Author Topic: U.S. suspends aid to Syrian rebels after Islamists seize warehouses  (Read 173 times)

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Offline flowers

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BEIRUT — The U.S. government announced on Wednesday that it has suspended deliveries of non-lethal aid to Syria’s rebels following the seizure by an Islamist group of warehouses where the aid was stored, a takeover that exposed the rapidly diminishing authority of the moderate rebel factions backed by America and its Western allies.

The suspension also illustrates the erosion of U.S. influence over the rebels battling to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Disillusionment with the low level of Western support has prompted a growing number of factions to switch allegiance to Islamist groups that receive more generous funding from Gulf Arab states.

 The cluster of warehouses in the northern Syrian border town of Atmeh served as the main conduit for supplies into northern Syria for the Western- backed Supreme Military Council headed by General Salim Idriss, which was tapped last June by Secretary of State John F. Kerry as the chief recipient for U.S. aid.

More important than the relatively meager contents of the warehouses was the international legitimacy they conferred on the military council ahead of peace talks due to begin in Geneva in January. That may explain why the newly formed Islamic Front decided to target the warehouses last Friday.

Telling fighters from the military council that an al-Qaeda-linked group was preparing an attack on the warehouses, the Islamic Front offered to help defend them, then ejected the SMC rebels at gunpoint. It is unclear whether there ever was a threat from al Qaeda, however, and some rebel groups have charged that the warning was a ploy.

At the time of the seizure, the warehouses contained U.S.- supplied food, including military MREs, medical kits, communications equipment and several pick-up trucks, typical of the items the United States is supplying under a $16.9 million program to provide non-lethal aid, U.S. and rebel officials said. The buildings also contained sizeable quantities of small-arms ammunition, from an unknown source, according to an opposition figure close to the rebels who asked not to be named because the subject is sensitive.

T.J. Grubisha, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara, said the United States was “obviously concerned” by the seizure and “has suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria.”

Humanitarian aid, by far the largest component of U.S. assistance to Syria, is not affected, Grubisha said.

A smaller program providing food to rebels in southern Syria also will continue, U.S. officials said. They indicated that a covert CIA program providing lethal aid to the rebels, consisting mostly of small arms and ammunition channeled to southern Syria through Jordan, would continue unchanged.

The non-lethal assistance promised last spring by the Obama administration has never amounted to enough to make a significant difference in the fighting capacity of the rebels, one of the reasons why many have grown disillusioned with the SMC. Items such as body armor and night vision goggles that were promised never materialized, and there have been frequent interruptions to deliveries caused by the takeover of territory along the northern border by the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which Washington has labeled a terrorist group.

The Islamic Front, which seized the warehouses, was formed last month to represent the biggest rebel battalions fighting on the ground in Syria. Most of them are Salafi Islamists who are conservative but not affiliated to al-Qaeda.

The Islamic Front has been pressing for inclusion in the SMC, out of concern that it won’t have any input at the talks in Geneva, the first between the regime and the opposition since the conflict erupted nearly three years ago, according to rebel commanders involved in the discussions.

Louay al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the SMC, criticized the U.S. aid suspension as premature, saying he expected negotiations between the Islamic Front and the SMC to resolve the dispute over the warehouses soon.

“It was just a misunderstanding between brothers,” he said. “The American administration decision was a little bit rushed. We understand their concerns but we hope they will rethink this decision.”

He said the council would welcome some form of merger with the Islamist factions. “We are open to everyone,” he said. “It’s time to be united all against the Syrian regime.”

But the prospect of rebel unity is complicated by U.S. concerns about the relationships between some of the Islamic Front’s factions and sanctioned terrorist affiliates such as ISIS and also the somewhat less extreme Jabhat al-Nusra.

U.S. officials have had held meetings with Islamic Front leaders in recent weeks to explore their views, rebel commanders and U.S. officials say. The U.S. government now has to decide whether it wants to maintain some influence over Syria’s rebels, which means dealing with the non-al-Qaeda Islamists, or to surrender the battlefield to increasingly extremist Islamists over which it has no control, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“If we keep these groups at arm’s length, what influence can we have?” Tabler asked. But, he added, “talking to them is one thing. Working with them is another.”

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