The Complex

U.S. Readies New Syria Aid

The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country's beleaguered rebels. But the relatively small size of the new aid package is a vivid reminder that the Obama administration is continuing to take a largely hands-off approach to a country in the fourth year of a civil war in which nearly 150,000 people have died.

Although the United States is the top provider of humanitarian assistance inside the country, its aid to bolster moderate rebel forces -- now fighting a two-front war against both al Qaeda fighters and pro-Assad forces -- has been considered vastly inadequate since a peaceful uprising turned violent in 2011.

The so-called non-lethal assistance effort for rebels has included buses and pickup trucks, blankets, 550,000 packaged military meals and, just last month, about 1,000 medical kits. All told, the U.S. has delivered roughly $26 million worth of equipment and supplies since 2012. The U.S. had already committed to delivering tens of millions of dollars in additional assistance to rebel forces, but the security situation and other factors did not allow it until now. A separate, covert effort headed by the CIA is vetting moderate rebels and then training those forces and equipping them with small arms and ammunition.

The assistance has been far too modest to stem a series of battlefield gains by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have stepped up their bruising battle against opposition forces in the rebel-force-held city of Aleppo as well as in other areas, like along the Syrian-Lebanese border, in recent weeks. What little momentum rebel forces have had in some areas has been halted and largely reversed, with the regime retaking and holding terrain. The former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told an audience in Washington last week that Assad is now capable of holding onto all of the territory between Aleppo and Damascus and predicted that Assad's strength would keep him in power for the "medium term."

"He will control that area -- geographically, it is maybe a fourth of the country," Ford said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

But despite the violence and fighting across large swaths of the country, State Department officials say that opposition forces have managed to open the supply route into Aleppo from the Syrian-Turkish border that will allow Washington to send in more aid. In January, rebel forces began a more concerted campaign against al Qaeda militias that managed to push the extremists out of strategically important areas. Now, even as the city of Aleppo itself remains under siege by the Assad regime, the route into the city is for the first time in many weeks free of militants. As a result, U.S. assistance for rebel forces and the Free Syrian Army can get into Aleppo once again, American officials said.

The State Department is expected to begin shipping large amounts of equipment and supplies to the FSA as early as this week. Trucks carrying the first batch of assistance are currently lined up waiting to get into the country. But they are competing with other shipments of humanitarian assistance, relief supplies and equipment, all trying to get into the country at once, and the queue along the Syrian border stretches for miles, an official said. In a heartening change for U.S. officials, though, the holdup doesn't have as much to do with the security situation as it does with the logistics of squeezing so much traffic through the small number of border entry points controlled by moderate anti-Assad rebels, not Islamic extremists.

"This will be one of the largest shipments we've ever put across," Mark Ward, the State Department's senior advisor for non-lethal assistance in the region, told FP.

The shipments are part of an $80 million non-lethal assistance package to the FSA, underway since 2012, that has largely come to a halt in recent months because of the country's poor security situation. About one-third of that total aid package has already been delivered to rebel forces; that leaves the remainder of the existing U.S. commitment, more than $53 million of equipment and supplies, that is expected to begin to flow into the country in coming days, weeks, and months, according to a State Department official. The majority of assistance flows into Syria from Turkey, Jordan and other neighboring countries.

In December, members of the Syrian opposition let warehouses holding valuable assistance fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. That led to an immediate freeze of all U.S. and European assistance to the rebels and led many rebel leaders to pointedly ask why so much equipment was being stored in stockpiles when it was badly needed by front-line battalions.

But leadership and organizational changes within the rebel forces' umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, has led Washington to reopen the aid spigot.

At the same time, Ward and his team have tried to prevent a recurrence of last year's problems by putting assistance directly in the hands of commanders instead of handing it off to "middlemen" who stash it in such warehouses, where it can fall into the wrong hands. In January, the U.S. resumed shipments of aid starting with medical kits to the FSA.

"We're now very optimistic we can do a lot more," Ward said.

Steven Heydemann, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said the rebels' ability to create new supply routes has paved the way for the United States to begin sending in more non-lethal assistance.

"The reality is that there have been some significant improvements on the ground, that's real," Heydemann said. "Some of the issues that had led the U.S. and the Brits to cut off the supplies of non-lethal aid are now believed to have changed in ways that would permit the resumption" of assistance.

Ward is well aware of the perception that the Obama administration has been slow to provide aid to rebel forces and has given them far too little to make a difference. The twin challenges he has long faced, Ward said, is security and logistics. But for now, he said, it's just logistics.

"It's important for people to understand that you can have all the money and all the equipment in the world, but you have to get it into the country," he said. "Either it's the security or the queue. Right now, thankfully, it's just the queue."

The danger now, however, will hinge on whether the supply route into Aleppo will be taken over, not by extremists operating in the region, but by the Assad regime, which has been focused elsewhere in the country.

"If the regime is to succeed in terms of cutting off logistical conditions in the north, that could be a big blow to rebel forces," said Isabel Nassief, a Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "That would make the command and control structure they've been trying to establish even more difficult."

Some of the shipments now in trucks in the queue along the Syrian border include ambulances, forklifts, trucks, communications gear, mattresses and blankets for the Free Syrian Army. It also includes a few of the Toyota Hilux pickups that Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington, described as one of the most critical types of equipment the rebels could have.

