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Are Weapons Getting To Syrian Rebels?


American officials contend they really are beginning to provide weapons to Syria's rebels. They say this after the head of the Free Syrian Army denied it. General Salim Idris was on MORNING EDITION yesterday and the rebel leader said several times on this program he is not getting any, quote, lethal materials from the United States.

GENERAL SALIM IDRIS: No military support, no direct military support.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that if any weapons are getting to any rebels, they're not getting to you, is that correct?

IDRIS: No, no, that is correct. We didn't receive any weapons from our American friends.

INSKEEP: The general said his troops are waiting for help. He even denied a Washington Post report that the weapons are finally arriving after much delay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been putting all this to his sources. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So what do Pentagon officials or other officials in the government say they are actually doing?

BOWMAN: Well, we've been hearing that the weapons are starting to move into Syria, small arms, assault rifles, machine guns. And this is all part of a covert CIA program. They've been providing some training as well. But back in June there was a decision to give the Syrian opposition some weapons - again, small arm. That has been hung up in Washington and one of the issues is we have to make sure that these weapons go to moderate rebel groups.

And apparently they've worked out those problems and the weapons are starting to flow in, but again, in small numbers and small arms. We're talking, again, assault rifles. We're not talking tanks or airplanes that would be obvious to everybody.

INSKEEP: But this man who was making this denial yesterday wasn't just some rebel commander. He was the commanding general of the Free Syrian Army. Why would he not know that the weapons are reaching his people, if in fact they are?

BOWMAN: You know, we can only speculate. Some people say, well, he's in another part of the country and the weapons are moving into still - you know, the southern part of the country, it appears. It is also, of course, a number of rebel groups he's aligned with, maybe some of the early weapons are getting to them. Communications are bad and he may not have clarity about exactly what's going on here.

And again, the weapons have just started to move in small numbers, so maybe he just doesn't have the latest.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I wonder if that is part of the underlying truth here, is that whether a few weapons have literally arrived with the Syrian forces or not, it's a few weapons and it's small arms. Nothing major has happened yet.

BOWMAN: That's right. And I don't think anybody thinks this is a game changer on the ground. Syria, of course, has a formidable military and General Idris yesterday said the rebels want anti-tank, anti-aircraft weapons. We're told that some anti-tank weapons are getting in through the Saudis, but no anti-aircraft weapons. He's probably not going to get those from anybody.

And one of the issues now is, again, the CIA is doing some covert training. They're looking at having the Pentagon take over this training as well and they're working on plans for that now.

INSKEEP: And just so we're clear, you said no anti-aircraft weapons are likely to go. The calculation there is, might fall into the wrong hands, might be fired at an American plane or a friendly plane. Is that basically the situation?

BOWMAN: Exactly, exactly. Of course, you know, the United States gave anti-aircraft weapons to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and that became a problem later on.

INSKEEP: Years later they were still trying to find hundreds of them.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned training. What would change if that training goes from the CIA's hands to the Pentagon's hands, much larger organization?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm told it will go from boutique training to sort of industrial-size training. You would send in American Green Berets, maybe a larger number - a particular infantry unit, let's say, the U.S. Army, and they would do this training in Jordan, we're told, but other countries want to get involved, too, including Turkey.

So this would be large scale training and small unit tactics. They would keep these guys together and then just move them into the country. And I'm told some of the training being done by the CIA is bearing fruit. They're seeing these rebels fight much better together as a cohesive unit.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, Tom Bowman, I'm wondering if all this aid can really happen, because the United States is negotiating now with Russia, Syria's ally, preparing to make some kind of deal, if possible, with Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian president has said part of this deal has to be you have to stop supporting what he calls terrorists, these rebels. Can the United States negotiate with this dictator while also trying to have him overthrown through these rebel?

BOWMAN: We'll have to see. The White House has yet to make a decision on this expanded Pentagon training, but you're right. Assad has basically said, listen, if you're going to support the rebels, I'm not going to negotiate.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.