John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State, sat down with Syrian opposition chief Moaz AlKhatib on Thursday and announced that Washington will begin supporting those elements of Syria’s rebel opposition it deems palatable.
First off, arming fighters battling against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is not on the cards. Flak jackets, “training” and, apparently, ready-made dinners, however, are. Where this will take place – what border country is willing to host the Americans – is still unclear, though an American presence has been in place in Jordan since last summer while to the north, rebels have more-or-less free reign over Syria’s border with Turkey.
So what’s about to change? In all likelihood, very little.
Washington, more specifically the White House, has refused to back rebel groups even when the State Department and the Pentagon privately pushed for such a move last summer. As a result, it would be unwise to expect the floodgates to open even after this new departure.
It’s more likely President Barack Obama has realized that Mr. Assad’s days are numbered, and has been convinced it’s better to have a modicum of political leverage with the government that comes after Mr. Assad than to have none. (Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking Washington and other world capitals want to get involved in Syria to prevent a humanitarian disaster).
Furthermore, in Rome, Mr. Kerry pointed out that, in part, the reason for the change in tack is to counter Islamic extremist groups among rebel ranks. This certainly is a concern because it is exactly these forces that are gaining popular support in the parts of the country they operate in.
But even if the European Union and Washington decide to one day supply arms to rebels they like, would doing so necessarily tip the balance of power away from terrorist-designated Jabhat al-Nusra?
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the Guardian most recently reported how some rebels in Aleppo – those not driven by radical Islamist ideology – have given up on carry on the fight against the regime and instead have set up fiefdoms among the rubble and falling shells, where they rule over the few remaining families and destroyed neighbourhoods.
The problem for Secretary Kerry and much of the international community is that supplying non-lethal aid is unlikely to be viewed positively among either rebels or the greater Syrian public. There is a strong distrust of American intentions in the region among Syrians (let’s not forget Iraq, or the fact that Mr. Assad still has considerable support among sections of Syrian society). Giving rebel groups bit-part support that is not going to immediately change the course of the conflict will be seen as more fiddling by the outside world.