A month after U.S. pledged more help, Syrian rebels in worse shape

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 12, 2013 

— A month after the Obama administration pledged stepped-up support for Syria’s armed opposition, the government of President Bashar Assad’s position has improved, with U.S. assistance to the rebels apparently stalled and deadly rifts opening among the forces battling to topple the Assad regime.

Government forces appear close to forcing rebels from the key city of Homs after a 10-day offensive, while an al Qaida-linked rebel group on Thursday assassinated a top commander from the more moderate, Western-backed Supreme Military Council, signaling what one British newspaper dubbed a “civil war within a civil war.”

And that’s only some of the recent setbacks for the Syrian opposition’s two-track struggle toward improved fighting capabilities and greater political legitimacy.

In the United States, political and logistical snags are preventing the distribution of promised military aid, while in Turkey, the exiled civilian Syrian Opposition Coalition remains mired in organizational turmoil.

The coalition’s prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, a naturalized American citizen, resigned his post, days after the group elected a new chairman, Ahmed Assi al Jarba. Hitto and Jarba represent different factions in the organization, one backed by Qatar, the other by Saudi Arabia, with Jarba’s election representing a Saudi victory.

Jarba’s ascendency is also a defeat for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has dominated the exile opposition for years.

The biggest reversals, however, came inside Syria, where areas once solidly under rebel control have begun to slip away. That has cut into the opposition’s ability to provide aid to hungry, besieged communities – a key part of a strategy to prove it could govern Syria, should Assad fall.

“The desperation is spreading. It’s becoming an issue in all the areas in which we operate,” said an official with the Assistance Coordination Unit, the Turkey-based opposition office that’s a clearinghouse for foreign aid.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities surrounding foreign aid, said plans are under way for the United States to release $500,000 immediately to help with emergency food baskets, mainly destined for Homs. The unit estimates that 1.6 million food baskets are needed each month throughout Syria; just 150,000 or so are currently being provided, the official said.

But the unit is having growing difficulties in delivering the food baskets. In one rebel-controlled area in the countryside outside Aleppo, the official said, hungry residents have created a “blockade” to prevent the aid from reaching regime-held districts, arguing that opposition supporters should be the priority when it comes to food.

At another site in Aleppo, the official said, hard-line Islamist fighters seized the food at a warehouse before it could be distributed.

“They seized it and arrested all the members of the local council,” the official said.

Meanwhile, increased military assistance that the Obama administration promised in mid-June after it determined that the Assad government had used chemical weapons has stalled because Congress is divided over whether and how to arm the rebels.

That program was to be handled by the CIA, but Congress’ intelligence committees have yet to approve the program. On Friday, members’ offices declined to discuss the program.

A review of recent statements by members of both the House and the Senate committees found a mix of opinions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last month that he would’ve favored sending weapons long ago to ensure that vetted, moderate rebels were “the best armed, best equipped and best trained,” while the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., last month seemed to favor United Nations action over U.S. action, calling on the Security Council to “finally take strong and meaningful action to end this crisis in Syria.”

In the House of Representatives, tea party members have joined forces with some Democrats to introduce legislation that would forbid the Obama administration from sending arms to Syria without the approval of Congress. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., said sending weapons to the opposition would be tantamount to “arming and aiding extremist groups who seek to defeat us and our way of life.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined Friday to comment on the status of the aid programs. She said only that the administration had “taken steps” on that front, and that the U.S. was concerned about the Syrian military’s sieges on Homs and other areas.

One surprising development is that in spite of the government’s offensive in Homs, the number of deaths being reported has declined.

In a series of reports on the conflict there, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group that tracks casualties among rebels and civilians, chronicled a 23 percent decline in overall casualties from May to June, from 3,379 deaths to 2,588. That decline is continuing in July, with the human rights network reporting 751 deaths in the first 11 days of the month, vs. more than 870 in the first 11 days of June.

The drop in strictly civilian casualties was even greater, according to the network’s figures. Of the June deaths, the network described 924 as armed rebels, leaving the non-combatant toll at 1,664. In May, when the network said that 716 armed rebels were among the dead, the non-combatant toll was 2,663. The difference represents at 37 percent decline.

Ali Watkins and Mark Seibel contributed to this report.

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

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