WASHINGTON – U.S.-led efforts to foster a moderate rebel force in northern Syria appear to have collapsed with the announcement Wednesday that the United States and Great Britain have stopped shipping aid to Western-backed fighters.
U.S. officials said they had halted the provision of nonlethal supplies over the weekend after Islamist fighters seized a headquarters and warehouses belonging to the U.S.-allied Supreme Military Command, in a town near the Turkish border. That operation was the latest in a string of setbacks for the Western-backed forces, who have suffered from a lack of supplies, internal divisions and an exodus of fighters to better-equipped Islamist brigades.
Analysts who monitor the conflict said the U.S. decision shows the Obama administration is still struggling to identify a viable pro-democracy ally on a battlefield that’s now dominated by al-Qaida extremists and ultraconservative Islamist factions. Some interpreted the move as a sign that the Obama administration might even be moving toward a policy shift that would keep President Bashar Assad in place and focus on preventing al-Qaida from becoming entrenched in northern Syria.
“For the administration, the survival of the regime is a tolerable outcome and it’s turning into a preferable outcome given the growing al-Qaida problem,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Six months ago, we could say the al-Qaida threat was overstated, but now it’s a real problem.”
At a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the suspension of nonlethal aid such as laptop computers and prepackaged meals didn’t mean that the U.S. was giving up on rebel chief Gen. Salim Idriss, a defector from the Syrian military who leads the Supreme Military Command.
Psaki said it was too early to tell when or if the nonlethal aid would resume and stressed that separate humanitarian aid operations weren’t affected.