Any remaining hope that Syrian rebels will receive weapons from the West may have died in a remote gas facility in Algeria.
Arms used or procured in Libya’s 2011 revolution have helped to promote a rebellion across the border in Mali and turned up in last week’s assault in neighboring Algeria that left at least 23 hostages dead, French officials said.
While Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supplying Syria’s opposition fighters, the U.S. and European countries have refrained from sending offensive weapons over concern that they will fall into the hands of radical groups among the rebels. France, which had been at the forefront of proposing that the allies send more potent armaments, may now reconsider, said Shashank Joshi, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“There was already mounting skepticism about arming the Syrian rebels, and what happened in Algeria will make them that much more cautious,” Joshi said yesterday in a telephone interview. “It will certainly weigh on the debate.”
Weapons from Libya have shown up in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and possibly the Gaza Strip, the Civil-Military Fusion Centre, a Norfolk, Virginia-based organization that assists in the sharing of crisis information by military and civilian groups, said in a November report. Groups involved in the revolution also attacked the U.S. and Italian consulates in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya in September.
In Mali, Touareg separatists returning from Libya with heavy weaponry allied themselves with Islamist groups to drive out the Malian army in March and seize much of the country’s desert north. Earlier this month, they began a push toward the capital, Bamako, prompting French airstrikes. France has airlifted 2,000 soldiers to Mali, where they are blocking the rebel advance while awaiting the formation of an African force to retake the north.
The group that took over the Algerian natural-gas plant had demanded that France end its military intervention in Mali.
Algeria’s Interior Ministry said there were only three Algerians among 32 gunmen who attacked the facility near In Amenas, about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) by road from Algiers and 40 kilometers from the border with Libya. Hostages said they heard Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian accents among the militants, while their commander came from Niger.
The Algerian army recovered six machine guns, 21 assault rifles, two sniper rifles, two 60mm mortars, six 60mm rockets, and two grenade launchers, as well as explosives and ammunition, according to Interior Ministry. It didn’t say where weapons came from.
“The unguarded weapons caches scattered throughout Libya have shown to be a major threat not only to Libya itself, but also to the broader region,” the Civil-Military Fusion Centre said in its report. “The weapons have consequently spread to many surrounding countries through black-market sales to terrorist groups, insurgents, pirates or other criminal entities, which in turn incite profuse violent clashes in the Middle East, North Africa and Horn of Africa regions.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview on Europe1 radio yesterday that, while the intervention on behalf of rebels in Libya was justified, “afterward we should have paid more attention to the weapons and where they ended up.”
On Nov. 15, Fabius said France, the U.S. and the European Union should discuss the delivery of “defensive” weapons to enable Syria’s rebels to repel attacks against areas of the country they controlled.
Any weapons delivered to Syria could easily fuel conflicts in Lebanon, Turkey and the Palestinian territories, said Eric Denece, founder of the French Center for Intelligence Research.
“For the French, what happened in Algeria will certainly weigh on what they do in Syria,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview. “What we’ve seen in Algeria was a direct consequence of what happened in Libya.”
The events in Algeria are unlikely to dissuade the Qataris and Saudis from arming the rebels in Syria, he said, because they have ideological links with the Syrian opposition’s Islamists factions.