After Promising Military Aid, U.S. Sends Little To Syrian Rebels

Weeks have passed since President Obama promised aid to the Syrian rebels on a heightened scale, but there's been little evidence of such aid so far and most Americans remain opposed to a broader U.S. role in the conflict.

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One place military aid does not appear to be flowing yet is Syria. Rebel commanders in Syria say they are waiting for promised arms from the United States and growing impatient. Nearly a month has passed since the Obama administration said it would begin sending military help. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, opposition in Congress appears to be a stumbling block.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Obama administration had two explanations for its decision last month to start arming the Syrian rebels. First, it was called a respond to the use of chemical weapons by Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad. But Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes made clear even then the White House was also worried the rebels were losing ground on the battlefield to a Syrian army newly fortified by Assad's foreign allies.

BEN RHODES: We want the opposition to be as strong as possible. They are faced with a brutal regime that has shown no restraint in the actions that they've taken against them and also because of the fact that we've seen this increased foreign involvement, particularly from Iran and Hezbollah.

HORSLEY: The additional military aid was supposed to improve the rebels' fighting position so they wouldn't be at a disadvantage, if and when settlement talks began. Administration officials were guarded in describing the aid they wanted to send, but Rhodes said it shouldn't take long to deliver, given the ties the U.S. has built with the opposition over the last two years.

RHODES: In terms of timelines, you know, we have established these pipelines, so we don't anticipate that this is something that is, you know, far off into the future. This is part of the continuum of assistance that we've provided.

HORSLEY: That was four weeks ago and rebels say they're still waiting for the first delivery of U.S. armaments. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked what's taking so long or was the promise of additional military help just a bluff.

JAY CARNEY: We were not bluffing. The president was very serious, as I think he made clear. And, well, I'll just say that we'll continue to consult with Congress on this matter because I think it's very important.

HORSLEY: Some members of Congress have objected to the administration's plan for military aid, saying it goes too far in helping the rebels, while others complain it doesn't go far enough. Congressman Adam Schiff is in the first camp. The California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee worries that even if U.S. arms deliveries to the opposition start small, they won't stay that way.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: We would have to provide such a significant quantity of arms to affect the balance on the battlefield that I fear it really risks pulling us into the conflict. And, of course, we've found historically, getting in is easy and getting out is very difficult.

HORSLEY: The Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan have all appealed to lawmakers this week to support the military aid. Like some of his colleagues, though, Congressman Schiff is not persuaded.

SCHIFF: Certainly, the administration has been doing a significant amount of outreach and I think they're making the case as effectively as it can be made, but I think it's just a very tough case to make. And it's not just a question, I think, of persuading the Congress. I think the American people need to be persuaded and I don't think the country is there at all.

HORSLEY: A new Quinnipiac University poll supports that view. Pollster Peter Brown says nearly 60 percent of those surveyed oppose giving military aid to the Syrian rebels and that broad opposition cuts across party lines.

PETER BROWN: By roughly two to one, Americans say they don't see a national interest in aiding the Syrian rebels. Given recent history - the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq - it's very difficult to imagine there's much of an appetite in America for U.S. military involvement in many places.

HORSLEY: Obama himself was also reluctant to be dragged into another armed conflict in the Middle East. Having finally decided to arm the rebels more than two years after the war began, the White House says it will keep working with Congress to put that decision into effect. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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