International Law

Complexities in USG Covert Action to Supply Weapons to Syrian Rebels

By Jack Goldsmith
Sunday, December 9, 2012, 3:32 PM

Last week I noted that U.S.-blessed Qatari arms shipments meant for Libyan rebels were diverted to Islamist terrorist groups in North Africa.  This morning’s papers imply the possibility of something similar happening in Syria.  The New York Times has a story on the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda-approved rebel group in Syria that is “a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq” and that has “some of the best fighters in the insurgency.”  Despite USG attempts to isolate the Nusra Front (including a threat to put it on the terrorist blacklist), the group is (according to the NYT) gaining support among the rebel factions in Syria.

The NYT says that the presence and influence of the Nusra Front and similar groups has been one reason why the United States has held off supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons:

The United States has been reluctant to supply weapons to rebels that could end up in the hands of anti-Western jihadis, as did weapons that Qatar supplied to Libyan rebels with American approval. Critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy counter that its failure to support the rebels helped create the opening that Islamic militants have seized in Syria.

Apparently the USG has overcome its reluctance.  The Sunday Times (of London) today reports (behind paywall) that the United States has in fact initiated “a covert operation to send weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time,” including weapons from Muammar Gadaffi’s stockpile.  What about the possibility of a repeat of the Libya weapons-diversion experience?  The Sunday Times says:  “Concerns that US-supplied weapons could fall into the hands of Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda have been partly eased by the formation of a National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which will co-ordinate up to 300 rebel groups.”

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is the western-approved umbrella rebel organization in Syria.  Will it be able to succeed as the legitimate organizing force for the Syrian rebels while at the same time excluding successful and popular fighters from al Nusra and similar groups, as the United States wishes?  I barely understand the various rebel factions in Libya, and thus I have no idea.  But the thrust of this morning’s NYT story does not inspire confidence.  It describes the USG strategy as follows:

As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.  When rebel commanders met Friday in Turkey to form a unified command structure at the behest of the United States and its allies, jihadi groups were not invited.

But the NYT also suggests that this strategy is unlikely to work:

But blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire.  It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support.  While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group that the United States seeks to bolster, expressed exasperation that the United States, which has refused to provide weapons throughout the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people, is now opposing a group they see as a vital ally.

The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists."

He added, “America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution.” . . .

The Nusra Front’s appeals to Syrian fighters seem to be working. . . .

On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.

Another jihadist faction, the Sahaba Army in the Levant, even congratulated the group on the “great honor” of being deemed terrorists by the United States.

A complicated situation, to put it mildly, and one with unhappy precedents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya.