Syrian Rebels
Syrian Rebels Reuters

US officials are reportedly set to ship arms to the Syrian opposition, but are concerned American arms may end up in al-Qaeda's hands.

The officials told AFP on condition of anonymity that those concerns – just where the guns will ultimately be pointed – are holding up the arms transfer from Washington.

The US is already transferring “non-lethal” materials, including medical supplies and communication equipment to the fighters of the Free Syria Army (FSA), which is primarily comprised of Syrian Army defectors.

However, officials have been hesitant to provide arms to the FSA because the disparate opposition has been joined by groups Washington believes have ties to Al-Qaeda and Hizbullah.

A vetting plan to separate the groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government from those profiteering from the armed conflict is yet to be finalized, the unnamed US officials told AFP.

Some US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been less hesitant and openly said they would fund the purchase of arms for the Syrian opposition.

Washington has at once called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down and said he cannot be dislodged without outside military intervention, or substantive external logistical support for the Syrian rebels.

At the same time, the Obama administration has remained doggedly dedicated to its 'sanctions only' approach on Syria and repeatedly ruled out arming the rebels – and has backed the UN brokered peace plan and observer force.

Arming the rebels would be an open admission that the UN ceasefire – already in tatters – had failed, and could lead to the perception that Washington rather than Assad drove the final nail into its proverbial coffin.

Thus, were the US to begin arming the rebels, it would herald a major policy shift. However, analysts note that a meaningful vetting plan would require direct US oversight of the Syrian rebel’s logistical operations.

In doing so, they say, the Obama administration would be making itself accountable to the American public for the conduct of Syria's armed opposition – and opening the door to deeper involvement.

Historically, US "material assistance" to rebel groups has led to additional assistance in the form of intelligence support and military advisors. And, in some cases, combat forces being deployed as well.

With an election looming large on his horizon and Washington touting troop pull-outs in Iraq and Afghanistan, US president Barack Obama may be reticent to arm the rebels because if he goes in for a penny, he may end up on the hook for a pound.