The Obama administration quietly has cleared the way for U.S. residents to buy weapons for the rebels who are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, granting a Washington-based advocacy group a rare license to collect money for arms and other equipment.
The license, which the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued last month without fanfare, gives the nonprofit Syrian Support Group the authority to take in money and pass it directly to armed insurgents. Previously, U.S. entities’ assistance to Syria was limited to humanitarian and educational programs.
Brian Sayers, an American who once served as a NATO political officer and is now the Syrian Support Group’s Washington lobbyist, said the new license would ease the fears of many prospective donors that helping the rebels buy guns would run afoul of U.S. law. “A lot of donors have been reluctant,” he said.
Other analysts said the license would send a message to the Assad government, despite the Obama administration’s opposition to U.S. military intervention and its reluctance to supply weapons directly to the rebels.
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“It’s indirect pressure the U.S. is putting on the regime: ‘Hey, we’re getting involved with the Free Syrian Army if you don’t stop this,’ ” said Mohammad Abdallah, the head of the new Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a partially U.S.-funded clearinghouse for documenting atrocities.
Sayers said the Syrian Support Group had vetted nine military councils of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized rebel force, and already was accepting donations to send to Syria “within weeks.” The support group also is consulting legal advisers to make sure members and donors wouldn’t run into trouble should the money end up in the hands of militant Islamists, who’ve become a more visible part of the Syrian revolt in recent weeks.
“We’re definitely looking into it. We’re studying the issue very carefully,” he said.
Sayers said the license would allow more transparency in the flow of weapons to the ragtag militias that were fighting Assad’s better-equipped forces. He said the money also could be used to pay fighters’ salaries and help toward procuring gas masks, vehicles and other items the rebels report as scarce.
With detailed fund transfers and logs of how the money is used, he added, weapons purchases can be better tracked and distributed than it is in the current system, which involves shadowy donations from Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Sayers said the Syrian Support Group participates in the conference calls of the Free Syrian Army’s military council chiefs in order to assess their battlefield needs. Once enough money is raised to send, he said, the group will make sure it’s equitably distributed among the councils instead of going to loyalists of “a sheikh who lives in some outpost in Saudi.”
“Obviously, it’s always going to be difficult to say who’s the end user for every cent, every dollar, but we don’t see that the military councils will provide funds to the fringe groups,” Sayers said.
The license, first noted Friday on the Middle East-focused news website Al-Monitor, gives the Syrian Support Group the right to export, sell or supply “financial, communications, logistical and other services” to the Free Syrian Army.
The July 23 document adds that the group must file regular, detailed reports of transactions, including the parties involved, the amount sent and the services provided.
A U.S. Treasury official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity per department protocol, confirmed the issuance of the license and said it wouldn’t cover the direct shipment of weapons, radios or other technical equipment, which would require a different type of permit.
However, the official acknowledged that the money could go toward weapons for the rebels and said that the Syrian Support Group would be responsible for making sure the license wasn’t used to benefit anyone linked to groups on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
“They need to exercise their due diligence,” the Treasury official said. “The money, obviously, shouldn’t be going to anyone designated by the U.S.”
The Free Syrian Army is showing signs of coalescing into a more formal force, but it still suffers from a lack of central command and the wildly varying degree of professionalism among its fighters.
While the most skilled units are made up of defectors from Assad’s army, others are simply civilians-turned-insurgents with no formal military or weapons training, a trend that’s led to a growing number of reports of executions and abuse by the opposition forces.
In addition, Syrian and foreign Islamist extremists have joined the cause, and little is known about their loyalties or ultimate aims for a post-Assad Syria.
Even supporters of the Treasury’s decision to license funding say it’s no substitute for more direct U.S. involvement to remove Assad quickly and identify trusted transitional authorities not only from the combatant ranks but also from exiled technocrats and grass-roots activists in Syria.
Analysts and activists say the risks are too high for the U.S. government to bet that the rebels eventually will win a bloody, drawn-out conflict without more U.S. and international military aid.
“The Free Syrian Army has a lot to prove, but the OFAC (license) didn’t come out just because the administration wanted to wash its hands of the issue,” Sayers said.