The Obama administration today moved to bolster Syria’s opposition with a commitment of $45 million in non-lethal and humanitarian assistance, but the aid may not be enough to stop a backlash against the U.S., a prominent senator warned.
The announcement coincided with reports that Assad’s sister has left for the United Arab Emirates in what one analyst calls a further “blow to the regime.”
The U.S. would contribute $15 million in non-lethal— mostly communications – equipment as well as $30 million in humanitarian assistance to aid refugees and other victims of the violence, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
She welcomed signs of stronger coordination between rebel groups within the notoriously factional opposition.
‘‘It is encouraging to see some progress toward greater opposition unity, but we all know there is more work to be done,’’ Clinton said. ‘‘We are working to help them strengthen their networks, avoid regime persecution and document human rights abuses.”
The boost in assistance is at least partly a response to growing concerns that the West’s failure to assist democratic forces within the opposition is contributing to the growing influence of radical Islamists and raising the risk of sectarian conflict.
“We know the regime will do everything it can to pit communities against each other and that extremists will be eager to exploit tensions and impose their own brutal ideology,” Clinton said. “So the opposition and civil society will have to be especially vigilant against this threat and reassure minorities they will be safe in a post-Assad Syria.
AP reports: The new U.S. humanitarian assistance — which brings America’s total humanitarian contribution to more than $130 million since the crisis began — will include food, water, blankets and medical services to victims of the violence. U.S. officials said on Thursday that an earlier shipment of medical goods provided by USAID had just arrived in southern Syria. The officials would not provide details of how the aid made it into Syrian territory.
The additional non-lethal support brings the total U.S. contribution in that area to nearly $40 million since the crisis began and includes 1,100 sets of communications equipment, including satellite-linked computers, telephones and cameras and training for more than 1,000 activists, students and independent journalists.
‘‘Conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate as the Assad regime relentlessly wages war on its own people,’’ Clinton said.
The opposition may also be buoyed by reports that Assad’s sister has left for the United Arab Emirates:
It is unclear if Bushra al-Assad’s brother has approved her trip and sources told the Financial Times the trip is not a defection but an attempt to protect her children after the assassination of her husband in July.
Even if it is not a defection, her departure will be a blow to the regime, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
“You can’t overestimate how much Syria is run by an extremely narrow group of people who are all intermarried – this is a family business at heart, it’s about traditional loyalties,” said Landis. “When you have a family member like Bushra leave the country, it’s a vote of no-confidence.”
But the boost in U.S. aid may not be sufficient to ensure a ‘democracy divided” for the U.S. in a post-Assad Syria, warned Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who met opposition leaders in Turkey earlier this month.
“The overall feeling is of deep disappointment and increasing anger at the United States among the opposition forces,” Lieberman told The Cable’s Josh Rogin, noting that the rebels are struggling to understand why they aren’t receiving more American help. “They know they are getting some help from the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks. They see a little more from us, but not anywhere near what they need,” he said.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) met with senior leaders of Free Syrian Army branches during a recent trip to Istanbul.
Following a meeting of the Friends of Syria group, the Arab League’s Secretary-General called for a Security Council resolution to endorse the Geneva declaration – agreed by both Russia and the West – that calls for a political transition.
“What is important is that Geneva…agreed that we should start a transitional period, from the present regime to another regime so that Syrian people’s rights will be met,” said Nabil El-Araby. “If we are truly friends of Syrian people we will take steps to save the whole region from an expanded civil war, and causalities of massive proportions.”
Despite the new assistance package for the opposition, the Obama administration remains adamantly opposed to more active intervention, says a leading analyst. “Russia and China are blamed – and rightly so – for blocking UN measures to halt the murderous repression of Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” writes the FT’s Philip Stephens:
Diplomats, however, report that none is as determined as the US administration to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The message delivered to Europeans by their US counterparts is that the US does not have sufficient strategic interest to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war. The representative of one close ally of the US has been heard to remark that if Moscow really wanted to discomfit Washington it would lift its veto on international action.
“As more parts of Syria’s control slip from the regime to the opposition, we’re supporting civilian opposition groups as they begin providing essential services – reopening schools, rebuilding homes, and the other necessities of life,” said Clinton:
Dedicated civil servants are working to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state while freeing them from the regime’s corrupt influence. In these places, we are seeing the emergence of a free Syria, and the United States is directing our efforts to support those brave Syrians who are laying the groundwork for a democratic transition from the ground up.
A growing chorus of voices, including Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN, and former State Department policy planner Anne-Marie Slaughter, has called on the administration to provide not only nonlethal technical assistance, but to arm Syria’s pro-democratic opposition in order to counter extremists.
Khalizad and Slaughter are both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy.