BEIRUT (AP) — The United States and Britain said Wednesday they were suspending delivery of all non-lethal military aid destined for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces in northern Syria, citing fears the aid could fall into the hands of al-Qaida linked militants.
The decisions were the latest blow for the fractured opposition movement, which has found itself divided into the moderate, Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Islamic extremist groups. The infighting has diminished international confidence in the rebels and undermined the battle against Assad.
A U.S. Embassy official in the Turkish capital, Ankara, said the United States was suspending deliveries of night vision goggles, communication equipment and other military aid to the opposition in northern Syria after ultraconservative opposition factions seized control of FSA bases and warehouses containing some of the aid on Friday. Humanitarian assistance such as blankets and food would not be affected, the official said.
Britain's Foreign Office said it also "will not be making any deliveries of equipment" to the Free Syrian Army while it investigates those attacks. Britain said it intends to resume assistance as soon as conditions on the ground allow for its "safe delivery."
On Friday, fighters from the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of six major rebel groups, seized control of FSA bases at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey, as well as warehouses belonging to the FSA's Supreme Military Council, some containing non-lethal U.S. aid. The SMC is led by Gen. Salim Idris, a secular-minded Western-backed moderate.
Idris and other FSA officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Turkey said it was shutting its side of the border in response. A statement issued by the ministry of customs and trade confirmed the closure Tuesday morning, saying the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa crossing was now in the hands of the Islamic Front.
The Islamic Front is a new alliance of some powerful rebel groups that are independent of the FSA and seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria but insist they are not allied with al-Qaida affiliates like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front.
A Washington-based U.S. official said the suspension of aid only applies to the opposition in northern Syria, adding that supply lines from Jordan in the south would continue.
The official said members of the Islamic Front are not considered to be terrorists, but not exactly moderate. The U.S. fears that segments of the group have been in contact with al-Qaida elements and are sympathetic to them, he added.
Both U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publically about the matter.
Butler reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.