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.