Syrian Opposition Fears Waning Western Support

After prodding the Syrian opposition to reorganize into a more inclusive organization, the Obama administration has failed to support the group. France, Britain and other allies of the opposition are channeling their humanitarian aid for Syria through the new coalition. There is a legal impediment holding up U.S. action.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk next about the uprising in Syria, where many people are asking, what happened to the United States? The U.S. promised practical help to the Syrian opposition, but NPR's Deborah Amos reports that help has not arrived.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This was the scene last month in Morocco, at the Friends of Syria meeting. The Obama administration recognized the Syrian National Coalition; so have 130 other nations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BURNS: Good afternoon, everyone.

AMOS: Here's Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, representing the U.S.

BURNS: The step that we took with regard to recognition today is important politically, and it's also important practically.

AMOS: Practically, because Burns pledged U.S. assistance to the coalition, and to local civilian councils.

BURNS: Especially in areas of Syria that had been freed from regime control, so that basic services can be restored.

AMOS: The recognition was a diplomatic gamble, says Fred Hoff, a former State Department official, to help build a clear alternative to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

FRED HOFF: Now, the challenge is: How does the United States, along with the other countries, give credibility to this new organization by funneling support through it?

AMOS: But despite U.S. promises in Morocco, U.S. policy has stalled, says Hoff.

HOFF: You've got this mix of legal considerations and policy considerations.

AMOS: And the result is clear, in the latest State Department report on aid to Syria.

HOFF: But if you focus on assistance to the new Syrian opposition coalition, you have some difficulty in identifying substantial items.

AMOS: Direct support isn't coming soon, say sources familiar with administration deliberations, due to strict legal interpretations. John Bellinger knows a lot about international law. He's a former adviser to the State Department, and he points out the Obama administration still recognizes the Assad regime as the legal government of Syria. The coalition? That's the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

JOHN BELLINGER: Now, that's really more of a political endorsement - sort of an attaboy - rather than having any legal effect.

AMOS: The distinction matters, he says. For one thing, arming the coalition - that's prohibited by international law and the U.N. charter, which bars interference in a country's internal affairs. Remember, the U.S. recognizes Assad as the legitimate government.

But what about channeling humanitarian aid to the Syrian coalition for food, fuel and medicine?

BELLINGER: If one is being absolutely strict and pure, I suppose that any outside supply of aid - whether it is military, lethal aid; non-lethal aid; or even humanitarian aid - would be interference in the internal affairs of another country.

AMOS: The U.S. has supplied more than $200 million of humanitarian aid through the U.N. and other traditional aid groups. The U.S. has also spent $50 million on training courses in Turkey for Syrian activists, media workshops and democracy programs; but so far, hasn't fulfilled the pledge of assistance to the Syrian National Coalition.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: From my own, personal perspective, I think that the resistance is all kind of - it really is just an excuse.

AMOS: That's Elizabeth O'Bagy, a research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. She tracks the Syrian opposition, and says U.S. backing pushed moderates into leading roles in the new coalition.

O'BAGY: It started as a very moderate, U.S. initiative.

AMOS: U.S. recognition was another boost, she says. But now, withholding assistance has undermined those moderates.

O'BAGY: And I think that's the Catch-22 - is that all along, the U.S. government has been afraid of the more extremist elements within the Syrian opposition; and they've actually empowered those very elements that they've been afraid of.

AMOS: For example, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood has maneuvered into more dominant roles.

O'BAGY: Because they have the money, they have the connections, they have the resources.

AMOS: Now, a power struggle in the opposition has delayed naming a transitional government for Syria. It's an important step, says Hoff.

HOFF: But what members of the opposition are also very sensitive about is the possibility that such a provisional government could fail.

AMOS: Fail because of weak support from Western and Arab allies. Syria's Bashar al-Assad is also gauging that support as he digs in, in Damascus.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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