U.S. Supplies For Syrian Rebels May Be Too Little, Too Late

After determining that the Syrian government has crossed a red line by using chemical weapons, the White House has agreed to start sending military aid to the rebels. Some analysts think it may be too late to tip the balance in Syria, where Assad's forces backed by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia have been gaining ground.

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Rebels in Syria say they hope the U.S. will move quickly to supply them with weapons, this just one day after the White House decided to provide arms to the rebels' Supreme Military Council. American officials remain tight-lipped in public about what exactly they will send to the Syrian rebels. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some analysts believe the supplies might prove to be too little, too late.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A day after the White House announced its policy shift, the top rebel commander, Salim Idris, was on BBC, welcoming any support the rebels can get and urging the U.S. to move quickly.

BRIG. GEN. SALIM IDRIS: It is great. Don't hesitate. And please support us because we need your support.

KELEMEN: Idris says that Syrian government forces, after routing rebels in Qusair, are now poised to launch an assault on Aleppo, Syria's largest city partially controlled by the rebels for almost a year. Idris says his fighters need antitank missiles and antiaircraft missiles if they are to stand up to Bashar al-Assad's forces.

U.S. officials have been meeting with Idris, and one of President Obama's top foreign policy advisers, Ben Rhodes, describes the Supreme Military Council as the principal fighting force the U.S. has been working with.

BEN RHODES: We do want to be responsive to the requests that have been made by the SMC and General Idris, consistent with our own national interests. And we'll seek to get assistance into Syria in a timely way, and, again, we've already established pipelines to do that.

KELEMEN: News reports say the initial shipments will include small arms and ammunition to the rebels. Joseph Holliday, a fellow with the Institute for the Study of War, says he used to think that wouldn't make much of a difference.

JOSEPH HOLLIDAY: But I have to say, looking at the shift in momentum towards the regime's side, and the fact that that's correlated with a much lower amount of weapons coming in to the rebels, I'm starting to think that there's actually - you know, these weapons are pretty key for the rebels' ability to continue to fight the regime. And it's not just weapons, of course. Ammunition is really what we're talking about here.

KELEMEN: Holliday says the U.S. has slowly gained a better understanding of the rebel networks inside Syria as it's been distributing medical kits and food. Now he says the U.S. needs to pick up the pace despite the risks involved.

HOLLIDAY: So we have a decent idea of how those weapons might filter down, but, of course, the concern is that these weapons could wind up in the wrong hands.

KELEMEN: That's one reason for this carefully calibrated approach. Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace says the White House is worried not just about a Syrian government victory, but it's also concerned that more extremist rebels could take over.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: One of the big questions that the administration cares about is what do we do if the opposition wins and Syria falls under the control of these guys with beards? And so part of the hesitation about taking this step has been not only the fear of failure, but the fear of success. And yet I think conditions really did force its hand at this moment.

KELEMEN: Heydemann says the White House had to act because Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, have been gaining ground and because the U.S. wants the warring sides to come to the negotiating table, with rebels in a stronger position. He calls this the Goldilocks strategy.

HEYDEMANN: What they're trying to do is provide just the right weapons to just the right rebels to create just the right degree of pressure to induce the Assad regime to enter just the right negotiations leading to just the right outcome, but to do this in a way that will not either endanger Israeli security or empower extremists.

KELEMEN: And Heydemann says he doubts the U.S. or anyone else could provide that sort of fairytale outcome. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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