WASHINGTON – More than two months after they were promised, U.S. weapons and ammunition have not reached America’s allies among the Syrian rebels, and their delivery date remains unclear, according to the Syrian opposition and Middle Eastern diplomats.
Khalid Saleh, an official of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said in a telephone interview from Turkey that, while U.S. officials continue to promise arms, “nothing has come through yet, and we haven’t been given a specific date when we’ll see them.” The rebels, who have been pressing for months for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, have still not been told what kind of military aid they will receive, he said.
The White House announced June 13 that, in light of its conclusion that the Syrian government had used lethal chemical weapons in the 2-year-old civil war, the administration would provide “military assistance” to the rebels.
The deliveries, which White House officials promised in “weeks, not months,” were seen as a step toward greater U.S. military involvement. U.S. agencies have so far provided only nonlethal equipment, such as mobile radios, and $1 billion in humanitarian aid.
But, as the slow pace of the arms deliveries underscores, the administration remains conflicted about the move. Fearing that the arms could fall into the hands of Islamist militants who make up a growing part of the rebel forces, officials have been moving carefully to vet potential recipients of the arms.
The weapons are expected to be small arms and not the more powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles rebels want.
The rebels already receive arms from Persian Gulf countries, and U.S. shipments are not expected to shift the balance in the war. But the move was intended to strengthen Washington’s ties to the rebels and send a message to the Syrian government, as well as its Iranian and Russian allies, that the United States could increase its involvement.
Andrew Tabler, a veteran Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he reads the slow pace of deliveries as a sign of “Obama’s reticence to get involved.”
Even when the arms deliveries do begin, “I think what we see will be extremely incremental,” said Tabler, who advocates a more active U.S. role.