(CNSNews.com) -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Monday that as president he would work to identify, organize and arm members of the Syrian opposition "who share our values."
According to the State Department, some Sunni Muslim forces opposing the Syrian regime of Bashar-al-Assad are al-Qaeda terrorists.
"In Syria, I'll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values, and then ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks and helicopters and fighter jets," Romney said in a major foreign policy address in Virginia.
“Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them,” he said. “We should be working no less vigorously through our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran rather than sitting on the sidelines."
"It's essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East," Romney said.
Both Romney and President Barack Obama have expressed support for the revolt in Syria, while State Department officials have repeatedly indicated that some elements of al-Qaeda are now in Syria.
“Terrorists gravitate to areas of instability and strife, and, as everyone has seen in the press, there have been many accounts of al-Qaeda-related operatives being in Syria,” Amb. Daniel Benjamin said at a July 31 briefing on the 2011 Country Reports on Terrorism. “There's no doubt that there are some.”
Benjamin, who also serves as the coordinator for the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, further explained that “hatred of Sunni extremist groups for the Assad regime is nothing new.” Al-Qaeda's leaders are Sunni Muslims.
"We believe that the number of al-Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small,” Benjamin said.
"So long as Assad refuses to go and Syria's transition is blocked, the danger grows of more foreign fighters, including extremists of the al-Qaeda type, infiltrating Syria," Benjamin said on July 31, noting that the State Department has warned Syrian opposition groups against “allowing such fighters to infiltrate their organization.”
In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she didn't know who would be armed if the Obama administration decided to intervene in Syria.
“Well, first of all, we really don't know who it is that would be armed,” Clinton told CBS News in February.
“We know al-Qaeda, Zawahiri is supporting opposition in Syria," Clinton said. "Are we supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?"
But in September, Clinton said the U.S. was supporting “civilian opposition groups” in Syria. Support included providing $30 million to provide food, water, blankets, and medical services “based on need, regardless of political affiliation.”
Clinton also announced giving $15 million to support Syrian civilian opposition groups, which she noted raises the total funds given to such groups to $45 million.
“That translates into more than 1,100 sets of communications equipment -- as well as training for more than 1,000 activists, students, and independent journalists,” Clinton said.
She also noted that the U.S. is “ratcheting up pressure on the Assad regime” and “deepening its isolation.”