U.S. slow with aid to Syrian rebels
The U.S. State Department aid breakdown acknowledges for the first time that the Obama administration hasn’t sent a dime yet to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which it recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
McClatchy Washington Bureau
While State Department officials are fond of saying they’re providing hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the Syrian opposition, only a fraction of the promised money has arrived, and none has gone to the political body the United States looks to as an alternative to President Bashar Assad’s government.
The State Department this month released the most in-depth aid information after weeks of requests, and the figures back up the complaints of Syrian opposition leaders that the United States has been slow in fulfilling a pledge of more than $250 million. The topic is expected to get thornier now that the administration has promised more nonlethal aid after concluding that Assad’s government has used chemical weapons.
Such aid is separate from U.S. humanitarian assistance, which totals more than $800 million pledged, including President Obama’s announcement late Monday of a $300 million boost. The humanitarian and nonlethal aid are extremely hard to track to their intended destinations, given the chaos of wartime Syria, the number of agencies involved and a reluctance to label aid as coming from the United States because of political concerns.
How much of what the State Department calls “transition assistance” has made it to opposition hands? After nearly a month, the department’s formal reply only partially solves that mystery.
The State Department said $127 million in U.S. nonlethal aid had “gone out” to the opposition and that an additional $123 million was being discussed in Congress. The department recognizes that the program was slow to take shape.
Officials said the funds were held up by a time-consuming process of vetting recipients to stop aid from going to extremists, winning approval from U.S. lawmakers and carving out delivery mechanisms in a war zone.
“Now that those pipelines are established, we’re in a position to get money moving quickly,” a State Department official said, insisting on anonymity.
The department cautioned that the $123 million would include “communications equipment and vehicles, and will take several months to be purchased and delivered.” And that’s only after the weeks it might spend tied up in Congress.
The breakdown also acknowledges for the first time that the Obama administration hasn’t sent a dime yet to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which it recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and has spent months trying to shape into a cohesive body. Officials say privately that they’re losing patience with the fractious exile group, which has failed to agree on a leader, form a transitional authority or win legitimacy on the ground.
The State Department official conceded that “we have not given any cash” to the coalition, but insisted it wasn’t because the department was withholding money. U.S. officials said separately that the State Department is considering diverting more than $60 million earmarked for the coalition because of rising frustration over the group’s deadlock.
“The State Department has tried to use money as a blunt instrument, an incentive to have greater coordination,” said Rex Brynen, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who’s written extensively about the Arab Spring revolts. “But it’s a catch-22. You don’t want to provide the assistance if they’re disorganized, and yet the lack of resources contributes to them staying disorganized.”
The careful wording in the State Department statement leaves unclear how much of the first $127 million is on the ground, and even State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki appears confused on the subject. In the past week, Psaki has declared the $127 million both “delivered” and “in train,” which she said meant that it was in the process of being distributed.
“The majority of U.S. assistance is spent out over time,” the State Department response said. “In the Syria case, it’s in the form of trainings, equipment provision, cash grants, support for essential services, etc. Based on the nature of these capacity-building and service-provision efforts, it does not get spent all at once.”
The breakdown gives details of how chunks of the $127 million were allocated. The State Department said $54 million — among the first money pledged — was spent on projects that helped to create a Free Lawyers’ Union in Daraa province, offered media training that allowed the broadcasting of Aleppo’s local election results last March and provided satellite phones so that opposition activists could communicate after the Assad government imposed a blackout.
An additional $63 million, already approved by Congress, “is being used to deliver basic community services,” such as repairing infrastructure and restarting public works in opposition-controlled areas. There are plans for summer schools in Aleppo and training for teachers to provide “psychosocial support to war-affected children.”
The balance of that $127 million — $10 million — was spent on aid for the Supreme Military Council, the group that’s nominally in charge of rebel militias and that the State Department has become more focused on after months of fruitless dealings with the political opposition. The money was spent on 200,000 battlefield meals, 529 medical kits and 3 tons of other medical supplies, not what the outgunned rebels had in mind when they implored Western allies to supply heavy weapons and ammunition.
“The U.S. doesn’t have a clear policy and they’re facing the Russians, who have a coherent plan and who are supporting the Assad regime with weapons and with advisers on the ground — and the Iranians are doing the same,” said Nadim Shehadi, who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, a British research institute. “So what is the United States doing?”