Center for Strategic Communication

A screenshot from a video showing a Free Syrian Army soldier on a rooftop in Zabadani. The Pentagon fears that the weapons pipeline flowing from Persian Gulf states could pose a proliferation risk. Photo: Flickr/SyriaFreedom

The Pentagon insists that it’s not arming the Syrian rebels, merely helping out with the U.S. policy of providing humanitarian aid. But the weapons pipeline that Persian Gulf states have opened to the rebels, with U.S. assistance, could end up flooding the volatile Mideast with small arms, the Pentagon fears.

“We have broad-based concerns about the conflict in Syria, period,” said George Little, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, during a Monday briefing. “We have concerns about weapons proliferation inside Syria and yes, we do have concerns that some of those weapons could fall into the wrong hands.”

That may not be a hypothetical fear. Islamic militant factions within the Syrian rebel coalition appear to be benefiting from the arms pipeline, which runs principally from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” an anonymous official told The New York Times on Monday.

That proliferation fear illustrates the dilemma that the Obama administration’s Syria policy has created for itself. The CIA helps keep the pipeline to the rebels open, while seeking to gather intelligence on the Syrian opposition itself. But the official line is that the U.S. isn’t providing any rifles, rockets, mortars, missiles or spy tools to the rebels directly, partially out of concern that the U.S. doesn’t sufficiently know whom it’s arming. Critics, like Sen. John McCain, argue that President Obama is “AWOL” on Syria, allowing Iran-backed dictator Bashar Assad to slaughter civilians, and call for greater U.S. support for the rebels. But that could lead to a situation where the U.S. inadvertently arms its regional adversaries, as it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or unleashes weapons whose ultimate destination spreads far beyond the battlefield, as occurred in Libya during last year’s war.

Word that extremist groups are getting the lion’s share of weapons from the Gulf pipeline strengthens practically every policy argument except Obama’s. Those who want direct U.S. military involvement in Syria could say that a hands-off approach is only allowing jihadis to fill the military vacuum within the rebel ranks. Those who want to keep the U.S. out of the Syrian civil war could say that the U.S. would be irresponsible to risk arming or otherwise benefiting the jihadis.

Mitt Romney also thinks Obama’s Syria policy is a failure. But he too has stopped short of calling for the U.S. to arm the Syrian opposition directly. In a speech last week, Romney said Syrian rebels who “share our values” ought to have easier access to weapons for battling Assad, but he did not explain how to identify those rebels.

But there’s little sign of Obama changing his Syria policy at the moment. “I’m not going to speculate on prospective changes in policy,” Little said, emphasizing that “this is not a [Defense Department]-led effort.”

In the meantime, Syrian rebels continue tricking out the weapons they have, such as using digital-camera zoom functions as scopes for machine guns, and training themselves in videos posted to Facebook and YouTube.