Much has been made of the announcement that the Obama administration is finally going to provide direct assistance to the rebels in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry vowed not to leave the rebels, who have been fighting against a murderous regime for two years, “dangling in the wind.” Indeed, the Syrian opposition has been so disappointed by the lack of international support that it announced a boycott of Thursday’s international meeting on Syria. It took a phone call from Kerry — and a promise of more aid — to convince Syrian National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib to come.
Khatib showed up. But the aid package that Kerry unveiled must have been a bitter disappointment: $60 million in nonlethal assistance to the civilian opposition, along with some ready-to-eat meals and medical supplies for rebel soldiers. That is no match for the heavy weaponry that Russia and Iran are sending to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. The US gift will not even come in the form of cash, but rather in-kind donations. One State Department official said the aid would include "anything from radios for local police to schoolbooks that you're trying to buy for kids." At a time when missiles are being aimed at civilians, and 70,000 have been killed, that kind of aid sounds absurd. Mohammad Sarmini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, called it "embarrassing." Syrian civilians need a humanitarian corridor or a no-fly zone, not schoolbooks. Pretending otherwise may play well for the American public, but it doesn't fool anyone in Syria.
To add insult to injury, the United States has not only withheld its own military support, but also pressured Saudi Arabia and Qatar to refrain from giving the rebels weapons, out of fear that they will end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. As a result, many of the rebels' weapons have come from private donors — often the very extremists the United States wants the rebels to shun.
There are good reasons to be wary of arming a disunified rebel movement, including the desire to avoid an intractable proxy war that could engulf the entire region. But raising hopes of real assistance and then failing to deliver hurts American credibility. It also disillusions the forces in Syria that are fighting for their lives. It puts the United States in the worst of both worlds: accused by Assad's allies of meddling in Syria and accused by the rebels of abandonment. If the Obama administration wants Assad to take its warnings seriously, then it has to back up its words with more than schoolbooks. There are times when sitting on the fence proves more costly than picking sides.