Is Kerry’s Syrian Aid Shift a Game Changer?

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Earlier this week, Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, had no intention of meeting with leaders from the U.S. and Europe at today’s “Friends of Syria” gathering in Rome. It took phone calls from Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden promising concrete proposals for action to persuade him to attend.

Khatib’s reluctance reflects the broader anger Syria’s opposition feels that America has not done enough to help them — a criticism that Kerry hoped to deflect in Rome today when he announced $60 million in non-lethal assistance for the opposition.

The aid marks a shift in U.S. policy. Since the crisis broke out, the U.S. has provided about $385 million in humanitarian aid, channeled mostly through the United Nations rather than directly to opposition groups. Today’s announcement publicly committed for the first time food rations and medical supplies to carefully vetted armed rebels in the Free Syrian Army. The aid will also go towards helping the opposition’s political wing provide education and sanitation services in rebel-controlled areas. But, besides specifying that the U.S. will send technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices to help oversee how the money is spent, there are few details about what the aid could specifically entail or how it will be distributed.

Not included in the package, however, is the Syrian opposition’s biggest demand: lethal assistance for the opposition forces. Ahead of today’s gathering, the leader of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idris, said they needed anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

President Obama has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian rebels out of concern that they could fall into wrong hands, like jihadist groups on the ground. That policy that has left opposition members disappointed.

“We would have wished to receive a means with which to protect the innocent civilians dying from the regime’s warplanes and scud missiles, but unfortunately, that was not even on the table,” Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told the Associated Press about Kerry’s pledge.

Close observers caution that the limited non-lethal assistance has left the opposition doubting the U.S. truly supports the revolution.

“Most of the rebel groups and political opposition ascribe to the rampant conspiracy theory that because the U.S. is not arming the opposition, it is not willing and ready to abandon the Assad regime,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who has interviewed Syrian opposition members exiled in Istanbul and Geneva, as well as rebel fighters and operatives within the country. “It’s set against a background of deep anti-Americanism that has been cultivated for the last 40 years under the Assads, but it’s getting reinforced by every statement a senior U.S. official makes about not arming the rebels.”

Leila Hilal, who studies the Syrian opposition as director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, says humanitarian aid alone will not suffice for the opposition. “What would be convincing to Syrians is if the U.S. engages enough to tip the balance,” she said.

Kerry defended the assistance today, pointing out that “other countries are doing other things,” without offering more details. “I am confident the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”

There are some signs the U.S. is providing indirect support. Senior administration officials said yesterday that a training mission for rebels is under way at a base in the region, though details are scarce. Saudi Arabia also financed a large shipment of weapons for particular rebel groups, a move both Hilal and Slim say probably could not have happened without tacit U.S. support.

“These other quiet, more clandestine efforts that the U.S. has not publicly said it is involved in may go further to reduce anger than Kerry’s announcement of aid,” added Hilal. But both she and Slim also warn that assistance may create more competition for resources on the ground.

“I think aid has the potential of having a dividing element instead of a uniting element,” added Slim, citing problems with delivery and implementation mechanisms on the ground. “The Syrian people are hearing about these pledges of money, but they are not seeing major differences in their lives.”

She says the opposition groups tasked with coordinating aid, like the opposition coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), are receiving training and will improve with time, but offers caution.

“As long as the regime does not lose, it’s winning,” Slim told FRONTLINE. “But the opposition needs to deliver something qualitatively different in people’s lives in order to maintain the support of the population. Time is not on their side.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Syrian National Coalition President Mouaz al-Khatib, after he spoke at a news conference along with Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi after meetings at Villa Madama in Rome on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
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