Lost in the news coverage over the jihadist massacres in Paris is that just five months ago, the country’s president, Francois Hollande, publicly admitted France delivered weapons to Islamic rebels targeting the secular regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While Hollande indicated the weapons were delivered to moderate rebel forces, the insurgency against Assad is largely led by Islamic extremists who far outnumber the moderates. Most analyses suggest it is those extremists who would gain the most from the toppling of the Syrian leader.
On Aug. 21, Hollande confirmed to reporters the weapons deliveries took place “a few months ago, when the Syrian rebels had to face both the armies of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and this terrorist group Islamic State.”
“We cannot leave the only Syrians who are preparing a democracy … without weapons,” he added.
Hollande stated what is happening in Syria is “terrible”: “On one side, the state of Bashar al-Assad, which continues to crush and massacre, (on the other) Islamic State, and, in the middle, those who were supposed to lay the ground for the future, caught in a pincer movement.”
“So we should not stop the support that we have given to these rebels who are the only ones to take part in the democratic process,” said the French president.
Hollande did not specify which group or groups received the French weapons. It is clear he was speaking about forces opposed to both Assad and the Islamic State.
The Islamic State, however, together with a witch’s brew of extremist groups, like the al-Nusra front, are leading much of drive to take over territory in Syria.
Furthermore, the extremist groups have a history of capturing weaponry from the mode moderate Syrian fighting forces.
In November there were reports U.S.-backed fighters in Syria’s Jabal al-Zawiya surrendered to al-Nusra and swore allegiance to the Islamic extremist group allied with al-Qaida.
“Some of the rebels swore allegiance to al-Nusra, others fled,” reported the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, or SOHR, referring to the U.S.-backed groups the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm.
The International Business Times reported that after the al-Nusra victory, “Twitter accounts linked to the Islamist group claimed that U.S. weapons were among the stockpiles confiscated by the group.”
Two brothers, Said, 34, and Cherif Kouachi, 32, were helped to lead the Paris attacks before being killed in a shootout with police.
Before they died, one of the brothers told a reporter from the French news network BFM, “We are just telling you that we are the defenders of Prophet Mohammed. I was sent, me, Cherif Kouachi, by al-Qaeda in Yemen. I went there, and Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki financed my trip … before he was killed.”
One of the suspects reportedly trained with al-Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen and was arrested by French authorities in 2005 when he was planning to leave to fight alongside rebels in Iraq.
There is a Syria connection to the Paris massacres. French authorities say they believe Hayat Boumeddiene, the girlfriend of another gunman killed when the police raided a hostage attempt at a kosher store on Friday, departed France and has reached Syria.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.