Has U.S. missed chance in Syria rebellion?
(CBS News) As foreign weapons pour into Syria, there are questions as to whether the U.S. policy to not directly arm the rebels has opened the door to more extremist elements gaining influence in the opposition movement.
"There's a sense that the U.S. has lost an opportunity here by taking such a hands-off approach to the Syrian conflict. They really lost the opportunity to influence what's happening on the ground, and to ensure that groups and opposition members who do espouse more democratic values have any real success or power or influence," CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward, who has reported extensively from the country, said on "CBS This Morning" Monday.
According to a New York Times report Monday, most of the arms being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to forces fighting the government of President Bashar Assad are going into the hands of hardline Islamic jihadists, not more secular opposition groups - something Ward said is "absolutely" a blow to U.S. strategy there.
The U.S. has espoused the policy of not arming the rebels directly but allowing or possibly assisting in indirectly arming the rebels through countries like these Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The problem, Ward said, is that many private citizens from these countries "don't espouse democratic values per se, but support more militant Islamist groups."
Ward said it is difficult at the moment to tell how much of the Syrian Free Army, or of rebel-held territory, is under the control of jihadists.
"It's difficult to put an exact number on it," she told Charlie Rose on "CBS This Morning." "But what you're seeing is that these Islamist groups - and particularly groups that have foreign fighters, or foreign backing from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar - they have the most traction on the ground. They have the best weapons. They have the best training. They have the best fighters in many cases."
Ward also described the change among the opposition in Damascus since she visited the Syrian capital a year ago.
"The change is dramatic," she told Norah O'Donnell. "When I was in Damascus a year ago people were talking about freedom, they were talking about dignity, they were talking about democracy. Nobody was talking about religion.
"Now, people, opposition fighters are calling this a jihad. There's been a real shift. But I would say that that shift is as a result of the desperation of the Syrian people. This fighting has been going on for more than a year and a half. The people of Syria have paid an unbelievably high price for it. And they feel that Western democracies - and particularly the U.S. - have left them to die."
Or, as one Free Syrian Army commander, Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told Ward on "60 Minutes," "The Syrian people will never forgive the international community for failing to stop Assad regime."
In her "60 Minutes" report Sunday on the fighting in Syria, Ward confronted Ahmed al-Abaid, the Islamist commander of several hundred rebel forces in Azaz, north of Aleppo. His men had captured four Syrian government soldiers and executed them.
Abaid had bragged about how well he treated his prisoners. But then Ward showed him a video depicting the Syrian soldiers' execution.
"No. I was not aware," he said.
Still, he defended the decision to execute the soldiers, calling it an eye for an eye. When Ward pointed out that it was his men who were responsible, all he could say was, "I really don't know. What can I say?"
In English he said, "I no speak."
Describing her experience interviewing Abaid, Ward told Rose that when watching the video now, "I get this pit in my stomach, because in any situation like that where you're confronting someone with a video and saying, 'Hey, you're a liar,' basically it requires a lot of boldness and it's extremely uncomfortable to have to confront someone like that. Particularly in this situation given the nature of the situation on the ground in Syria, given the nature of the man himself, given the fact that I'm a woman, it was particularly frightening."
"How did it end?" asked Rose.
"It ended," Ward said. "We had given ourselves a 10 minutes in-and-out policy. We drove straight to the border. There was a moment where there was a very clear flicker of anger across his face. But he was as gracious as he could be in that situation, and we high-tailed it out of there."
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