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What the US is doing to help some Syrian rebels, undermine jihadis

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Orhan Cicek/Reuters

(Read caption) UN Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford (l.) talks with Syrian refugees as he visits Islahiye refugee camp in Gaziantep province in January.

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US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who was withdrawn from Damascus over a year ago, laid out the Obama administration's assistance to some Syrian rebel groups, its efforts to undermine others, and overall plans for continued involvement in the Syrian civil war in testimony to Congress yesterday.

He also addressed the human need of over 1 million Syrian refugees and the economic strains they're putting on neighbors like Jordan, and pointed out that while dozens of countries have pledged humanitarian aid for refugees and the displaced within Syria, the money has not been forthcoming in the promised time-frame.

"In January at a conference in Kuwait, over 40 countries pledged $1.5 billion to help the Syrian refugees," Mr. Ford said. "We are pressuring the countries that have not yet paid to make good on their pledges – and I have personally asked our partners and Gulf and European countries to give the funds they promised." Big promises made at donor conferences that then fall by the wayside is a time-honored tradition in dealing with humanitarian crises.

Reading his full comments, the US has laid out a tough set of objectives for itself with limited, and imperfect means, that carry risks of their own, not least the desire to build up favored rebel groups by channeling humanitarian aid through them. Access to food and medicine can be withheld for strategic uses as much as they can be delivered, and some of the gatekeepers on the ground for this aid in Syria will not necessarily be squeamish about pursuing their interests.

The situation is clearly dire. Ford predicted the number of Syrian refugees could triple to 3 million by the end of the year if flight from the war "continues at its current rate" and warned that ethnic and sectarian violence could spread to neighbors. He pointed out that Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp near the Syria border is now the country's fourth largest city.

US humanitarian aid so far is almost $385 million. "This money is being spent on emergency medical care and supplies, blankets, and shelter. We are sending flour to 50 bakeries in Aleppo and sponsoring food and sanitation projects for the desperate families in Atmeh refugee camp," he said. 

But what's most interesting are US goals for a post-Assad Syria, and the country's greatest fears. "Preserving Syria’s national unity and laying the foundation for a free Syria that respects the rights of all its citizens is essential if we are to secure a Syria that helps, rather than threatens, stability in the heart of the Middle East," he said. Those are admirable goals, but one need only look to Iraq, where US troops spent nearly 8 years and over $1 trillion was spent, to see how hard it is to create countries that respect the rights of all their citizens.

In the worst case, Ford testified: "Collapse or fragmentation of the Syrian state or its takeover by extremists would threaten the region with hugely greater refugee flows, as well as the risks associated with the security of the regime’s big chemical weapons stocks, and confront us also with the likelihood of major terrorist bases. Those outcomes would directly threaten our interests."

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So what is the US doing? In broad strokes, Ford said the US is giving the Syrian opposition non-lethal assistance to:

* Solidify the efforts of Syrian moderates who are competing for influence with extremist groups, knitting the national opposition leadership with local councils on the ground inside Syria. The national opposition leadership needs to provide local communities with an alternative source of support to prevent the influence of Al Qaida’s affiliates from expanding.

* Curtail the influence of extremists by helping national and local opposition leaders provide vital services such as food, water, and electricity. Syrian activists and rebels are working hard to unite the opposition, establish local governing structures, and provide assistance to the many Syrians in need. We need to work with these courageous Syrians – both armed and unarmed –so that they can respond quickly to critical needs.

* Prevent the disintegration of the Syrian state by supporting a unified, inclusive, and effective civilian leadership at both national and local levels – and by retaining the civil servants that can keep state institutions functioning as Syrians struggle to recover from this conflict.

Trying to build strong ties, which ultimately are about command and control, between people living through and fighting a war and exiled opposition figures is always a tough ask. Though the US this week welcomed the external civilian opposition's choice of Ghassan Hitto, an Islamist-leaning figure who's spent most of his adult life as an Information Technology professional in Texas, as their leader, it's hard to see Syrians in the thick of the fight against Assad ceding much authority to him.

While the US is trying to flow aid through the rebels it prefers, again and again reports from the ground in Syria indicate that rebel formations are willing to work with any group that they think can help them win. That includes groups like the US terrorist-designated Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The last bullet point reflects the US experience in Iraq, where Paul Bremer's first two orders as head of the occupation authority there were to initiate a purge of officials who belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and to disband the Iraqi army.

But whether victorious rebels will share the same views on Syria's Baath Party if they win, or will be hungry for revenge after so much blood has been spilled, is at best an open question.

Towards the end of his testimony Ford goes in to a fair bit of detail on US efforts, from establishing local government structures that can channel aid in rebel-controlled areas, and repair schools and electricity delivery. Repairing schools and power plants were high on the list of US priorities during the Iraq war, though much of the money for those purposes were stolen or wasted, even with direct US supervision.

"We are looking to improve civilian security through training and some non-lethal equipment," Ford said. "This is critical to preventing a security vacuum in liberated areas that will be exploited by extremists if we do not help stand up civilian police." The security vacuum after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq, in which the US tolerated looting of government infrastructure, helped set the stage of Iraq's descent into chaos that was soon to follow.

In the middle of a raging war, with any US supervision necessarily at arm's length, the success of such efforts are uncertain.

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