U.S. engages with the Free Syrian Army

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The U.S. aid package of food and medicine to the Free Syrian Army should be understood in a larger context than the immediate humanitarian needs it addresses. The move from the Obama administration signals readiness to start working directly with the FSA, and is an evaluation of the group’s ability to manage and utilize aid.

The package which is still being prepared by the U.S. State Department will most likely include meals ready to eat, medical supplies and chlorine filters.

Signal to the Regime

In describing the aid, a senior U.S. official tells Al-Arabiya, “it sends a signal to the (Assad) regime that we are going with the Free Syrian Army just like other countries are.” The FSA is considered the largest armed opposition group with Salim Idris as the head of its Supreme military command, and a loose coalition of military councils, brigades and units who will be responsible for distributing the aid. The U.S. had refrained from sending aid packages directly to the group in the past, and had instead relied on UN organizations or most recently the Syrian National Coalition as the main vehicles to channel such assistance.

The aid poses the question on whether the Obama administration is moving in the direction of arming the Syrian opposition. The U.S. official maintains that Washington has not closed the door permanently on the issue

Joyce Karam

The official contends that Washington has made a “major decision in directly working with General Salim Idris to provide food and medicine”. The U.S. has also established direct contact with FSA commanders on the ground. Washington has “talked to some of the commanders and they have been very helpful in getting the U.N. humanitarian assistance convoys from Latakia up to Atme” in Northern Syria says the official. The communication took place in February and the delivery involved clashes with Jabhat Nusra, the more radical opposition group, as the FSA tried to help in getting the aid to the civilian population.

Testing the Waters

In choosing to send the aid directly to the fighters, the U.S. is acknowledging the role of the FSA, and is testing the waters and the effectiveness of such policy. According to Brian Sayers of the “Syrian Support Group”, an opposition lobby group inside Washington, the aid package “while it may appear minimal, is of symbolic importance in recognizing the FSA as a military force on the ground” and establishing a “working relationship with Idris and the military councils” inside Syria.

Sayers anticipates that the U.S. will be watching very closely the FSA’s management and distribution of the aid. A critical goal for Washington is strengthening the “moderate” fighters, and preventing the aid or third party armed assistance from reaching Jabhat Nusra, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. The U.S. will most likely be monitoring the flow and the usage of the aid, to see whether unintended groups will be among its recipients.

The aid poses the question on whether the Obama administration is moving in the direction of arming the Syrian opposition. The U.S. official maintains that Washington has not closed the door permanently on the issue, and has “never said no forever on arming.” He adds: “right now we are not sending arms but the President (Obama) has left all options open.” There is no doubt that the administration is taking a more proactive role in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated yesterday that “the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it's France or Britain or others.” While CNN, quoting a senior rebel spokesman, reported over the weekend that Syrian fighters are getting training on using sophisticated-weapons, organized and authorized by the United States at a camp in Jordan.The training reportedly involves the use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.

The Treasury department has also loosened previous restrictions on sending financial aid to Syria. It issued a general license on Friday allowing Americans financial transfers to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Also this week, both chambers of the U.S. congress will introduce bills to authorize limited arming for “vetted Syrian opposition groups.” One of the bills introduced by Congressman Eliot Engel calls on the White House to “consider means to enhance the capability of friendly Syrian opposition military forces and to limit the Assad regime’s ability to carry out airstrikes on civilian populations and opposition forces.”

By announcing official contact with the FSA and testing their ground game, the Obama administration is expanding its options and leverage in the Syrian conflict. While it remains focussed on achieving a political solution, the absence of a viable process and the changing dynamic on the ground, is pushing Washington towards accepting the militarization of the conflict, and strengthening the FSA as a way to increase pressure on Assad.

(Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam)

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