WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in the two-year push to topple President Bashar Assad, the United States said Thursday that it will send food and medicine directly to armed Syrian rebels.
But the announcement fell far short of rebel calls for anti-aircraft missiles and the imposition of a no-fly zone, and it left many members of the opposition dissatisfied.
Even a European agreement to amend its arms embargo to allow rebels access to non-lethal military equipment and armored vehicles on condition that they be used only to protect civilians failed to calm their anger.
“Unfortunately, as always, the West’s promises are smaller than its actions,” said Samir Nashar, a businessman from Aleppo and a founding member of the Syrian Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, the umbrella group set up last year at the United States’ behest.
“How will armored cars protect us from Scud missiles and barrel bombs?” Nashar asked. “The U.S. said it would provide food and medicine to the revolutionaries by plane. We always hear words and no actions. I think it’s a policy aimed to manage the crisis, not to help the Free Syrian Army on the ground.”
Speaking in Rome, where U.S. allies met with Syrian opposition leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. support should not be taken in isolation.
“Different countries are choosing to do different things, and we make this evaluation based on the whole,” Kerry said. “I am absolutely 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.”
Kerry said the new U.S. aid would go to the Supreme Military Command, the armed wing of the opposition coalition. Separate from the rebels’ aid, Kerry said, the coalition would receive $60 million in direct U.S. assistance in an attempt to help the group organize itself and appoint a transitional government-in-waiting.
The meeting included foreign ministers from Turkey, France, Germany, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. None of those other nations announced specific new plans to assist the anti-Assad opposition, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already believed to be providing weapons and ammunition.
So far, that’s been a difficult task as members fight over their competing visions of a post-Assad Syria. Despite the pledge of aid, the coalition canceled a meeting to select a new government that had been set for Saturday. There was no explanation for the cancelation.
The U.S. decision to supply the rebels with nonlethal aid moves its policy a notch beyond the Obama administration’s longtime stance of backing only the political and nonviolent opposition. But it is unlikely to bring a quick end to the conflict, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives since it began in March 2011.
“It will not be a game-changer,” Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab British Understanding, wrote in a blog posting analyzing the announcement. “Another six months of this conflict (and) we may be looking at 150,000 casualties and a million and a half refugees, and there is still no international plan to end the crisis.”
Of particular concern, Doyle said, is the possibility that lethal aid provided to the rebels will end up in the hands of the Nusra Front, a rebel faction that the U.S. State Department has said is really a part of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Officials in Russia, which along with Iran is one of the Assad regime’s last supporters, decried the U.S. announcement as “a wink and a nod” to nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to deliver arms.
One Russian official called it “very unfortunate” in that it detracts attention from pushing regime and opposition representatives into talks for a negotiated transition.
“The U.S. for a number of reasons chooses not to sully its hands with direct supply of weapons to the armed groups, because among them are terrorists and others with whom the U.S. would prefer not to be associated,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s United Nations envoy, told Russia Today, a government-aligned news agency.
American officials said that recipients of U.S. aid would be vetted by the Supreme Military Command, a 30-member body that ostensibly coordinates regional military councils in each of Syria’s 14 provinces. The council is based in Bab al-Hawa, just inside Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
The command is led by a defected Syrian general, Salim Idriss, whose actual influence over the fighting groups is unknown, as they are often amorphous, have disparate ideologies and come from different parts of the country. The command includes 11 former Syrian military officers and 19 civilian leaders.
Until recently, the command received virtually no support from outside backers, despite U.S. help in its formation. Members from across the country complained of being quickly outgunned by rebel groups that received direct backing from private donors and Gulf Arab states.
Islamist fighting groups such as the Nusra Front have no allegiance to the Supreme Military Command. But it coordinates on the battlefield with groups that do.
Many foreign aid donations, wheat and flour in particular, also end up being distributed by rebel groups that aren’t aligned with the military councils. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that operates across northern and central Syria, hands out humanitarian aid from IHH, a nonprofit group with strong ties to the Turkish government.
International humanitarian agencies with operations inside Syria and among refugees in neighboring countries were collectively relieved at the U.S. decision to give money directly to the opposition coalition for its own projects on sanitation, education and other areas where improvements could broaden popular support for the disorganized group.
Aid groups had feared that the Obama administration might cave to pressure from Congress to turn over the delivery of humanitarian aid to the opposition coalition. They argued it would have been an affront to the traditional neutrality of humanitarian aid and that the coalition didn’t have the resources to distribute the goods efficiently.
Sharon Waxman, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, which operates inside the country via Syrian partners, said she applauds the administration for finding a way to bolster the Syrian opposition without diverting funds and projects that are typically administered by established, experienced organizations.
“It’s a separate pot of money,” Waxman said. “It’s not coming from the traditional humanitarian parts of the budget.”
McClatchy special correspondent Enders reported from Kfar Nbouda, Syria. Special correspondent Paul Raymond contributed from Istanbul.