U.S. Aid To Rebels In Syria: Too Little Too Late?

Washington Post reporter Liz Sly tells Renee Montagne that U.S. arms may be flowing to moderate Syrian rebels, but the aid seems to be too little too late to affect the course of the civil war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As the fighting between Gaza and Israel rages on, so too does the civil war in neighboring Syria. On one day alone last week, some 700 died in a battle over oilfields in eastern Syria. That battle pitted the militant Islamist group, ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic state, against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS is also attacking moderate rebel groups. And after years of hesitation, the U.S. is beginning to provide arms to those moderate rebels. Washington Post reporter Liz Sly has spent the last three years covering Syria and is just back from the border. Good morning.

LIZ SLY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk first about aid and what kind of aid is now reaching the moderate opposition, as some of these groups are called - for instance, The Free Syrian Army.

SLY: In the past few months we've seen an uptick in the tradition of small arms, ammunitions and, for the first time, some anti-tank missiles which are of American origin and have been approved for use by The Free Syrian Army by the Americans. And they are being sent to these moderate groups via a sort of umbrella coalition of ally countries - Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The United States and European allies - Turkey. All of them together are funneling this aid to the moderates in the hope of strengthening them against both the regime and also, increasingly, against these extremists.

MONTAGNE: So some weapons have - as you understand it - actually reached the rebels?

SLY: Yes. Yes, and we've seen them using them. And earlier this year, I actually went and met the first rebel group to get these anti-tank missiles. And they showed me around their base and showed me that they were trained to be a different and more sophisticated and more disciplined and more organized rebel army than all the other groups that we've seen in the past which have been quite widely divided in some quarters for being disorganized and undisciplined. And this group has - we know - received quite a large number of these anti-tank missiles. And they have been using them with quite good effect against government positions in recent weeks.

MONTAGNE: And yet, even so, you write that the outlook for the revolt against the President Bashar al-Assad is now bleaker than any time in the past three years. Why?

SLY: Well, yes, that's basically what the rebels I've been talking to are telling me. There's a lot of despondency out there because in the past year or more, the rebels have lost of important ground. They've lost Homs, a central city that was very important to them. They've been squeezed into the suburbs of Damascus although they have not lost their stronghold there at the moment. And in the north, they've been very badly squeezed there being pushed out of Aleppo by government advances there. And Aleppo was really considered a very important center for the revolutionaries. And just as important, at the same time, they're being pushed out of the east and northeast by this extremist Islamic state group which has just rampaged through Iraq and then is building on its advance and the morale boost it got there to also gain some significant victories in northern Syria.

MONTAGNE: So is ISIS a key part of the concern of the more moderate rebel groups in terms of how they're doing?

SLY: Well, yes - this is all sort of long and complicated story. But when the extremists started to emerge, that provoked reluctance by the U.S. and its allies to arm The Free Syrian Army. And so The Free Syrian Army got frustrated and more and more people are inclined to join the extremists. And they got help from elsewhere, and they got stronger and stronger. So we've reached the point now where the extremists are stronger than the moderates, and everybody's getting rather alarmed about this and rather belatedly trying to bolster the moderates against them.

MONTAGNE: I also wonder, finally, has brutality of ISIS, the Islamic state - again, as they call themselves - has that led some Syrians who may have opposed Assad to rethink that - to think that maybe they should be looking to the government after all?

SLY: Well, certainly in some areas I would say - especially around the capital Damascus which is a sophisticated, urban city. People do not want to live under Islamic law. But when you're looking at places in the edge of the country, these northern provinces, people are desperate. And they know that if Assad does come back into their areas, they're not necessarily going to survive. They're fighting for their lives. And when they see this group come along that's got arms, money and weapons and resources that the moderates have never had, it's very tempting for them to join that group and fight for their survival.

MONTAGNE: Liz Sly of the Washington Post, thank you very much.

SLY: Thank you.

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