Syria's rebels have a new villain: the United States

The US has stepped up its rhetoric against President Assad and is providing covert support to rebels. But for many fighting the Assad regime, it is not enough.

By , Staff writer

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    A Syrian government helicopter flies overhead on the first day of a Syrian government military offensive against rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in the rebel held district of Salaheddin in Aleppo, Syria, on July 28. Aleppo has become a critical battleground in the 17-month uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has claimed an estimated 17,000 lives.
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For those challenging the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the list of villains has always included the regime's closest allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah

But as the death toll rises and Syria marks 17 months and counting of revolt, many in the embattled city of Aleppo say they have added another, perhaps surprising, villain: the United States.

The US is an arch-foe of the Syrian regime. US officials have stated plainly and repeatedly that Assad "must" go. And President Barack Obama earlier this year signed a secret order authorizing clandestine aid to rebel forces, it was reported today.

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But in the rebel-held enclave of Salaheddin, guerrilla gunmen and ordinary Syrians alike wonder why the US has not acted to stop the killing by at least ending the Syrian Army's artillery bombardment and imposing a no-fly zone on the helicopters and planes that menace them from the skies. 

"We all believe the US and all Western countries want Assad to stay in power," says the coordinator for the Revolutionary Council in Aleppo, who gave his name as Abu Thaier. 

"I believe that Syrian intelligence up to this moment is cooperating with the CIA," the wizened revolutionary told the Monitor. "The Westerners are afraid of the destiny of Israel; this is what stops them. Assad takes advantage of that, and says, 'These terrorists [rebels] will go to Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and we must crush them.'... Western countries gave up on the Syrian people because they believe most demonstrators are Islamists," he says.

'Petroleum is worth more than Syrian blood'

Syrians under fire from government troops often bring up Washington's perceived neglect when they see an American journalist. 

"We look on Americans as the most important people to look after democracy," says Abu Thaier. "We consider the torch of freedom in New York a torch for all humanity, not just America. We hope that the Statue of Liberty did not yet lose its real meaning."

He brings up Libya and the US-orchestrated NATO intervention last year that was instrumental in ensuring that rag-tag rebels were able to bring down Muammar Qaddafi. The only difference, he asserts, is that Libya has oil, and Syria does not.

"They think petroleum is worth more than Syrian blood," asserts Abu Thaier. "Now if you are living in Western countries, if someone kills 50 or 100 [pet] animals, the response would be more than for Syrians." 

The United Nations puts the death toll in Syria at 17,000, while rebel groups assert that it is closer to 20,000.  

US officials would take issue with that pessimism. Almost a year ago, Mr. Obama stated: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." 

And earlier this year Obama approved an intelligence finding that authorizes the CIA and other US agencies to support the rebels against the regime, Reuters reported today.

Under provisions of the finding, a government source acknowledged to the news agency, the US was "collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies" at Adana, 60 miles from Turkey's southern border with Syria, which also hosts the US air base and intelligence center at Incirlik.

That work was being done with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the Persian Gulf sheikhdom that last year sent special forces troops to eastern Libya to assist anti-Qaddafi rebels. 

"The White House is for now apparently stopping short of arming the rebels directly, even though some US allies are," the agency reported.

Dissatisfaction, even among evidence of US help

Indeed, there is evidence on the ground that weaponry is getting through to this frontline at critical moments of the fight. During three days in Salaheddin, the Monitor witnessed supplies arrive overnight in unmarked gray-painted wooden crates, just hours before Syrian government forces launched a tank assault.

The rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-held launchers in those boxes were among those that stopped a handful of tanks and armored vehicles – and the Syrian advance.

That night – after more than 15 hours of fierce artillery bombardment on the five- and six-story apartment blocks in this rebel-held district – a factory-fresh Dushka-style heavy machine gun arrived with crates of ammunition. 

When asked in recent days what he would tell Assad, the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta replied: "I would say if you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you better get the hell out now."

The timely military support may well have had US help getting to Salaheddin, in some way. But many Syrians in the enclave felt abandoned, acutely aware that Russia and China had vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have reprimanded the regime and imposed sanctions. 

The US knows "how to end it" but does not, says a gynecologist volunteering in a rebel field hospital, named Umm Huda. "In my opinion, they want [Assad] to stay, to protect the borders of Israel. Iran and the US, they do it together. They are enemies, but they are more than friends."

"We see America the same as the Russians and Assad," says Mohamed, a civilian from the neighborhood. 

"Do you believe America does not know who is doing the killing? America has the capability to know everything," he says, voicing a common view. "But every day we listen to Clinton and Obama, who say 'This should stop.' And what do they do? Nothing, nothing. At the beginning of the revolution we asked for a no-fly zone. We believed." 

One rebel fighter shows a text message that appeared on his mobile phone: "... [the] America government would not help us and they will pay heavy price for this."

Another rebel fighter called for the US to provide anti-aircraft weapons. "My heart is burning just to destroy this helicopter," he said, as regime helicopters circled over the district, firing bursts from their heavy machine guns, and occasional rockets.

"Give us Stingers! Give us Javelin!" shouted another rebel.

 "The Syrian people insist now to topple this regime... we will go on with this revolution until they are all gone," says Abu Thaier. "We insist that we respect the American and Western people, and we request they share with us their humanity, as we all share living on this planet."

Scott Peterson left the Salaheddin district of Aleppo late on the afternoon of July 29 after three days in the enclave, when this story was reported. Follow him on Twitter.

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