To help remedy that, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday announced an additional $15 million in communications equipment to enhance cooperation among Syria’s opposition players – from rebel fighters to the new “revolutionary councils" popping up to administer local services in liberated zones.
Secretary Clinton unveiled the new aid package at a New York meeting of countries working with the Syrian opposition. And she used the meeting to call attention to the threat she said Iran poses with its deepening involvement in the Syrian civil war.
“Let’s be very frank here,” Clinton said. “The [Bashar al-Assad] regime’s most important lifeline is Iran.”
Adding that “there is no longer any doubt that Tehran will do whatever it takes to protect its proxy and crony in Damascus,” she urged Syria’s neighbors to take the necessary precautions to stop Iran from smuggling weapons and materiel into Syria through their air space or territory.
Clinton also announced $30 million in additional humanitarian aid for Syria’s beleaguered civilian population. Experts estimate that as many as 1.5 million Syrians may now be internally displaced, while soon as many as 700,000 will have left the country.
Friday’s meeting underscored how the major Western powers supporting the Syrian opposition continue to limit their aid to nonlethal military and humanitarian assistance, as well as some advisory help for civilians. By contrast, Iran and other outside players supporting President Assad are supplying him with arms and even boots on the ground.
Recently, commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps bragged that they are on the ground in Syria, and US intelligence officials say Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite Muslim extremist organization is also operating inside Syria on Assad’s behalf, though it is not thought to be carrying out military operations there.
Some critics of the Obama administration say the US should be providing more than just communications equipment, and that what the rebels really need is anti-aircraft weaponry to deter Assad’s aerial bombardments.
Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut both advocate arming the rebels. The two senators also agree with critics who worry that the US risks losing influence with the forces that may eventually govern Syria.
The meeting Clinton hosted on the sidelines of the United Nations sessions this week involved a core group of about two dozen countries from the larger Friends of Syria organization. On the Syrian side, the meeting involved representatives from the Syrian National Council, the expatriate opposition organization, and also some representatives of the revolutionary councils.
The gathering took place as fighting raged in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where rebel forces launched a new offensive against the Syrian Army. In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that new intelligence suggests that the Assad regime has recently moved some of its chemical weapons. All indications were that the moves were done to secure the materials, and that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons remain safe and under control, he said.
The meeting reflected efforts to solidify gains rebels have made. Officials in attendance acknowledge that Assad is unlikely to fall “tomorrow,” but they insist that his loss of territory – as well as other signs – mean the end is approaching. As a result, these countries are focusing on preparing Syrians for “the day after.”
“The regime still has some strengths, but it is slipping and the trend is clear,” says a senior French official. Assad “is losing control of the ground step by step.”
The French have advocated creation of a provisional government, but “there is still a lot to do before we have a better-coordinated opposition,” the senior French official says. “But it does seem that at some point we need something for the Syrians and the international community to see” – and to show that there will be a better alternative to Assad.
On Friday, Clinton acknowledged that Syria’s situation has only worsened in 18 months of fighting, but she said the path for delivering a better future is clear.
“Conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate as the Assad regime relentlessly wages war on its own people,” Clinton said. The answer, she said, is that “the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin.”