Washington, DC — Syrian opposition leaders say there’s just one way to interpret the U.S. stalling on promised military aid at a time when rebels are losing ground to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad: Goodbye, and good luck.
Congressional intelligence committees have signed off on a proposal that the Obama administration made more than a month ago to have the CIA funnel unspecified arms and training to rebels aligned with the moderate Supreme Military Council, led by a defected Syrian general, Salim Idriss. But other developments indicate little U.S. enthusiasm for delving much deeper into the chaotic Syrian civil war, in which both sides are relying on military support from organizations the U.S. has designated as terrorists.
“The longer the international community takes to do something, the crisis and the extremism and the chaos on the ground intensifies,” said Mariam Jalabi, a spokeswoman for the visiting Syrian leaders. “We feel the international community pulling its hand out says, ‘You’re on your own.’”
Senior leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the group the United States has recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, traveled to New York for meetings Thursday with United Nations officials. But they won’t be stopping in Washington; they weren’t invited to meet with Obama administration officials here. They finagled a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry only because he was in New York on other business.
Idriss, the U.S.-backed rebel leader who now refers snidely to his “American friends,” chose to skip the visit to New York, in large part because he predicted it would be a waste of time.
“He doesn’t feel like the Americans are as willing to fully support the opposition in ways that would make that trip worth it to him,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a researcher of Syrian rebel groups who’s in daily contact with Idriss and who does contract work on State Department programs for Syria.
Syrian Opposition Coalition leader Ahmad Al-Jarba, who led the delegation, said in a statement that the crisis had reached a “desperate” level. He told journalists after the meeting that the opposition delegates asked the U.S. government for a speedy delivery of weapons so that the rebels, already being routed from some strategic areas, can better face the government’s counteroffensive.
“To deny us the right to self-defense is to risk that the regime will survive,” Al-Jarba told reporters in New York. “Thousands will be executed, the repression will continue without end.”
The State Department release on the meeting made no mention of weapons, saying only that “they agreed that a political solution is the best path forward.”
There is little appetite among Americans for greater U.S. entanglement in Syria. A Gallup Poll last month showed 54 percent of Americans opposed to the Obama administration’s plan to provide aid to the rebels. U.S. diplomats fume about the inability of opposition figures to agree on anything. Earlier this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress in a letter that U.S. military intervention would be costly, might not end the violence and might even install a government that’s hostile to U.S. interests.
“It’s not a message we like,” said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and part of the delegation that met with Kerry.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a measure that would prevent the administration from spending money on U.S. military operations in Syria without consulting Congress. The measure is not likely to survive opposition in the Senate, but the debate made clear that deeper military involvement is opposed by an unusual House coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.
“Those are the wrong signals to the Assad regime – that there’s no will for the U.S. to intervene,” said Ghadbian, who tried to put the best face on the opposition leadership’s failure to visit Washington, suggesting the visit came “on too short a notice to arrange meetings at the highest level.”
State Department officials lament that their policy options are “bad and worse.” They’re not keen on sending U.S. assistance to either the jihadist-infiltrated rebel forces or the notoriously fractious exiles of the political opposition, with whom frustration runs high.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s internal bickering and repeated failures to cobble together a cohesive interim authority has cost it credibility in the State Department, which has been reluctant to give the group any direct funding from U.S. aid pots. While publicly cheering on a recent change of coalition leadership as a step toward breaking the political impasse, American officials are privately fed up with the perpetual infighting.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday that the government still planned to live up to its pledge to increase “both the scale and the scope of our assistance to the Syrian opposition,” though she offered no specifics or timeline.
“This is a complicated situation,” Harf said. “If there were easy answers, we would have done them two years ago. There are none.”
Idriss isn’t the only one upset at the U.S. foot-dragging on the arms issue. At a meeting with U.S. officials this week at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Saudi officials demanded to know why the U.S. was holding a new shipment of heavy weapons destined for Syrian rebel militias.
U.S. officials told the Saudis to hold on for a few weeks, according to a participant in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions involve sensitive diplomacy. When the Saudis asked what would change in a few weeks, there was no clear answer.
Ghadbian, the opposition envoy, stressed that the opposition leaders remain open to sitting down with American partners to find “creative” ways for the U.S. to do more without full-scale military intervention. But, he added, the opposition leadership already has decided to continue the fight against Assad – “with or without the U.S.”
“We always expect more from the U.S. and U.S. administration,” Ghadbian said. “But we have to go with each country’s willingness.”