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U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebels Receive Influx Of Weapons

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're tracking a chaotic scene in Syria's capital this morning. Two rockets were fired at the Russian embassy in Damascus. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said this was the work of terrorists. This comes, of course, as Russia's military has joined the fight in Syria, backing the Assad regime, which the U.S. opposes. So could this be developing into a proxy war between Russia and the United States? Well, New York Times bureau chief Anne Barnard, for one, says this might be happening. Her story out this morning suggests antigovernment rebels are getting an increasing supply of U.S.-made weapons.

ANNE BARNARD: What they're saying is that since the entry of Russia into the conflict with its full fire power, all of a sudden they are receiving advanced-guided antitank missiles as fast as they can use them.

GREENE: And based on what you know, I mean, has there been a decision by people at the Pentagon or in the U.S. government to ramp up these weapons? Or might this be, you know, some weapons that have already been sent to the region that allies are now delivering in greater numbers?

BARNARD: What we can see from our contact on the ground among those insurgents is that there is an increased supply. They receive them through an operation center in Turkey. They're American-made weapons bought from the United States under a contract, probably by Saudi Arabia. These contracts require disclosure of the end user. That means where the weapons are going to end up. So what the people on the ground are saying is that this clearly signals at least a tacit American approval.

GREENE: And you've spoken to, I know, some of these rebel commanders who, as you suggested, are very happy to have these weapons. I mean, their feeling is, at least on their part, that they're getting more support from the United States now that Russia has become more engaged in Syria.

BARNARD: Yes, exactly. As one of them put it, by hitting those insurgent groups, Russia has in effect been hitting America and its allies. They believe that this is part of what has provoked the increased supply of these missiles.

GREENE: Could these missiles in theory actually be used on the battlefield against, you know, Russian military hardware?

BARNARD: Yes. We've already seen, just in the past five days, more than 30 videos of the missiles blowing up Russian-made tanks and other vehicles. So what you have, in effect, is American missiles hitting Russian tanks.

GREENE: And just to be clear, when President Obama met with President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations, they talked about making sure that there would not be direct military confrontation between United States and Russia. This, though, is something different. I mean, you might have weapons made by the United States being used against, you know, Russian military hardware, but neither U.S. nor Russian personnel are actually involved.

BARNARD: Absolutely. We're not talking about a military conflict between Russia and the United States. When people talk about a proxy war, they're talking about forces on the ground that have ties to Russia and the United States clashing with one another.

GREENE: Well, Anne, hasn't there been a concern about programs like this in the past about, you know, whose hands these weapons - these TOW anti - these TOW antitank missiles and so forth - whose hands they might end up in and whether these groups are really all friends of the United States?

BARNARD: The United States finds itself in a quandary. On the one hand, they're handing these weapons to groups that they have deemed relatively moderate and allegedly secular. But those groups are small and really can operate only at the behest of a group that the United States does not want to see come to power in Syria. Right now, the rebels supported by the United States say that this is an uncomfortable, tactical alliance-merited necessity. But President Assad and his allies say this is proof that there is little difference between these insurgent groups and that they're all terrorists, and they're all legitimate targets.

GREENE: We've been speaking to The New York Times Beirut bureau chief, Anne Barnard. Anne, thanks very much.

BARNARD: I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.