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March 27, 2013

Syria: Has the United States Abandoned the Rebels?

August 10, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

At the start of the Syrian uprising the Obama administration had lauded the uprising as a positive step and emphasized the need for Assad to step down. While still insisting that Assad must go, there is every indication that the United States is weary of throwing its full weight behind the rebel movement to unseat Assad and the administration is now being accused of throwing the Free Syrian Army and the rebels under a bus.  

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, with Syrians clamouring for democracy and democratic institutions in the region, and eventually taking up arms against the Assad regime, the nearly 17-month-old uprising against the Assad government has turned into an all-out conflict with no end in sight.

As the US support behind revolutions in North Africa proved very decisive, particularly in Libya, the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government were initially optimistic that the United States would intervene.

Unfortunately, as Syria’s macabre mayhem continues on an ever-escalating scale, anti-American sentiments are consolidating, in ways that could have serious consequences for Syria as well as the region particularly in a post-Assad Syria.

Although high ranking defections like that of Syria’s now former prime minister have boosted their morale, the rebels fighting Assad’s forces will likely feel betrayed by the United States if they feel they have been abandoned. “All we get is words,” said Yasser Abu Ali, a spokesman for one of the Free Syrian Army battalions in the town of al-Bab, which lies 30 miles northeast of Aleppo

Syrians joining the Arab Spring movement to witness Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans vote in national elections, choose new leaders and embark, however messily, on democratic transitions, witness their own movement turn into a bloody civil war.

Although the rebels specifically do not want American “boots on ground”, to help turn the fighting in their favour, a no-fly zone would prevent Assad from using his helicopter gunships.

If and when the Assad regime falls, as the rebels assume it eventually will, Syrians will not forget that their pleas for help went unanswered from the international community. “America will pay a price for this…America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don’t trust them at all,” a Syrian rebel spokesman said recently.

Further, there are shortcomings regarding American aid to the Syrian rebels. The US is under tremendous pressure from Russia and China not to intervene militarily as it potentially will not only be counter-productive but also have a disastrous affect on any hopes for an actual negotiated peace agreement between the rebels and the Assad regime. Therefore, perhaps, a debate is raging within the Obama administration over whether it is prudent to step up support for the rebels now any efforts by the United Nations to find a path forward have failed.

President Obama has recently signed off on sanctioning non¬-lethal aid to the opposition, including communication and satellite equipment. For some time, the State Department has been reaching out to Assad’s opponents inside Syria with a view to identifying potential allies and recipients of assistance. The American allies in the region including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also extended some financial help to the rebels for the purchase of small arms and ammunition. Turkey, a NATO member, is also facilitating rebel movements across its 550-mile border with Syria, including, according to some Syrian officials, the transfer of arms.

Whatever the extent of the US assistance, it will be deemed small-scale, intermittent, and insufficient to the requirements of an expanding battlefield that now covers virtually all corners of the country and now includes the use of air power by the government. In fact, the declining American assistance, if it really is according to the Syrian rebels, does pose a problem for the United States. While undoubtedly helpful to a certain extent, it is merely prolonging the inevitable defeat of the Syrian rebels.

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