Syrian rebels allied with al-Qaeda have seized government oil fields, control the power plant in Aleppo, the nation's largest city, and run courts that apply Sharia law, according to the New York Times. The leading military force among the rebel units fighting for the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime is the al-Nusra Front, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al-Goliani, boasts of having fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and who recently announced the union of Nusra with al-Qaeda in "the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." While foreign jihadists have joined with Nusra, a prominent Syrian group, Ahrar al-Sham, is said to be ideologically aligned with them. Though the oft-stated policy of the Obama administration has been to provide assistance to "moderate" secular forces within the coalition of rebel groups, the Times reported: "Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of."
While the United States has arranged for shipments of light arms like rifles and grenades to Syria from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, much of the weaponry has ended up in the hands of jihadists. Direct U.S. military aid has been in the form of "non-lethal" assistance such as armored vehicles, body armor, night-vision goggles, and communications equipment. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Senate Republicans have renewed calls for a stronger U.S. role following White House confirmation last week of intelligence reports, "with varying degrees of confidence," of the use of a chemical weapon by the Assad regime against rebel units. The small amounts of sarin found in soil and blood samples were likely loosed by Assad's forces, a White House official said, but the "chain of custody" has not been established. President Obama has said he wants further confirmation, while critics of his Syria policy have been urging him to act now on his previous warnings that use of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a "red line" and bring serious consequences.
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Photo of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): AP Images