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Direct US aid to Syria's rebels: Why now – and is it too late?

The US decision to give direct aid to Syria's rebels (but still no weapons) is too little, too late – unlikely either to speed President Assad’s departure or to boost US influence over the conflict, say many experts.

By Staff writer / February 28, 2013

Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib (r.) speaks as US Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a press conference following an international conference on Syria at Villa Madama, Rome, Thursday.

Riccardo De Luca/AP

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Secretary of State John Kerry said before attending Thursday's conference with Syria’s opposition that the US was bringing to the table a game-changer. Its goal would be to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into “changing his calculations,” he said, and to accelerate a political settlement to a devastating civil war.

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But Secretary Kerry’s announcement that the US would directly supply nonlethal assistance to the opposition didn't bowl anyone over. The precise US contribution: some $60 million to help the more pro-Western factions among Mr. Assad’s opponents provide services to civilians living in Syria’s “liberated” zones, and an unspecified amount for food and medical supplies for rebel fighters.

Opposition leaders, hoping at least for nonlethal military equipment such as vehicles and night-vision goggles if not weapons, went away disappointed. And many experts called the US decision to supply the opposition directly, though still denying any weaponry, “too little too late.” The new aid is unlikely to precipitate Assad’s departure, they say, or to reverse the West’s waning influence over the conflict or Syria’s post-Assad future.

“The US got involved a bit too late. What they’re talking about is not going to change what is going to be a prolonged civil war,” says Abdeslam Maghraoui, a specialist in Islam and politics in the Middle East, at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “I’m not sure this is going to change the attitude of a regime that is already acting more like a big militia among many warring militias than like a [national] government.”

For more than a year, President Obama has resisted demands that the US arm the rebels, citing fears that American weapons would fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists who have joined the fight in Syria. But now the US faces an even bigger worry: that those radical groups, which are the best-armed and among the most successful in fighting Assad, are increasingly winning Syrians’ hearts and minds by providing security and services – much as the Iran-backed Hezbollah has in neighboring Lebanon.

That rising concern is what prompted the US to begin directly funding the political opposition’s work, and to open the door a small crack to assisting the armed opposition.

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