If You Thought Benghazi Was Bad, Watch Syria

A New York Times exposé suggests U.S. allies armed Libyan extremists, raising troubling questions over Syria's rebellion

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Javier Manzano / AFP / Getty Images

A member of Liwa Salahadin, a Kurdish military unit fighting along side rebel fighters, aims at a regime fighter in the besieged district of Karmel al-Jabl in eastern Aleppo, Dec. 6, 2012.

The cat’s out of the bag. During Libya‘s rebellion, the White House OK’ed the arming of rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime to Arab partners in the Gulf, and rumors have abounded ever since over the identity of some of the recipients of weapons sent by U.S. allies. Now, a story in the Wednesday’s New York Times claims to have confirmed rumors that some of the arms supplied by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates ended up in the hands of Libyan Salafi groups. There’s no evidence these arms were actually used in the attack on the Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11, but the Times report will fuel speculation. It may also help explain why the Obama Administration has been dancing around the Benghazi incident as if were a grenade with the pin pulled.

It seems perfectly possible to me that some weapons sent from the Gulf could have found their way to Ansar al-Sharia, the group currently blamed for the Benghazi attack. That creates a problem for the White House. If such a link surfaces, the Obama Administration may try to blame Gulf Allies. Those countries, in turn, can be expected to say the White House ignored warnings the weapons might fall into the wrong hands.

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The intelligence services of the Gulf countries are not capable of directly orchestrating large-scale covert action programs, and in particular, large-scale arms transfers. Because of their limited capacity, they themselves are obliged to outsource the process, which, as it turns out, means handing money and arms to Salafi groups headquartered in the Gulf. Those Salafis are more than happy to take the money, and to use it to arm allied fighters in distant lands.

The key question, though is this: Why did the Administration think that outsourcing covert action to the Gulf Arabs would have a better outcome in the Arab Spring than was the case the last time the United States outsourced covert action to them? That would be when the Reagan Administration armed Afghan jihadists fighting the Russian occupation — most arms and support provided by the Arabs went to Afghan Salafis, not to mention the Arab volunteers who later become the core of al-Qaeda. Are memories truly that short?

Which brings us to Syria. Qatar, for one, has made no bones about its intention to continue arming Syrian rebels until Bashar Assad and his regime fall. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but I’ve heard enough of it to believe that much of the Qatari aid is going to factions of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – and probably also militant Syrian Salafis. With Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons potentially in play, the regional threat from armed and empowered Salafis is greater in Syria than in Libya.

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Now that we’ve violated the iron law of covert action — that when there’s no oversight, money and weapons end up in the wrong hands — it’s time to change course. I’d recommend sitting down with all the players in the region, including Iran, to figure out how to cauterize the mess. And in case I haven’t made my point, blindly dumping more arms into the Middle East isn’t going to solve anything.

The story told by the New York Times suggests that, as Syria circles the drain, it behooves us to find out precisely to whom in that country the Gulf Arabs have been sending weapons and money. And equally important is to learn the lesson that it’s always a bad idea to outsource covert action in the Middle East. You’re better off sticking with a hands-off policy – enforcing embargos and sanctions – and letting the chips fall where they may.

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