Diplomacy Imperils Washington’s Allies in Syria

As the Administration turns its attention to a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, the rebels worry they’re being forgotten

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Goran Tomasevic / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012.

Late Wednesday night, rebel forces from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al Qaeda ally, stormed the small town of Azaz near a strategic Syria-Turkish border crossing through which much humanitarian aid passes. But the target of the al Qaeda attack wasn’t troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), which gains much of its credibility from its ability to deliver humanitarian and other aid to Syrian civilians struggling under the brutal war. At least six Free Syrian Army soldiers were killed and ISIS captured another 15.

With a crucial corridor for aid to the FSA rebels now under threat from al Qaeda, the casualties from Wednesday’s fighting weren’t just among the FSA troops. The FSA and its leader General Salim Idris are rapidly losing credibility as they try, and fail, to fight both Assad and al Qaeda, FSA supporters in Washington say. “We’re damaging the credibility of the very partner the administration says is the guy because his credibility rests on his ability to deliver U.S. and western assistance,” a senior congressional aide who works closely on Syria said of Idris.

The problem, the aide says, is that rather than following through on promises to train and arm the FSA, in recent weeks, support for such moves seems to have waned in Washington.“We’ve made promises that are largely unfulfilled,” says the aide, “And it doesn’t take long for people to lose confidence.”

A month ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Obama Administration was about to finally get behind the Syrian rebels in a big way. “There was a bit of a consensus building that some type of [Defense Department] train and equip was worth doing,” the congressional aide said. “As of yet it’s totally unclear if that will happen.

Just as the Obama Administration was beginning to arm the Syrian rebels, President Obama’s request for authorization for a strike in Syria cratered congressional support. Even members like Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who’d been for arming the rebels in the past, retreated in the face of public outcry, yanking his support of Syria’s armed opposition. Now, the rebels fear a diplomatic deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons may pause, or worse, reverse U.S. support right as they are opening up a second front against al Qaeda.

The Syrian rebels have spent more than two-and-a-half years trying to get the United States more engaged in Syria. They were carefully vetted by first the State Department and then the Central Intelligence Agency. They did test runs, distributing 300,000 emergency food rations, then 200 medical kits and several truckloads of field-hospital surgical equipment, making sure the supplies didn’t end up in extremist hands. And, finally, last month the first arms began to trickle in, though as of early September, less than 100 Free Syrian Army officers and soldiers were vetted and qualified by the U.S. to receive the weapons, according to congressional and opposition sources.

And then, just as the Administration was considering switching the training and equipping program from the CIA to the Defense Department, the U.S. pivoted to a diplomatic deal with Russia. As Senator John McCain told me last week: “A lot of people, myself included, would like to see this in part or in whole in the hands of the DOD versus the CIA. I’m not saying one does it better than the other, but point of fact the DOD is set up to do this, to scale it up in a way that I don’t believe the CIA can do.”

The diplomatic deal, expected to see a vote in the United Nations Security Council in coming weeks, would require Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile and submit to UN inspections. Assad told a Russian television crew last week that he would not hand over his chemical weapons unless the U.S. agrees to stop arming the Syrian rebels, though there was no mention of this condition in the agreement’s framework laid out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“It looked like we were getting so close, not only to U.S. strikes, but U.S. increased support in terms of arms and aid,” says Dan Layman, media director for the Syrian Support Group, which represents Syrian opposition interests in Washington. “There is a concern that that aid is going to drop off.”

The rebels aren’t the only ones upset by the potential hold up. Gulf allies who’ve been pushing the U.S. to get more involved are also angry. “The Gulf feels misled,” Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based security analyst with the Gulf Research Center, referring to the U.S. shift, told The Washington Post. “Certainly, there’s a fear that this means Iran will be much stronger. Strategically speaking, the Iranian position is going to be enhanced in the region.”

In doing a deal with the Russians and Assad, many feared the U.S. is empowering Assad to remain in Damascus until all of his chemical weapons are destroyed. Under the deal, that is scheduled to happen by mid-2014. The opposition also worries that Assad could use Saddam Hussein’s playbook and obfuscate, and delay for years.

The way things are going in Syria, it’s not clear the FSA can hang on that long.