For months, the U.S. has been helping Arab allies coordinate arms shipments to rebel fighters in Syria. Unfortunately, most of those weapons are going to radical Islamists instead of secular opposition groups. According to a classified government report uncovered by The New York Times' David Sanger, the flood of Saudi and Qatari weapons into Syria is strengthening the hand of extremist groups in the country, including those with ties to Al Qaeda. “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” a U.S. official says. Not only is there the fear that the weapons could bolster anti-American insurgent groups, but these extremist groups could hold sway in a future Syrian government should President Bashar al-Assad be removed. “The longer this goes on, the more likely those groups will gain strength,” a Middle East diplomat tells the Times.
It's the sort of dark irony reminiscent of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in which an influx of foreign militants and weaponry to the mujahideen gave rise to blowback, and even provided a springboard for more ambitious extremists like Osama bin Laden. As it stands, the U.S. is not sending arms directly to Syrian opposition groups, it's reportedly just helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar do it with lighter weapons like rifles and grenades. But this latest assessment, which Sanger says has been delivered to President Obama, calls into question the White House strategy of indirect intervention.
That's not to say that the alternatives are great. So far, 25,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, the borders of NATO ally Turkey have been threatened and the opposition has been badly outgunned. But no one can say with any certainty whether giving more sophisticated weaponry to the opposition would allow rebels to overthrow the regime or simply increase the bloodshed.