Russian state-owned firms are supplying regime with weapons. The CIA is reportedly helping vet recipients of foreign-provided arms for opposition forces. But this isn't the Cold War. It's present day Syria.
Reports surfaced Thursday that a small number of CIA officers have been deployed to southern Turkey to assist U.S. allies with the tough task of deciding which Syrian rebel elements should receive weapons in their fight against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's loyalist military.
Moscow, a longtime Syrian ally, has provided the country with heavy combat weapons for years. It remains unclear whether Russian officials will bend to Western pressure and cease those shipments as the year-old battle that has killed around 14,000 people wages on.
A CIA spokesman declined to directly address allegations that agency personnel are helping to vet rebel factions in order to ensure weapons do not fall into al Qaeda hands. The spokesman did not deny such an effort is underway, but said the original report contained inaccuracies. A Syrian opposition source reached Thursday says "there is no U.S. involvement at this moment."
The source says the weapons are being supplied by Washington's regional allies, like Saudi Arabia. What's more, "we are seeing a shift in the Russian position on the ground," the opposition source says.
A rebel "military council is distributing military equipment and making sure that is received by the correct people," the opposition source says. "The council makes sure it gets into right hands.
"When U.S. makes that decision" to assist with vetting rebels "other countries will follow," the opposition source says. "But the U.S. has not made that decision."
Still, many in Washington are increasingly uneasy about growing U.S.-Russian tensions.
Asked by U.S. News & World Report if the Syrian conflict is becoming a proxy fight between Washington and Moscow, California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon said: "It sure looks like it's headed in that direction."
McKeon, the House Armed Services Committee Chairman, expressed concern about a proxy war, and called for President Barack Obama to explain U.S. goals for Syria.
"We've heard very little from the president about what we should doing there, what our national interests there," McKeon said during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington. "I understand the humanitarian part. But my understanding is we don't know who the good guys and bad guys are, who's leading the effort. I don't know who we're arming, if in fact we're arming or helping arm some of the rebels," McKeon said.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a Ranking Member of Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that Assad appears to be trying to "partition" Syria into three "splintered" regions, and that Moscow could be the major backer of one.
"We might end up with one Alawite state supported by and protected by the Russians, and a multiplicity of [ethnically-based regions] across the country." Assad is from the Alawite sect.
"This is why a plan must be implemented now," McCain said.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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