syrian fighter jet pilot reportedly defected earlier today.) Clearly, these are all tough choices in a conflict that the UN says has resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Syrians.