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Rivalries pose problem in arming Syrian rebels

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 2:48am  ET

In this Thursday, June 20, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian rebel fires a heavy machine gun towards Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria. _ The Syrian rebels' record in handling tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid so far suggests major challenges ahead for any delivery of American weapons and ammunition. Food, medicine and other life-saving supplies regularly run into long delays because of bickering among rebel factions, U.S. officials say. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

BRADLEY KLAPPER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Syrian opposition's record so far in handling tens of millions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian and other nonlethal assistance paints a bewildering picture of logistical challenges ahead of any delivery of American weapons and ammunition.

No aid shipments appear to be heading to terrorists or corrupt hoarders, according to U.S. officials, but packages of food, medicine and other lifesaving supplies regularly face long delays because of political rivalries among various rebel factions.

Anecdotes abound.

An American shipment of humanitarian goods was held up for two weeks amid a dispute between opposition groups over whose label should be attached to the boxes, a senior administration official recounted this week. Aid-filled planes have landed in neighboring countries with no trucks at the landing sites for transporting the items into Syria. In Cairo, funds the U.S. was prepared to provide an opposition political office were flat-out rejected, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Although the Syrian opposition's described dysfunction is nothing new, its problems are getting increased scrutiny since the Obama administration's decision last week to authorize for the first time lethal military support to units fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.

Secretary of State John Kerry plans to use a meeting Saturday in Doha, Qatar, of officials from countries allying themselves with the rebels to underscore the need for coordinating and funneling aid through the Supreme Military Council, senior State Department officials said Friday. The U.S.-favored group is overseen by Gen. Salim Idris, a defector from Assad's military.

The aides, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about Kerry's trip, said Kerry also hopes the meeting will re-energize a newly expanded group of Syrian opposition leaders that is scheduled to elect new leadership in coming days.

Beyond that, the Obama administration's plans are unclear. Kerry held two classified briefings with members of Congress on Thursday. No details emerged about what types of weapons could be sent, where and when they'd be delivered or who exactly would be the recipients. The lack of clarity rankles both lawmakers who want more forceful U.S. action as well as those who say the U.S. should stay as far away as possible from Syria's brutal two-year civil war.

"All I know is what I've read in the media and that is light weapons," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria. "That's clearly not only insufficient, it's insulting. We've got to take out their air assets."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another supporter of arming the rebels and other steps such as establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, said he also had no understanding from the Obama administration about what form future lethal aid might take and possible delivery dates.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was even more critical. "''We have the ability right now to fully understand who is the type of individual or group that meet our standards, and I think we've had that information and ability for probably nine months," he said. "Will there be mistakes made? Of course, but I do think it helps to put our thumb on the scale."

Meanwhile, Senate opponents of arming the rebels moved Thursday to block Obama from providing any military support at all. The bipartisan group including Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a measure to prohibit the president from using any money to increase U.S. involvement in the conflict. Specifically, it would ban the Pentagon, CIA and other intelligence agencies from funding military, paramilitary or covert operations in Syria.

"We need to place a check on the president's unilateral decision to arm the rebels, while still preserving humanitarian aid and assistance to the Syrian people," Udall said.

Paul said the president's decision was "incredibly disturbing, considering what little we know about whom we are arming. Engaging in yet another conflict in the Middle East with no vote or congressional oversight compounds the severity of this situation."

Neither Obama nor any other member of his administration has publicly confirmed that the U.S. has authorized lethal aid for the rebels, though since last week several officials have acknowledged as much on condition of anonymity. The closest anyone came was Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. He said last week that U.S. confirmation of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime has prompted American support to the Syrian rebels of increased "scope and scale."

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