As diplomats from around the world gathered for the Syria peace conference known as Geneva II, a British newspaper reported that the U.S. is secretly backing rebels fighting against Al-Qaeda linked militants in the embattled country.
The Daily Telegraph - quoting unnamed diplomats and rebels - reported Tuesday night that the U.S. government, in coordination with Persian Gulf countries, is now providing “friendly” rebels with millions of dollars in cash as well as non-lethal aid for their fight against jihadi militants who aim to turn Syria into a sharia state.
The Telegraph reported:
As Western leaders publicly push the Syrian regime and the opposition to the Geneva II peace conference that begins Wednesday Washington has also been quietly supporting moves by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to give weapons and cash to rebel groups to fight al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) [also known as ISIL] in Syria.
One source said the US was itself handing out millions of dollars to rebel groups best equipped to take on the extremists while another confirmed America was providing non-lethal aid.
The British paper characterized this development as “a new phase in the conflict” in which international backers are “working directly with rebel commanders to target al-Qaeda cells.”
Both the U.S. government and European states have domestic interests in controlling the raging jihad, as thousands of foreigners, including Muslims from the West, have flocked to the war zone to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for frontline terrorist training. Britain and France in particular have warned of returning militants who could target their home countries.
The militants have stated their objective of imposing strict Islamic rule both in Syria and in neighboring countries including Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
An unnamed commander of a rebel group affiliated with Syria’s Western-backed Supreme Military Council said, "Everyone is offering us funding to fight them," that is, the ISIL militants.
Referring to the two-pronged goal of the more moderate Syrian rebels who now have government troops and ISIL cells in their crosshairs, the commander said, "We used to have no weapons with which to fight the regime, but now the stocks are full.”
In late December, the Telegraph reported, U.S. and Saudi officials met with senior Syrian rebel leaders in Turkey.
Two sources verified that the discussion focused on fighting ISIL. “The Americans encouraged the commanders to attack,” one source told the Telegraph.
“The Syrian Revolutionary Front, whose main commander, Jamal Maarouf, is allied to Saudi Arabia, and the Army of Islam, a new coalition of the moderate rebels sponsored by Qatar, have continued to liaise with the CIA and Saudi and Qatari intelligence, others close to meetings said,” the Telegraph wrote.
Another source who spoke on condition of anonymity to the paper described the aid coming from the Gulf: "Qatar sent arms first. Saudi Arabia didn't want to be out done, so one week before the attack on ISIS, they gave 80 tons of weaponry, including heavy machine guns."
A resident who lives in Idlib in Syria near bases for Army of Islam and the Syrian Revolutionary Front said he saw 15 trucks filled with weapons.
He claimed that while the U.S. did not provide the arms, it backed Saudi Arabia to help fund the groups and now gives a $2 million monthly cash handout to be split between western friendly rebel groups.
This story has been updated for clarity.