US considering direct military aid and funding for Syrian rebels
AnalysisWashington believes strengthening the opposition may speed an accord with Assad
The Obama administration is deliberating a publicly pro- claimed policy shift with the aim of ending the military stalemate in the Syrian civil war between the army and rebel forces. While declaring a preference for a “peaceful resolution” of the conflict, the US apparently believes that strengthening the rebels to give them a tactical advantage could compel President Bashar al-Assad to agree to opposition terms for a settlement.
While the Syrian government has said it is prepared to talk to the political and armed opposition, the Syrian National Coalition has ruled out dialogue with Assad.
Secretary of state John Kerry met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who is pressing Assad to opt for negotiations, and will hold discussions today in Rome with opposition leaders and allies.
The shift may, however, be cosmetic rather than substantive due to US concerns that weapons provided to the Free Syrian Army and non-fundamentalist rebel formations could fall into the hands of jihadis linked to al-Qaeda, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a “terrorist” organisation by Washington.
It is, reportedly, prepared to expand the range of “non- lethal” equipment it has been supplying to rebel forces to include armoured vehicles, flak-jackets, binoculars, night-vision goggles and communications items. Military training and logistics aid is likely to be boosted.
The US has been, indirectly, providing communications equipment and medical aid to the rebels for more than a year, and US troops have been deployed in Turkey and Jordan to train rebel fighters.
Washington could also decide to deliver humanitarian assistance directly to the opposition National Coalition headed by Moaz al-Khatib. Until now, the US has delivered $385 million in aid through the UN and non-governmental organisations.
The object of funnelling funds through the coalition would be to build up its administrative capabilities and boost its credibility in Syria.
Sleight of hand
The administration’s reluctance to expose creeping US involvement in the Syrian conflict involves both concealment and sleight of hand. Very little has been said about the Istanbul office which co-ordinates allied operations in Syria and vets recipients of weapons, or about the roles of US central intelligence agents and forces.
Meanwhile, Washington has tipped the wink to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to boost the supply of weapons. A large shipment originating in Croatia is said to have been delivered in January to non-jihadi groups, enabling rebels to make strategic advances.
In spite of declared US opposition to arming Jabhat al- Nusra, which has led the attacks in many of the operations securing these gains, the group has clearly benefited from arms transfers. An EU embargo on the provision of arms to Syria is to be renewed for three months despite British and French wishes.