"We need them in the hundreds, not in the onesies and twosies," he said.

Critics of the Obama administration argue that U.S. aid hasn't changed the dynamics on the ground in favor of the rebels. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a fierce critic of administration policy on Syria, said Friday that Syrian government attacks along the Lebanese-Syrian border is hurting the opposition. "As the Syrian government continues to hamper efforts to deliver aid and cuts off access to opposition supply lines, it is imperative that the United States and international community adopt stronger measures in guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid," McCain said in a statement. "It is time for the administration to force a price for Assad's behavior and show to the world that the use of starvation tactics and war crimes will not be tolerated."

And one congressional staffer believes that Americans are in the dark about the true nature of the Syrian rebels, many of whom are moderates that the administration knows and quietly trusts. "[The administration] doesn't want people to know that because if the public finds out, they may say, why aren't you doing more to help them? And there is no good answer to that question," the staffer said.

AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Why the Navy’s Black Box Locator Could Be Useless in the Hunt for Missing Flight 370

The U.S. Navy announced plans Monday to move a "black box locator" to Perth, Australia, in case debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is found in the southern Indian Ocean. The statement was covered breathlessly, with some media outlets calling it a potential game-changer. But a word of caution: the black box locator faces logistical nightmares that prevented it from being effective in other similar searches in the past. Authorities, in other words, may learn where the flight went down -- but they'll have a harder time finding the device capable of explaining why. 

The high-tech system on the way to Perth is known, in military-speak, as the Towed Pinger Locator 25. Like its predecessors, the system uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in a downed aircraft. They're commonly known as "black boxes," although they're usually orange. The pinger locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., is about 30 inches long and weighs 70 pounds. It closely resembles a miniature torpedo, complete with fins, and is pulled on a long underwater cable behind a ship. It can detect pings from up to 20,000 feet under the sea.

Bill Lawson, who oversees the pinger locator program for Phoenix International, said that if the beacons on the downed airline's black boxes are still transmitting, his equipment will find them. Towed pinger locators have found numerous aircraft in the past, including the downed Adam Air Flight 574, which crashed on Jan. 1, 2007, while flying over the Makassar Strait while flying between the Indonesian cities of Surabaya and Manado, killing all 102 people on board. After the Indonesian government government asked the United States for help, the U.S. Navy found it at a depth of between 4,900 and 6,200 feet using a towed pinger locator on the USNS Mary Sears, Navy officials said. The current version was first fielded in 2010. One year later, it managed to find a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier that crashed in the Gulf of Aden near Oman in 2011 shortly after takeoff, said officials with Phoenix and the Navy.

Even if the locator sent to Perth is used perfectly, however, it is by no means certain that it will be able to do the job. Consider the case of Air France Flight 447. It crashed off the northeast coast of Brazil on June 1, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 air crew members. The U.S. Navy provided two pinger locators by Phoenix International, but they were towed through the search area for about 30 days without any success. At that point, the first phase of the search was called off because the battery life on the black box transponders was all but certainly dead. It took another two years for the recorders to be recovered, and it occurred only after the bulk of the wreckage was found by robot submarines in April 2011.

"They found that the pingers were damaged and unoperational," Lawson said -- meaning the Navy's black box locator wouldn't have worked.

Malaysian authorities said Monday that they now believe Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth. The massive Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board after diverting from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing, China. All on board are believed to be dead.

There are a range of unknowns that will determine whether the pinger locator has any more luck finding the Malaysian flight than it did with the Air France one. First, the part of the Indian Ocean where the airline crashed is believed to be as much 23,000 feet deep, a potentially major problem given that the pinger locator can only operate to depths of about 20,000 feet. Second, Navy officials won't start using the device until they have a much more specific sense of where the plane went down. The black box's beacons have a 30- to 40-day battery life, so precious time will be lost while authorities search for debris or other evidence of where the plane crashed. And that's to say nothing of the condition of the black boxes themselves, which -- like Air France's downed airline -- may not be transmitting pings following the crash because they are damaged.

"This movement is simply a prudent effort to pre-position equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area so that if debris is found we will be able to respond as quickly as possible since the battery life of the black box's pinger is limited," said Navy Cmdr. Chris Budde, the operations officer for the Navy's 7th Fleet, which has coordinated U.S. involvement in the search.

The Pentagon began moving the pinger locator and an underwater drone to Perth on Monday, said Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. About 10 U.S. personnel will travel with them to set up the equipment, the admiral said. He did not clarify whether they are civilians or with the Navy. The United States also will send an underwater drone known as the Bluefin-21 to help with the search, the admiral said. It is capable of searching up to 15,000 feet deep.

The search for a debris field, meanwhile, is continuing off the western coast of Australia, where tough weather has hindered efforts at times. Australian officials suspended the search for the day on Tuesday, March 25, citing stormy weather that had whipped up winds of more than 50 mph, heavy rain and rough seas. On Monday, Australian military personnel in a P-3 Orion spy plane spotted floating debris about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, but it was unclear whether it was part of the downed airline. The search is expected to continue this week when the weather clears. U.S. forces now have a detachment of naval aviators based in Perth, where they are flying the new P-8 Poseidon spy plane in search of the missing airline's remains.

U.S. Navy photo