France gives Syria's rebel-held cities aid, other Western powers may follow

The aid to five rebel-held cities in northern Syria aims to repair vital infrastructure such as water supplies. But rebels say the assistance has barely made a dent in their needs.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters
A member of the Free Syrian Army walks near a damaged building in Aleppo on September 2.

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The Syrian opposition has consolidated its hold on a swathe of territory in northern Syria, giving Western powers confidence in knowing who and where the rebels are in order to distribute funds, but the amount of aid provided so far is "laughable," a spokesman for the main Syrian opposition group has said.

France announced this week that it was providing aid and money to five rebel-held cities, mostly to supply and repair infrastructure such as water supplies and schools, so that the rebels can administer themselves, the Associated Press reports. France's allies are considering taking similar steps.

French officials say that their assistance will remain strictly nonmilitary unless there is an international agreement authorizing it.

But locals in rebel-held cities (situated in the provinces of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib, according to Reuters) say that the French assistance has made barely a dent in their needs and that they remain mostly self-sufficient, according to the AP. "The amounts that have been delivered are even laughable," said Ausama Monajed, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, according to a separate AP report.

"Instead of fixing water systems," said Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo activist, "they should go and give food to 5,000 refugees stuck on the border with Turkey."

Britain and the US have also offered nonmilitary aid – $10 million from Britain, $25 million from the US – but it has been distributed carefully, in small amounts, and only after establishing ties with the recipient groups, according to AP. The hesitancy has been criticized by some humanitarian groups.

Peter Harling, of the think tank International Crisis Group, said Syria's opposition, although divided, was more than capable of handling aid. He criticized European and American diplomatic hesitancy as "a tendency to posture, to make statements as opposed to actual policy-making."

Rebels have become adept at taking out the Army's tanks, formerly one of the greatest threats to their forces, according to AP. With tanks becoming a surmountable challenge for the rebels, Assad's forces are increasingly turning to air strikes, likely to spare its infantry, which is thinning because of both casualties and defections.

"The regime knows it will be a fair fight on the ground," Riyad Hamso, a rebel fighter in Aleppo, told Reuters. 

Many rebels believe that if they could stop Army aircraft, they could declare victory in some parts of the country in a matter of days, AP reports.

In the interim, they have turned to targeting Syrian Army air bases in hopes of preventing the planes from even taking off. "We control the ground in Aleppo but the regime has the air force and controls the air," Abdul Qadir Saleh, the field commander of the Tawhid Brigade, said, according to AP. "We will solve this by destroying airports and air bases."

But the attacks on the air bases have so far been largely unsuccessful and deadly for the rebels, AP reports.

So far, every rebel assault on the air bases, which are guarded by tanks, rockets as well as the aircraft themselves, has ended in failure and often with a heavy loss of life. On Aug. 31, the same day al-Mansour's fighters attacked Kuwiras, rebels hit two air bases in neighboring Idlib province, but all ultimately foundered. He did not give any casualty figures.

Capt. Ahmed Ghazali, the head of rebel forces in Azaz, said his forces have repeatedly tried to take the Menagh helicopter field, which squats on the key road between the border and the rebel stronghold of Tel Rifaat. From there, its aircraft have hit rebels across the region.

"There is no cover around these areas and it is very exposed. We can't get close, and they use artillery and jets on us," complained Ghazali, wearing Gulf War-era U.S. surplus camouflage. "With our current means, we can't attack these places."

The rebels' drumbeat for anti-aircraft weapons is ever insistent, but so are international concerns about where those weapons could end up.

Reuters reports that a French official acknowledged the areas it is sending supplies to are still getting bombed, but said that France is confident they will remain free from government control. 

"[Supplying anti-aircraft weapons is] a subject that we are working on seriously, but which has serious and complicated implications. We aren't neglecting it," the French official said.

"It's not simple. There have been transfers of weapons which then ended up in different areas such as in the Sahel so all that means we need to work seriously, build a relationship of trust to see who is who so that then an eventual decision can be taken. It takes time."

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