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Examining the Decision to Provide Humanitarian Aid to Syrian Opposition Forces

February 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The U.S. has volunteered for a new role in the Syria conflict: providing food and medical aid to the opposition. To hear how this new decision may impact the situation, Ray Suarez talks with Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace and Steven Simon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, we turn to two voices.

Steven Heydemann is a senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. He’s worked with the Syrian opposition on the challenges ahead if and when the Assad regime falls. And Steven Simon, formerly a senior director for Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council staff, he’s now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

And, Steven Simon, let me start with you.

Does today’s announcement represent a significant change from that of the first Obama administration and Secretary Clinton?

STEVEN SIMON, International Institute for Strategic Studies: Well, I couldn’t say it’s a huge leap, because it’s consistent with what the administration has been doing already for a year.

The $60 million dollars that Secretary Kerry has said will be allocated to these programs builds on $50 million that was already allocated for similar programs involved in training the opposition — that is, the political opposition — and giving them communications equipment and so forth.

This new step, though, is important because it will build capacity on the part of the local counsels that are now governing areas of Syria that the regime is unlikely to return to. This is in effect the beginning of the post-Assad Syria in places. And it’s essential that those who are governing in those areas and are responsible for the health and welfare of the people living there have the capacity to carry out those tasks and those responsibilities.

And this is what these programs will do.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann, there was a public announcement, a specific dollar figure, a widening of the categories of materiel that is being sent over. Does this look like an evolution to you?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN, U.S. Institute of Peace: I think it looks like a somewhat more important shift than perhaps my colleague Steve Simon suggested.

I wouldn’t go overboard in assessing the scale of the shift. But to the extent that it is now possible for the U.S. to provide support not only to non-lethal actors, but to reach out and engage directly with armed groups, this is a broadening of U.S. engagement that wasn’t possible before this decision was taken by the administration.

We have never previously had the opportunity to work directly with the Supreme Military Council. Now that opportunity exists. And so we have the chance to begin to provide support to the groups that are arguably most important in determining the future of the conflict, and to do so in ways that were not possible under the previous policy.

RAY SUAREZ: But all during the conflict, there’s been worries in the United States and other Western capitals about who exactly the opposition is and what kind of hands the material falls into. Now, you heard Mouaz Al-Khatib sort of lampooning that, saying don’t worry so much about whose theme people are. They’re fighting for the freedom of Syria.

Should this be an American war?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Well, what he also said is that, if you look at the levels of violence and brutality being visited on the Syrian people by the regime, the notion that the groups fighting against the regime might engage in activities that we would find even more disturbing is very, very low.

But keep in mind, we are not going to be providing weapons or other kinds of equipment to the armed opposition that will expand their military capacity. We are providing them with — largely with humanitarian assistance, with body armor, with food supplies, with medical supplies, and with training. So the notion that this kind of support could backfire, I would find very surprising. I think…

RAY SUAREZ: I want to get Steven Simon on that same point.

Should there be worry in Washington about who’s getting what we’re sending and what use they’re putting it to?

STEVEN SIMON: I think the risk is really rather low in this case, in part because the aid is going to groups with which we have already established relationships by virtue of this program that’s been going on for nearly a year and for which $50 million dollars has been spent. 

During this time, U.S. personnel in the region, not inside Syria, have gotten to know a good number of the people who are active in the local councils. And the material is going to go to these known quantities. And the risk that it will go to jihadist groups, it seems to me, to be quite limited.

RAY SUAREZ: If, Steven Simon, the United States had intervened earlier in the conflict, would the set of choices facing American policy-makers have been broader? Would the United States have had more room for maneuver?

STEVEN SIMON: You know, I think it’s a very difficult question to answer. This is going to be and already is a long and grinding conflict.

It’s quite likely we’re at the beginning of it in relative terms. So whether in that context the U.S. would have taken the step it’s taken now six months ago, whether that would have had some kind of significant effect on the course of events thus far, I think is just not plausible.

I think we’re in for a really long haul, which is why the program that Secretary Kerry announced today is important, because it’s building the capacity of the opposition to sustain itself and tend to the care and feeding of the Syrian people during this very long, drawn-out period, where we’re going to see some pretty awful things, I would imagine.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: I tend to take a somewhat different view.

The relationships that we’re so concerned about between militant Islamists inside of Syria and their equally militant sponsors outside the country originated in part because there were no alternative sources of supply for armed groups in Syria. They became important on the ground because the groups that we might have preferred to see emerge as the leading forces in the fight against the regime didn’t have the kind of backing or sponsorship that went to those militant Islamist groups.

And the possibility does exist that if we had played a more active role earlier on in providing alternative channels of support, the influence and capacity that we now see concentrated in the hands of Islamist actors could have been diluted, and some of that could have shifted to groups that we’re more comfortable with.

RAY SUAREZ: So, very briefly, before we go, given what you just said, is it too late to make much of a difference on the outcome, getting in now?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: If we keep in mind that for many groups, their association with radical Islamist sponsors is largely instrumental, they do it because that — those are the people who have the funding and the weapons, being able to provide alternatives I think could still draw those groups toward more moderate perspectives and could persuade them to align themselves with different sponsors than the ones they rely on right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Heydemann, Steven Simon, thank you both.