After meeting with Syrian opposition figures in Rome today, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States was sending $60 million in non-lethal aid to the opposition. That assistance, according to Kerry, “will strengthen the organizational capacity of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. It will help war torn communities be able to survive devastating situations with respect to sanitation, food delivery, medical care. It will speed the delivery of basic goods and services including security and education. It will help to initiate discussions with those who are providing for public order and for justice as the transition itself unfolds. And we will help the SNC, Free Syrian Army, and the civilian opposition to feed those in need and tend to the sick and the wounded.”
In other words, the Free Syrian Army is not going to get what it needs most to change, as Kerry puts it, Bashar al-Assad’s “calculation”—guns. Before the meeting, Obama administration officials had let on that the U.S., while still refusing to arm the opposition, was nonetheless going to train rebel units and provide all sorts of materiel, short of weapons, like “vehicles, communications equipment and night vision gear.” Maybe, as a State Department official told me recently, this is an aspect of the more active Syria policy that Kerry is not going to speak of publicly.
Or perhaps it’s yet another example of the administration using the press to hint at vague promises of a forward-leaning Syria policy, and then walking it back in public. When a reporter at the press conference asked Kerry, “can you commit to providing more substantial assistance in the future, such as communications equipment, armored cars, bulletproof vests, night vision goggles, the things of that nature?,” the secretary of state fudged, evading the question. “We are providing some $60 million, the most significant portion of which is going directly to the Syrian opposition to enable it to be able to organize more effectively.”
The key word here, as some media accounts have emphasized, is “direct.” This is the first time in two years that U.S. agencies will be distributing aid directly to the opposition. To date, the United States has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria over the last two years, which raises the question—how has all that U.S. aid been distributed up until now?
As Elliott Abrams notes in a blog post, “The Obama administration, citing legal restrictions on direct funding of the opposition, has funneled $385 million in humanitarian aid through international institutions and nongovernmental organizations, most of which operate under Syrian government supervision.”
Reporting from a refugee camp held by the rebels close to the Turkish border, Steve Negus explains that “the U.N., the organization best equipped to handle such a large-scale relief effort, is legally barred from operating there because the camp is inside Syrian territory.” In the absence of the U.N., it is Syria's Red Crescent, a Damascus-based organization controlled by the Assad regime, that has been responsible for delivering assistance to needy Syrians. In November, a Syrian NGO, the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, estimated that 90-95 percent of all international aid was being seized by the regime.
Some of that U.S. aid has gone to Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, but who knows how much American aid was confiscated by the regime in Damascus? Even a fraction of 95% would offset some of the sanctions the White House has leveled against the regime. Obama officials have scolded Russia and Iran for its continued support of Assad’s killing machine, but it appears that the administration’s ineptitude has effectively left it in the position of having aided the Syrian despot.
Kerry’s press conference in Rome amounts to little more than a tacit admission that finally, after two years, the administration has worked out the bureaucratic kinks. Forget about getting guns to the rebels, the Obama team is just figuring out how to get blankets to Assad’s victims inside Syria.
In the meanwhile, as Tony Badran, fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Nadine Elali report for NOW Lebanon today, Iran is doubling down in the Levant.