Washington Group Aiding Syrian Opposition

While President Obama is trying to convince members of Congress that action is needed in Syria, one Washington-based group is already aiding opposition forces. Host Michel Martin talks with Dan Layman of the Syrian Opposition Group about their efforts to fund the Free Syrian Army.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend some time today talking about Syria. As you probably know by now, President Obama has begun a campaign to persuade Congress to authorize military strikes against Syria in response to what the administration says was the use of chemical weapons by the government there against its own people. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is already convinced. Here he is speaking to NPR this morning.

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We have the capability to take out Bashar Assad's air capabilities, which are a key element in his advantage, and his delivery capabilities of chemical weapons and also to provide weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

MARTIN: In a few minutes, we will talk about how even the prospect of U.S. intervention is causing ripple effects in the global economy. The Wall Street Journal's Sudeep Reddy joins us for that story. First, though, we wanted to speak with a group that is already supporting the rebels in Syria. The Syrian Support Group is a Washington-based organization, founded, we are told, by Syrian-Americans, that raises money for the rebels in Syria.

We spoke with them just over a year ago and we thought now would be a good time to check back in with them. We're joined now by Dan Layman. He's the director of media relations for the Syrian Support Group, and he joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAN LAYMAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: We spoke with a representative of the group a little over a year ago after the group had just been granted a license by the U.S. Treasury that allowed it to raise money in the U.S. in behalf of the rebels. And I just wanted to ask how those efforts have proceeded, how much have you raised and what has that money been used for?

LAYMAN: Sure. So we've progressed significantly over the past year. It started out as primarily an advocacy organization, where we would advocate for the moderate rebel contingents in Congress, and we would collect money from primarily Syrian-American donors and send that over to vetted moderate brigades with whom members of our board were familiar.

Since then, starting in, I guess, about late April, we started getting State Department contracts to send in nonlethal supplies, like meals ready to eat - MREs - combat casualty bags, which are, essentially, personalized combat casualty kits, and field hospital surgical supplies. And to date, we've sent about $10 million of that over.

MARTIN: Presumably, you're in contact with these groups - members of your group are in contact with these groups. What is their assessment of the U.S. role so far? Do you feel you can say?

LAYMAN: Sure. I mean, a little bit of disappointment. That being said, we have seen very extreme uptick in willing U.S. support in the past just five or six months. Starting, like you say, around April with the shipment of nonlethal supplies. You had significant backing then for a political solution brokered by Assad and the military opposition. Starting in June, you had pushes to actually send arms over. And though that has not happened yet, we continue to be told that it will happen soon.

MARTIN: Is it your understanding, just from the relationships that your group has with groups that are in the country, that these military strikes being debated, would those be welcomed?

LAYMAN: They would be, yes. It's important, though, the strikes focus on certain targets. If you take out Assad's ability to resupply from the air, you take out airfields, take out his artillery positions, which the regime has notoriously used to just pound civilian areas into the ground rather than sending troops in - which would sustain losses - if you take away those capabilities and take out command-and-control centers as well, that's going to be very, very beneficial to the folks on the ground and they know that.

MARTIN: It has been reported that one of the reasons that the administration is reluctant to intervene more directly using military force of some type is part of a concern that, you know, you've said that your group has been working in support of groups that have been vetted, that they are known to be moderates, they are known by the people who are on the board of your group.

There's a concern that that really isn't possible anymore. That materiel could be then used by groups which we know to be hostile to the United States, including Al Qaeda. And I just wondered if you can speak to that?

LAYMAN: Sure. So here's the situation on the ground. It's estimated by the Supreme Military Council, which is the command structure of the moderate opposition forces, that there are between 120,000 and 150,000 opposition troops fighting. Of those, maybe 16 to 20 percent - we've estimated - are affiliated with non-moderate extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The contingent that they make up is not a large one, but it's important that we get behind - and we've been saying this - it's important that they get behind the moderate opposition soon because those radical incontingents are growing, because they do have wealthy gulf benefactors and because they are the best armed and best trained groups on the ground.

You know, when your average Free Syrian Army fighter sees that the moderate groups are not getting funding from the West, not getting arms, not getting food, things like that, he's naturally, for his own sense of self-preservation, going to join the extremist groups where he can get food, where he can get unlimited ammunition - that's just a sheer fact. In terms of weapons ending up in the hands of Islamic extremists if we sent them over now - I think the rebels have exhibited a very coherent and organized supply distribution structure. We've experienced that directly with the food and medical supplies that we sent in and I think that if we continue to use that structure we can feel fairly confident that the rebels will not proliferate those weapons to extremist groups.

MARTIN: You're saying in part that one reason that the U.S. should ramp up its level of support is that if it doesn't it just makes the extremist groups or those that would be considered hostile to the U.S. more attractive.

LAYMAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: That it shifts the balance of power to them.

LAYMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: And that's already happening.

LAYMAN: Exactly. And here's an example, just after Obama's speech on Saturday we had reports that Jabhat al-Nusra immediately began a smear campaign, saying any Syrian that backs or is for Western support for the Syrian opposition has betrayed the Syrian people. So they're really capitalizing on any temporizing or prevarication by the administration.

MARTIN: If the president is successful in persuading members of Congress to go forward with the targeted military strikes, as he said, which will not involve ground forces but just the limited initiative that he's laid out, will your group's work change?

LAYMAN: I think so, in some capacity. For one thing, it'll restore a lot of trust from the moderate's opposition in Western support and that'll open up a lot of avenues between the moderate opposition and members of Congress, members of the administration, and we can play a big role in facilitating the dialogue between those two.

MARTIN: Dan Layman is the director of media relations for the Syrian Support Group. As we said, that's a group that we are told was founded by Syrian-Americans it's, to this point, been providing nonlethal support to the Free Syrian Army - the Syrian opposition group. And he joined us here in Washington, D.C. - our Washington, D.C. studios. Dan Layman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LAYMAN: Thanks.

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