Will limited US aid to Syria rebels hasten the end of war, or prolong it?

The US has promised to do a lot more to help Syria's rebellion against the government of Bashar al-Assad, but is stopping well short of the kind of aid that might prove decisive.

Hussein Malla/AP
Free Syrian Army fighters from the Knights of the North brigade move to reconnaissance a Syrian army forces base of al-Karmid, at Jabal al-Zaweya, in Idlib province, Syria, Wednesday.

Henry Kissinger allegedly said of the Iran-Iraq war that raged so bloodily in the 1980s that "it's too bad they both can't lose."

Though that's far from the US position on the Syrian civil war, the tepid support the US has promised for elements of the Syrian opposition in the past couple of days bring Mr. Kissinger's comments to mind. The half-hearted backing will likely lead to an opposition that is harder to defeat, but still lacking the strengh to win the war.

After almost two years of fighting and 70,000 dead, Syria is as polarized a nation as could be imagined. There are strong sectarian overtones to the fighting, with the core of Bashar al-Assad's strength lying in the Alawite minority he hails from, and the oppositions strength lying in the Sunni community that is the country's majority. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party, has taken up arms for the regime while some Lebanese Sunnis, including jihadis, have fought alongside the rebels.

The prospects of major sectarian reprisals if one or the other side wins decisively are high – and allegations of sectarian butchery against both rebels and Mr. Assad's army have already been made with alarming frequency. Further afield, Assad's staunchest backer is Shiite Iran, while its old opponent for regional supremacy, Sunni Saudi Arabia, has been providing arms to the rebellion.

So this does not appear to be a situation where either side is in a mood for the compromises that would be required for a negotiated settlement.

But that appears to be what the US is hoping for by making the rebels stronger, but not too strong. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Rome the US would supply "non-lethal" aid – food, medicine, and possibly things like communications equipment – directly to the Free Syrian Army and a further $60 million to the political wing of the uprising.

Earlier in the week, there were rumors that the US was considering providing military training to rebel units, but those failed to materialize today. On Feb. 25, citing "American and Western officials," The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia began directly arming rebels in December. The Times report said Saudi Arabia was purchasing large quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and other infantry weapons from Croatia, and delivering them to rebels in Syria via Jordan. The Times asserts that the weapons went primarily to secular groups and side-stepped the jihadi militias like Jabhat al-Nusra, which was added to the US terrorist list last year.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia are two of the Arab militaries closest to the US, and relying as they do on US arms (and in the case of Jordan, US aid) it's safe to assume their activities have the tacit approval of the US.

All of this remains far short of the massive intervention by NATO and others in Libya in 2011, in which weapons and trainers flowed to Libyan militias fighting Muammar Qaddafi and NATO airpower paved the way for their march on Tripoli, the capital.

The light weapons and the aid from the US will certainly help the rebels. The blogger Brown Moses, who closely tracks the Syrian civil war, started reporting in mid-January on the growing numbers of weapons from the former Yugoslavia (which Croatia was a part of) turning up in videos from the Syrian battlefield. He's noticed Yugoslav-made rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and grenade launchers.

By early February, James Miller of EAWorldView, another analyst who follows the war intensely, argued the new weapons were having an impact, writing:

Someone – a current player? a new one? – was giving a big boost in weapons to the insurgents.

Since then, the Free Syrian Army has succeeded with a series of surprise attacks, capturing several towns, border crossings, and roads. They then repeled tank convoys, airstrikes, infantry invasions, and even paratroopers...

The weapons are being brought in from outside Syria and put into the hands of Free Syrian Army units, rather than the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra or other factions distrusted by the international coalition supporting the opposition.

Mr. Kerry told reporters after his meetings in Rome that “I am very confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”

But not everyone was convinced.

Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), complained at a joint press conference with Kerry of an "international decision to prevent arming Syrian rebels with quality arms" and said, "Plenty of people focus more on the length of a fighter's beard than on the scope of the regime's massacres."

That's a reference to the fear that jihadis, kissing cousins of Al Qaeda in Iraq that caused so many problems for the US occupation there, are a major component of the fight against Assad, and could come out on top after his eventual defeat. Those are people who, while they may be fighting Assad, the US decidedly does not want to see win.

It appears for now that the Obama team, with Kerry in the lead, is hoping to shift the balance of military power and fear in Syria sufficiently that Assad is convinced to make concessions and that some of his backers abandon him. While Iran, locked in its own nuclear standoff with the US and with few friends in the region beyond Assad's Syria, is unlikely to call off its support, Russia has also been a steadfast supporter of Assad, but has far less to lose if he goes down.

The AP reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a possible shift away from support for Assad today, telling reporters at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, "We should listen to the opinion of our partners on some of the aspects of that difficult problem." France has been a major proponent of removing Assad from power.

Will this war and its truly horrific casualty rate continue to grind on, making all Syrians inevitable losers? Or is the cautious approach of the US, and the Saudis, enough to nudge all this to a faster conclusion? Time will tell – but it has been more than two years so far of false dawns.

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