Barak Barfi is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. He recently returned from Aleppo. Barak writes often for publications including The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic, and is a regular guest on CNN, Fox News Channel, France 24 and other international networks. He is based between the U.S. and the Middle East.
New Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the United States will provide aid to the rebel-led Free Syrian Army heralds Washington’s official entrance into a conflict that has already cost more than 60,000 lives. For more than a year, the administration’s critics have castigated its refusal to arm the organization or provide anything more than what they say amounts to sideline cheering for an opposition bent on toppling President Bashar al-Assad.
Yet for all its pomp, Kerry’s decision does little to change this position. And Washington’s largesse might be a case of ‘too little, too late’ to affect the outcome on a battlefield increasingly dominated by jihadists whose ideology stands for everything Western values oppose.
Washington has billed its $60 million aid promise as non-lethal assistance to the FSA. But according to a senior State Department official who explained the support package in a background briefing, part of the money will go to the National Coalition, the rebels’ political umbrella organization, whose chief role is to interface with Western nations.
Washington hopes that pumping dollars into opposition-held territories will help the council win over a population so exhausted by war it no longer knows who to support. But in rebel-held areas where electricity is a luxury, few can power their television sets to glimpse leaders they never knew before the revolution. As a result, it is difficult to find Syrians who know much about the Coalition, and even more difficult to find those who can name its members.
Aid earmarked for the FSA will not do much to shift the fight in its favor. Washington is only offering the organization military rations and medical supplies, items Syrian activists can procure without the help of the world’s only superpower. And while America will limit its assistance to logistical provisions, allies such as England are preparing to offer vital goods ranging from vehicles to armored vests.
Washington is hoping that its financial assistance will persuade remaining Assad supporters to ‘peel away from him and will change their calculation,’ according to the senior State Department official. But the paltry aid package will do little to sway fence–sitters, let alone Assad’s die-hard supporters. Uncle Sam’s bag of goodies is simply too small to placate anyone beyond its Syrian amen corner.
Washington’s aid is bound to disappoint FSA leaders who were hoping for a significant arms package. Their chief dilemma is the regime’s supremacy in air combat. By controlling the skies, Assad can re-supply isolated bases in provinces such as Aleppo and Idlib that are essentially islands in a sea of rebel-held territory. Providing the FSA with surface to air missiles (SAMs) would allow them to bring down the regime fighter jets and helicopters that bombard them daily. This would change the government’s calculations, forcing it to relinquish a number of these remote bases and thus accelerating the FSA’s advances.
Changing Assad’s calculations rather than overthrowing him is Washington’s policy, according to Secretary of State Kerry. In several interviews this week he has said that the purpose of the new American aid is to persuade Assad to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. But with no teeth to Washington’s threats, he has little incentive to do so.
America’s restrained Syria policy should come as no surprise. An administration that considered its predecessor’ regime change doctrine anathema has little appetite for a turn of its own. Instead, it has focused on winding down the wars against Muslim states in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wading into another conflict in Syria is something the administration wants to avoid at all costs. For this reason it is unlikely to increase its level of involvement to the point necessary to convince Asad that he must negotiate.
Washington’s tepid involvement in Syria has created openings for other players to exploit the vacuum to their advantage. Jihadists from neighboring countries have poured into Syria. Homegrown Islamists with strict moral codes have gained power. As they increase their profile, the influence of secularist brigades willing to work with Western powers has diminished.
One organization that has garnered much attention is Jabhat al-Nusra, a group spawned from al-Qaeda in Iraq. The faction has won over Syrians with its courageous fighting, squeaky clean image, and commitment to helping civilians in need. Today, as Syrians complain of a corrupt FSA pilfering cars and grain, they beam with affection for Jabhat al-Nusra’s dedication to the cause.
Washington’s aid package will do little to change this sentiment. If it wants Syrians to abandon the jihadists, it must provide the FSA with the weapons it needs to turn the tide in its favor on the battlefield. Otherwise, conferences like the one held in Rome will be mere photo-ops with no significant achievement.