U.S. Suspends Aid To Some Syrian Rebels

The United States has suspended shipments of non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels across the Turkish border. The move came after Islamist militants seized a warehouse full of supplied equipment and other aid supplied by the U.S. that had been under the control of the secular Supreme Military Council. Islamist groups have gained considerable ground in northern Syria in recent months in clashes with secular rebels and Kurdish militiamen.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. and Britain have suspended non-lethal aid to Western-backed rebel groups in northern Syria. A spokesman at the U.S. embassy in Turkey confirmed deliveries were halted after an Islamist rebel group seized U.S.-provided equipment from warehouses near the Turkish border.

It's the latest blow to the Free Syrian Army, which is increasingly overshadowed by more powerful Islamist militias. NPR's Deborah Amos is following the story from Beirut. And, Deb, first of all, what kinds of supplies did the Islamist fighters seize from these warehouses?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I don't think we know everything that was seized. In fact, the U.S. and the Free Syrian Army are working on the inventory. But a U.S. source told me today, we are talking about radio gear, packaged meals, army rations. And on the weapons side, you know, the U.S. doesn't provide weapons to the Free Syrian Army but they do have weapons.

And there was an interview in a Saudi newspaper that listed 2,000 AK-47s, a thousand other assorted arms, a hundred vehicles - this was all commandeered by the Islamic Front from these warehouses near the Turkish border.

BLOCK: And we should explain, the Islamic Front is this coalition of Islamist rebel groups now apparently getting the upper hand over the Free Syrian Army, which is the group that the United States and Western powers have been backing.

AMOS: That is correct. This all happened on Friday night. Some of the details are still not clear. Was it a coup? Was it a takeover? Was it some kind of message? What's striking is sources from both sides say there was no fight involved. There were no injuries, no deaths, nobody was killed. Now, this could be an indication of the weakness of the Free Syrian Army. However, these rebels know each other. In fact, just a few weeks ago, some of the Islamist rebel groups were part of the Free Syrian Army.

They broke away after negotiations over the restructuring of the military command had broke down. So seven of the most powerful rebel battalions in northern Syria formed the Islamic Front, and it's about 50,000 fighters. They're Islamists. They're not affiliated with the al-Qaida linked groups. There are reports tonight about negotiations, getting the seized equipment back, talks about the structured military command, not just between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, but also the countries that back them.

BLOCK: Well, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army has said, we hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer. But in the meantime, the U.S. has suspended non-lethal aid. That seems to be sending a pretty powerful message.

AMOS: Yes, because this is a story about what the U.S. considers the bad rebels, the not so bad rebels and the so-called moderate rebels. U.S. policy is to back the moderates. But there are concerns that anything provided by the U.S. could fall into the hands of the most radical groups, those that are linked with al-Qaida. And just a few weeks ago, that is exactly what happened. Said rebel sources to me today, those moderates were delivering some U.S.-provided gear inside Syria.

They were stopped by an al-Qaida linked group. They seized radio and medical supplies. And the bodies of these two commanders were later found in a field, they'd been executed. So the suspension of U.S. non-lethal aid was tied to events over the weekend. But it's an accumulation of events and fears that this rise of Islamic groups, including those linked to al-Qaida, will somehow get some of this equipment. And it's also about the declining strength on the Western-backed fighters.

BLOCK: Now, apart from this non-lethal aid to the fighting forces, the U.S. also has a program of humanitarian aid, which goes into northern Syria for the civilians in these rebel areas. What happens to that?

AMOS: U.S. officials confirmed today that that will continue. It is lifesaving. We've had the first snows today, high winds, freezing temperatures. So that is moving. And I should also say that non-lethal aid to rebels in the south, through Jordan, is also continuing to move.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Deborah, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

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