A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he stands amidst snow during clashes Wednesday with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo. (Medo Halab / AFP)
ISTANBUL — The United States has suspended all non-lethal assistance destined for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces in northern Syria, U.S. officials said Wednesday, citing fears the aid could fall into the hands of al-Qaida linked militants.
A U.S. Embassy official in the Turkish capital, Ankara, said the United States was suspending all military aid such as night vision goggles and communication equipment to the opposition in northern Syria after ultraconservative opposition factions seized control of bases from the main Western-backed group on Friday.
The decision comes amid growing fighting between rival opposition factions, which have found themselves 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.
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
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.
The U.S. Embassy official added that humanitarian assistance such as blankets and food would not be affected.
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 officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publically about the matter.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.