US military aid to Syria rebels: why Obama is seeking it now

The $500 million Obama is requesting to train and arm Syrian rebels, the first direct US military aid in the three-year civil war, is part of a counterterrorism initiative and not directed against the Assad regime.

Badi Khlif/Reuters
Rebel fighters sit at a back of a truck in the town of Morek in Hama province on Wednesday.

The $500 million President Obama is requesting from Congress for the training and arming of Syrian rebels has nothing to do with turning the tide against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, the funding, which would be the first direct US military assistance in the three-year-old civil war and would not be available for months, aims to help Syria’s moderate armed opposition hold on – especially against entrenched Islamist extremist insurgents who in recent weeks have expanded their territorial hold across the border to large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

The defensive nature of the new military assistance was highlighted in a White House statement Thursday, in which the administration makes clear the training and arming is not intended to generate more fighting and violence in the Syrian conflict, but rather to allow the moderate opposition to secure and hold on to the parts of the country it still controls.

“While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks [and] push back against the growing number of extremists … who find safe haven in the chaos,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

The military assistance is also intended to allow Syrians to “take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels,” she added.

The half-billion dollars in aid to Syria’s rebels is part of a White House effort to put meat on the bones of a new counterterrorism initiative Mr. Obama announced last month in a speech at West Point Military Academy. Under the president’s plan, the US would earmark $5 billion to help countries facing an increased extremist threat train security forces to take on militants, and to enhance development programs to reduce the extremists’ attraction.

Called the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, the new program would target US partners from Africa’s Sahel region and across the Middle East to South Asia.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday with the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, who lauded the $500 million in new US assistance as a “very important” signal to the opposition of what he hoped would be “greater cooperation with the US.”      

But the assistance, which Obama says will go to “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition, is being criticized by supporters of more robust US intervention in Syria as too little, too late, and unlikely to make any real difference in the stalemated conflict.

“Do they want to reverse the momentum on the battlefield or do they want the status quo?” said Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, questioning the effectiveness of the military assistance as envisioned by the administration. Mr. McCain, who has advocated US military intervention in Syria since shortly after the conflict expanded beyond street protests in 2011, said no amount of money will matter without a plan to shift momentum to the moderate opposition.

“There is no strategy,” he said.

Even some opponents of deeper US involvement in Syria are critical of the new assistance because it is inconsistent with what the US is trying to do in Iraq. Obama has dispatched several hundred military advisers to help Iraqi security forces battle Sunni insurgents, including elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) who have swept in from Syria.

Those critics say it makes little sense for the US to train and arm rebels fighting the government in one country (Syria) while sending military advisers right next door (Iraq) to help prop up a government that disdains its opposition.  

Even if approved by Congress, the military assistance – part of a much larger request for Pentagon overseas operations – won’t reach Syria for months at best, administration officials say. Rebel groups will have to be vetted to ensure that arms don’t slip into the hands of extremists – a key administration worry – and the administration still has to determine what types of arms it plans to provide.

One place to start would be the Syrian rebels currently receiving training from the CIA in Jordan. Rebel groups vetted under that program have already received “nonlethal” aid from the US such as communications equipment, food and medical supplies, and vehicles.

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