The US is now wading into ever murkier waters in Syria with unpredictable consequences. That the Syrian rebels have been better armed in recent months was obvious by their ability to take out government tanks and the hundreds of Syrian government soldiers killed. Saudi Arabia sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad as little more than a client of its great rival, Iran, and would like nothing better than to see it replaced by a Sunni Islamist government that would realign in the direction of the oil-rich, religiously conservative monarchy. Qatar, a fellow Sunni monarchy, shares a similar view toward a government dominated by Syria's Alawite majority, followers of a offshoot of Shiite Islam – a religion that the Gulf monarchs view with fear and contempt.
The US, too, would like Assad to go. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been unequivocal on this point, and US officials hope that if Assad falls, that will further isolate Iran in its showdown with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program. But the US is far more squeamish about the sort of regime that might replace Assad than its friends in the Gulf, and that's where the road the US is following grows more perilous.
CIA officers are keeping weapons out of hands of "terrorist groups?" Perhaps. But an anti-tank weapon given to rebels via the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is liable to end up anywhere once it crossed the border. Weapons are as fungible as cash in war zones, and typically flow to the best financed and effective. And some of the most effective rebel formations appear to be led by precisely the kinds of Islamists the US fears most.
The AP's Ben Hubbard has a profile out today of one such group, the Falcons of Damascus based out of the northern Syrian town of Sarjeh and led by Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, who has lost 20 relatives fighting Assad over the past year, one of them his 16-year-old son. "One of northern Syria's most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don't shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints – turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers," wrote Hubbard, who just spent two weeks with rebel groups.