Syrian Rebels on the radio 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON - The United States has quietly been testing the
Syrian opposition's ability to deliver food rations, medical kits and money to
rebel-held areas as Washington prepares to send arms to the rebel
US officials meet weekly in Turkey with Syrian opposition
leaders to work out how best to keep supply lines open to rebel fighters and
war-ravaged towns and districts.
One of the Syrian opposition's
best-known female leaders, Suhair al-Atassi, attends the meetings as coordinator
of the "non-lethal" aid that includes equipment for rebel fighters and local
councils, as opposed to humanitarian aid for the displaced.
handed to officers of the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) at clandestine
locations that cannot be divulged for security reasons.
"I sign the
paperwork, and shake the hands of the FSA official," said a US State
Department official involved in the effort. "I wish them well and walk away."
The rebels take aid for their own units and also distribute some of it to
schools, clinics and local councils.
The United States has committed $250
million in non-lethal aid to Syria in addition to the $815 million in
humanitarian assistance in support of the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces.
Recently, Washington began scaling up its assistance
to bigger items like trucks, radios, large generators and sophisticated medical
Some of it is not only aimed at helping fighters but also at
supporting civilian authorities in towns that have rejected Assad's
"We are just now starting to send large equipment over the border
for local councils and cities in liberated areas," the US official
Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 people and forced
millions to flee their homes. The involvement of Iran and its Lebanese ally
Hezbollah in the conflict has shifted the balance of power on the battlefield in
favor of Assad, increasing frustration among rebels over delays in the United
States sending weapons to them.
With no US diplomatic presence on the
ground, Syria presents a unique challenge for aid coordinators.
US officials say they rely on a network of some 75 young Syrians who collect
information in rebel-held areas and report back to Atassi's unit. The
information is often corroborated with UN groups.SUPPLYING WEAPONS
US Congress cleared the way earlier this month for Washington to give the
rebels not just non-lethal and humanitarian aid but also weapons. Lawmakers have
only approved limited funding for the arms operation, as they fear that US
weapons and ammunition could end up in the hands of hardline Islamist militant
"One of our main issues is to make sure that, whatever we do,
that nothing gets in the hands of al-Qaida," said Dutch Ruppersberger, the top
Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
track of the non-lethal aid already going into Syria, American officials ask the
opposition to bring back photographic evidence of deliveries as proof that the
goods made it into the right hands.
"If we are providing small amounts of
cash to a local council to pay salaries we insist on signatures and
photographs," said the official. "One of the ways to minimize the risk is we
keep the amounts of cash small and would pay something like a stipend rather
than a salary." While it is not always easy to guarantee that supplies reach
their intended recipients or that they don't eventually make their way to the
black market, the Syrian opposition coordinators have begun to earn the trust of
"They have so far passed the test," the official
France also sends supplies to the rebels, including envelopes
stuffed with money handed over at the Turkish border.