The United States and other Western nations that have thus far backed the rebellion in Syria with great caution are starting to pick up the pace of giving, cognizant that what they fail to do now could come back to bite them.
The news that recently-installed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry secured, for the first time, direct logistical aid (mostly in the form of medical supplies and rations) to rebel fighters speaks to the delicate tightrope he must navigate. On one hand, it is critical that the West be seen as boosting the rebellion and opposing Bashar al-Assad’s humanitarian travesties at every turn, since it is only a matter of time before the regime collapses and the opposition takes the helm. But national security officials remain wary of the presence of Islamist extremists among the rebel fighters, including some who joined the fray not long after slugging it out with U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq. That the Saudi government — which tolerates the presence of American troops on its own territory — is reportedly funneling Croatian arms to the rebels only increases the pressure on the Obama administration to get over its reservations and go “all-in”, so to speak, and provide real military support.
After all, the perception — however legitimate — that Western hesitation is buying Assad time (to carry out further atrocities on the civilian population, or even just to perpetuate his rule) is a potentially lethal one. As Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib said alongside Kerry Thursday, “Many sides … focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter’s beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed.” His stark language suggests that the reluctance to supply the anti-aircraft weapons and other advanced technology the rebels are clamoring for essentially plays into the hands of Islamist militants by feeding distrust and anger among the civilian population. Surely, the best way to build credibility is to provide the tools rebel fighters need to seize Damascus and end the war. And there are intermediate steps — like the provision of bullet-proof vests and military training — that might go a long way toward closing the trust deficit.
Of course, if the new provisions flow smoothly (rebel fighters must be carefully vetted to receive even the nonlethal aid), a system will already be in place should the West change its mind. Whether the practical need to secure influence in post-Assad Syria can overcome the more emotional fear of American weapons being turned back against its own forces remains to be seen. In the meantime, Syria’s rebels will fight on knowing their foreign backers could be doing a whole lot more.