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Rebel face control: US ‘to screen Syrian opposition for arms supply’

Published time: May 25, 2012 08:47
Edited time: May 25, 2012 12:47
Syrian fighters from a group calling themselves "The right bombs squad", many of who left their studies and jobs to join rebels, hold their weapons at a checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Epin, in the north-western province of Idlib, on April 15, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

Syrian fighters from a group calling themselves "The right bombs squad", many of who left their studies and jobs to join rebels, hold their weapons at a checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Epin, in the north-western province of Idlib, on April 15, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

Washington is an inch from starting shipping arms to the opposition in Syria, anonymous US officials say. The biggest hitch is that it wants to be sure American guns will be pointed in the right direction and won’t end up in the hands of Al Qaeda.

­The US is already transferring “non-lethal” material, including medical supplies and communication equipment to forces fighting the Syrian government. But it has been hesitant to provide arms to the disparate opposition, fearing they might end up in the hands of militants linked to Al Qaeda or Hezbollah, AP reports.

A vetting plan to separate the groups actually interested in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government from those profiteering from the armed conflict is yet to be finalized, the news agency says, citing unnamed US officials.

Some US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been less hesitant and openly said they would fund the purchase of arms for the Syrian opposition. The weapons may even be directly supplied by the Gulf monarchies’ governments rather than bought on the black market, recent media reports imply.

Some of the ammo crates onboard the Lutfullah II ship, which the Lebanese navy intercepted last month, are explicitly marked “Qatari Army”, reports Iranian news channel Press TV. The vessel was traveling under a Sierra Leone flag from Egyptian Alexandria to the port of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon. It carried three containers full of ammunition and arms, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, heavy machine guns, artillery shells and explosives. Syrian armed opposition groups are believed to have been the intended recipients of the smuggled cargo.

Lebanese Tipoli is located just 50 kilometers from the border with Syria. Sentiments in favor of the Syrian uprising are strong in the city, which saw mass protests recently as some of the residents objected to Lebanon’s neutrality on the Syrian conflict. Beirut had to send its army to restore order in Tripoli.

The April seizure of the ship was just one episode in the widespread arms smuggling business in the region. The latest such report came on May 7, when Lebanese authorities said they found 60,000 rounds of ammunition hidden in a ship, which brought used cars to Tripoli.

Such information indicates that the UN-brokered peace plan for Syria is in danger, Moscow believes.

“Turning a blind eye on the situation is absolutely out of the question. We are talking not only of violation of international decisions, but apparently also of some powers trying to disrupt the implementation of the peace solution in Syria,” said on Thursday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich.

Moscow, which insists that a political solution to the conflict must be found by Syrians without foreign interference, is urging the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee to probe the matter.

Smuggling of weapons into Syria from Lebanon was relatively simple in the early days of the conflict, but later became increasingly difficult, as the Syrian army clamped down on the operations.

"There were many ways to smuggle weapons into Syria, especially at the beginning when areas close to the northern border were free of army presence," Abu Raed, a former smuggler living in northern Lebanon told the Associated Press.

The army mined the borders and closed many of the crossings, he explained.

Nevertheless the Syrian opposition manages to get new and better weapons, especially after the ceasefire deal, which was sealed before UN observers deployed in the country. The ceasefire required Syrian army units to be withdrawn from residential areas and to loosen their control on the territories, where anti-government moods are still high.

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