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.

Riccardo De Luca/AP
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.

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.

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.

Kerry, speaking Thursday at the close of a Friends of Syria conference in Rome that drew Western and Arab nations and Syrian opposition leaders, said the new tack in US assistance reflected Mr. Obama’s understanding of the “high stakes” in Syria and the need to offer more robust support to the forces fighting for a secure, democratic, and pluralistic Syria.

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry described the new US funding to Syria’s opposition coalition as a “demonstration project” that would show civilians there what a better Syria could look like, with services provided under democratic governance. US officials acknowledge that the new assistance is aimed not just at further weakening Assad, but also at heading off the most radical Islamist groups that are already drawing civilian support by providing food and services.  

To skeptics who might dismiss the effects of $60 million for governance-building and services, and food and medicine for fighters, Kerry said it signified a “significant stepping-up” of Obama’s Syria policy. It is important to see the US effort as just part of an expanded Western effort, he added.

“What the president has announced and what we’re doing today is part of a whole,” Kerry said, “and I am very confident that that whole is going to have the ability for President Assad to realize he better start measuring more effectively what his future is, what his choices are, and what kinds of weapons he uses.”

That “whole” Kerry referred to includes the French and British, who have pledged to respond to the easing March 1 of a European Union arms embargo on Syria by coming up with their own packages of nonlethal military aid to the rebels. That could include supplies the rebels had hoped to get from the US, such as bullet-proof vests, armored vehicles, and night-vision equipment.

Appearing publicly with Syrian Opposition Council Chairman Moaz al-Khatib after their meeting, Kerry said he had taken note of the opposition’s needs and would take those back to Washington for further consideration. Other US officials said privately that the US is proceeding with a small training mission for the rebels outside of Syria, but they declined to provide details.

Still, what the US deems a “significant stepping-up” of international support for Syria’s pro-democratic – and pro-Western – opposition is unlikely to move the needle much, either in terms of Assad’s prospects or of what kind of Syria emerges once he leaves power, analysts say.  

The US and the West lost their opportunity at the beginning of the uprising against Assad to help bring about a secular and broadly pluralistic Syrian government, says Dr. Maghraoui of Duke University. The best to hope for now, he adds, is something akin to Egypt governed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This is no longer the Arab Spring. What results from all of this in Syria is not going to be a secular government,” he says. “If the Muslim Brotherhood [in Syria] is willing to work with some of the secular groups, that is going to be about the best outcome.”

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