The United States may be gingerly stepping more deeply into the Syrian war by agreeing to give the rebels direct aid for the first time, but some analysts fear it is likely too little, too late.
With the grueling conflict poised to enter its third year, the statistics are grim. According to UN figures, some 70,000 people have been killed as the fighting has spread and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned to increasingly brutal methods including unleashing scud missiles.
But with few independent eyes on the ground, observers say the true death toll may already have topped 100,000 and some scoff at the idea that Assad will comply with international calls for a political transition any time soon.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday said his administration was providing an extra $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition coalition to help rebuild and provide assistance in “liberated areas of Syria.”
A senior US official said the aim was to thwart the growing influence of extremist and jihadist groups.
“Those members of the opposition, who support our shared values, need to be able to demonstrate that they can deliver a better day,” the official said, pointing to a future “where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of Al-Qaida-affiliated extremists.”
Kerry also announced that President Barack Obama’s administration would separately “extend food and medical supplies” to armed rebels for the first time.
But the announcement disappointed those hoping Washington might mirror moves it made in Libya 2011 and provide some kind of protective military hardware, such as body armor.
“It took seven months to get to the biscuits and Band-Aid,” said the director of the Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, referring to the lengthy negotiations to reach what has been billed as a major shift in US policy.
“This kind of support is not going to have a great impact with regard to the situation on the ground,” he stressed, saying what was needed now was to “lay the ground work for the military balance to shift inside Syria.”
Shaikh has spent months contacting tribal elders, senior Syrian businessmen and some of the country’s leading families and has shed his previous reservations about America arming the rebels.
“In my view the regime will never negotiate in good faith, they will go to the bitter end,” he told journalists, saying Assad could still count on some 60,000 to 70,000 troops and was reportedly even arming civilians loyal to him.
Obama last year rejected a plan put together by his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to arm trusted rebel groups.
But analysts say America’s tepid response is now creating the kind of vacuum in which jihadi groups can flourish, and it may damage US hopes of gaining long-term sway with whatever post-Assad government emerges.
The Islamist Al-Nusra Front — designated a terror organization by the State Department late last year — has so far been one of the most effective rebel fighting groups on the ground, having honed its skills on Iraqi battlefields.
Shaikh highlighted how the group was now stepping in in some villages to provide aid, “making social connections in a part of a world where people are very poor, but increasing desperate.”
However in “a post-Iraq war and a post-Afghan context there really is limited appetite” to put US boots on the ground, said Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Despite months of vetting the rebels, the US remains concerned that pouring more arms into the country will only lead to them getting into extremist hands.
Nerguizian echoed the concerns that even if Assad were to go now, Syria will remain mired in a sectarian conflict.
“Assad’s departure in and of itself does very little to change the fact that minorities like the Alawites view this battle as existential and look at this as their ascendant moment in the Levant,” he told a seminar on Wednesday.
The United States is also clearly hoping any power change in Damascus would break the long-reviled Iran-Syria axis.
Tehran is Assad’s closest ally, accused by Washington of providing both materiel, men and know-how to Syria, as well as helping Hezbollah militants to flood in.
“Inaction could have grave regional consequences and serve to empower Iran at a time of nuclear uncertainty and embolden Hezbollah,” argued Senator Robert Casey, chairman of the Senate Middle East subcommittee, writing in Foreign Policy magazine.
“Providing immediate non-lethal aid to the armed opposition would provide the United States with an enhanced understanding of the armed elements and could serve as the basis for a cooperative security relationship in the future.”