By Hannah Allam
NEW YORK — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday announced $45 million in additional aid for Syrian opposition activists, the latest U.S. push for influence in a civil war that’s raged beyond the international community’s control.
Clinton announced the new aid package before meeting with visiting Syrian dissidents on the margins of this week’s U.N. General Assembly, where world leaders sounded bleaker than ever about the prospects for a negotiated political resolution to the 18-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.S. humanitarian aid for Syria now will total more than $132 million this year, though Syrian rebels are more interested in weapons and military training than in the American promises of more “nonlethal assistance.” Of the $45 million pledged Friday, $30 million is earmarked for humanitarian assistance and $15 million for radios, training and other technical support for opposition activists.
The U.S. government has refused to directly arm or fund the so-called Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel militias, largely out of fear that the assistance would make its way to Islamist extremist groups that have joined the battle to unseat Assad.
U.S. policy is in a “really tough spot,” said Joseph Holliday, a Washington-based researcher at the Institute for the Study of War who specializes in the Syrian conflict. While the administration’s instincts to withhold direct aid from rebel fighters is understandable, he said, that strategy is backfiring.
“The irony of our fear of supplying Islamist groups is that the others who are arming the opposition – the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks – are doing just that, providing weapons and ammunition to Islamists,” Holliday said. “Our lack of giving support is actually leading to the Islamicization of the opposition.”
Despite the resignation at the U.N. now to a drawn-out, increasingly bloody conflict, the Obama administration remains focused on courting remnants of the peaceful protest movement, whom analysts say don’t enjoy the same street credibility as the armed opposition forces confronting Assad’s military.
The United States is helping to train and organize nonviolent actors in hopes they’ll take the lead in an eventual post-Assad transition, though deep ideological and other divisions have so far prevented the Syrian activists from coalescing into a government-in-waiting, such as the one Libyans formed in the months before the fall of strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Analysts describe the U.S. gamble on one segment of the opposition as part of a continued lack of U.S. strategy for Syria that’s left the administration with no real inroads to either the Assad regime or the rebel militias – the two sides to the civil war that’s already spilling beyond Syria’s borders.
Only recently, analysts say, did the government back off from the Syrian National Council, a collection of exiles and technocrats the U.S. government had tried in vain to whip into a viable transitional body.
“For a long time, we’d said they needed to move past the SNC because they were not the answer. Now they’re trying to identify credible opposition groups that are active on the ground,” Holliday said.
The State Department’s new focus is on more grassroots activists, such as members of municipal and provincial revolutionary councils. In a preview briefing before Friday’s meeting, a senior State Department official told journalists that the opposition delegation would include activists who run field hospitals and supply bakeries.
Providing those kinds of basic services to civilians trapped in open-ended warfare will give the unarmed opposition “a leg up when ultimately the regime goes and is replaced by something else,” said the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol.
“People with guns who don’t know how to have bread baked are quickly going to lose credibility on the street. People with guns who can’t make the lights come back on are going to quickly lose credibility on the street,” the official said.
However, the meeting with the nonviolent activists doesn’t seem to have gone smoothly. After journalists were cleared out, Syrian delegates were each given three minutes to describe the conditions on the ground in Syria and to make requests or recommendations to Clinton and the other high-ranking diplomats.
After that, delegates said, they were summarily asked to leave so that Clinton could speak privately to the assembled foreign ministers – a surprise move that offended the delegates, including some who’d made risky trips out of the war zone for what amounted to a few minutes of face time with the leaders.
The disgruntled Syrians filed out, complaining that the State Department had handpicked the delegation, had excluded them from talks with the foreign ministers, and had failed to move policy to more direct military aid for their cause. Even France and Turkey, delegates said, had become more vocal in calling for humanitarian intervention such as imposing a no-fly zone or creating a safe corridor.
“Unfortunately, expectations are low after this meeting because there’s no shift in the U.S. position on Syria,” said Syrian delegate Radwan Ziadeh, spokesman for the opposition Coalition for a Democratic Syria. “Unfortunately, the White House is waiting until after the (U.S. presidential) election before touching this. We ask for support and training for the Free Syrian Army and they tell us, blah blah blah, nonlethal assistance.”