Center for Strategic Communication

An anti-Assad 'independence flag' flies over a Syrian rally, February 2012. Photo: Flickr/Freedom House

The Obama administration swears it’s not arming the Syrian uprising. But the CIA reportedly is doing the next best thing: helping other nations figure out which rebel factions ought to get weapons shipments. And the revelation that the United States is involved more deeply in Syria than the Obama team has let on is starting to stir some misgivings among powerful legislators.

The New York Times reports that CIA operatives are in southern Turkey to aid anti-Assad nations as they funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons” to the fractious Syrian opposition. As with 2011′s Libya uprising, there are many questions about the future intentions of Syrian rebels; the presence of extremists among them; and the ability of the rebels to control any weapons they receive.

And so, much like last year’s revolt in Libya, the CIA is on hand — while the rest of the government denies any such involvement. Only here, the agency isn’t, reportedly, helping scout targets and train the opposition. It’s gathering intelligence for a taxonomy on the different rebel factions, and in a roundabout way, enabling the shipments. The United States isn’t evidently giving the Syrians weapons.

Still, it’s another step toward direct US involvement in Syria’s civil war — a prospect that doesn’t sit well with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“We’ve heard very little from the president about what we should be doing there, what our national interests are there. I understand the humanitarian part, but my understanding is we don’t know who the good guys and bad guys are,” Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California) told reporters on Thursday.

Intervening in Syria has support in Congress, mainly from McKeon’s Senate counterpart, John McCain. McKeon wasn’t concerned about their disagreement. “I’ve heard that if two people agree on everything, one of them is an idiot, and Senator McCain and I are not idiots,” McKeon quipped.

At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little downplayed the prospect of US military involvement in Syria. “We are not providing lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition,” Little said. But he didn’t deny that other US government agencies might be.

Syria’s intensifying internal conflict has spurred mixed feelings within the US military. Some, like the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen. James Mattis, seem to Syria as an opportunity to deal its patron, Iran, a setback. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, sounds less enthusiastic.

“It’s not about ‘can we do it,’” Dempsey testified in March. “It’s ‘should we do it.’ And ‘what are the opportunity costs?’”

As Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the Center for National Policy, tweeted, “CIA reportedly giving weapons to opposition fighters in Syria because blowback never happens and the Middle East needs more weapons.”