Earlier this week, I wrote about the Syrian rebels’ threats to boycott a proposed meeting with new Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been far too friendly with Bashar al-Assad for their tastes and from whom they were not getting enough support. The tactic worked: Kerry has pledged the first direct American aid to armed rebel factions. It is humanitarian aid, not weapons; but as the New York Times notes, it may indirectly help provide them with weapons by freeing up rebel funds for other purposes.
It is a tactical shift for the Obama administration, which had found that American officials’ previous attempts to remove Assad from power by shaking their heads in disappointment at him were going nowhere. The aid is an important acknowledgement that a state run by Assad and a state run by his opponents aren’t the only two possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war. A third, and far from unlikely, result would have the state split along sectarian lines, in slow disintegration, with strategic safe havens carved out for powerful terrorist groups or rogue state proxies–Lebanon, in other words. The Times reports:
One major goal of the administration is to help the opposition build up its credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to the civilian population. Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has sent $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians.
American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.
“Some folks on the ground that we don’t support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help,” Mr. Kerry said.
To blunt the power of extremist groups, the United States wants to help the Syrian Opposition Council, the coalition of Syrian resistance leaders it backs and helped organize, deliver basic services in areas that have been wrested from the control of the Assad government.
The upside to this includes the possibility that a post-Assad Syria would be on better terms with the West. The downside is that it takes for granted the inevitability of a post-Assad Syria, and as such lacks a certain sense of urgency. It is also designed to help solve a problem that might have been avoidable with earlier intervention: the empowerment of more radical groups within the rebel movement thanks to the vacuum left by the West’s refusal to put a thumb on the scales in the other direction.
Such activity is better late than never, though that’s not how some humanitarian NGO workers feel. The Globe and Mail reports that some aid workers say picking winners now from among the rebels will divide and possibly weaken them while endangering the neutrality of outside organizations:
“Who gets credit for aid is heavily politicized and people get killed for it,” says the aid worker. He argues that determining aid recipients by their political affiliation is an impractical way to deliver aid. Should aid groups act as the tip of the spear of an American-led charge to pick favourites, they may become targets in internecine battles and cease operations.
“It is very tempting in the course of a war that aid be used for political ends, especially when diplomacy is not working and external military intervention is off the table,” says Sam Worthington, CEO of the aid umbrella group InterAction. “Our concern is that the broader UN and NGO humanitarian effort already in place will also become politicized. A limited yet very important humanitarian assistance operation happening in the country could be jeopardized if there is a perception that aid is another instrument of conflict.”
It’s a valid concern, and yet another reason intervention should have come sooner than this. But the best result from a humanitarian perspective would be to end the conflict, not simply help provide cash for an endless supply of nutrition supplements for the permanently displaced. Near-term humanitarian concerns may prioritize the neutrality of aid workers, but the long-term goal should be to end the war, pacify the battlefield, and clear the space for humanitarian aid to safely reach everyone still in need.
Further, stopping radical Islamists from taking power in post-war Syria would go a long way toward preventing future unrest and a cycle of conflict that would find aid workers right back at the Syrian border, attempting to enter the next round of humanitarian crisis. “If we want to have a new regime, we have to encourage the opposition,” the Times quotes French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as saying. No doubt the rebels would like more than encouragement, but having watched the West wait two years to offer direct assistance, it’s doubtful they’re holding their breath.