Syria's Moderate Rebels Fight A Battle On Two Fronts : Parallels On one side, they are battling forces loyal to the Assad regime; on the other, Islamist rebels from among their own ranks. But while the Islamists and the regime are both well-funded, the moderate rebels are looking to the U.S. for aid — and getting little in return.
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Syria's Moderate Rebels Fight A Battle On Two Fronts

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Syria's Moderate Rebels Fight A Battle On Two Fronts

Syria's Moderate Rebels Fight A Battle On Two Fronts

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Diplomats from the United States, Russia and the United Nations are in Geneva this week. They are trying to bring the warring sides in Syria to the negotiating table. The special responsibility of the United States here is to make sure the rebels show up ready to talk. The U.S. supports some rebel groups, but winning their cooperation has proven difficult. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Like many Syrian exiles, Murhaf Jouejati is frustrated by U.S. policy. The National Defense University professor says there has been only a trickle of U.S. aid to the secular, nationalist opposition in Syria, while the Islamists have had no trouble raising money through their networks.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: They are very well funded, they are very well equipped, they are highly trained, they are highly disciplined and highly motivated, and as a result, although their numbers are still small in comparison to the larger free Syrian army, they are the ones that are proving to be the most effective. This is not good news for Syria or for the regional neighborhood or for the world.

KELEMEN: The Treasury Department says it has been closely tracking the flow of money to al-Qaida linked groups in Syria. Much of it comes from private sources, so it's hard to stop, says Aaron Zellin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

AARON ZELLIN: The money is not coming from governments in the Gulf, it's coming from private citizens, and in particular places like Kuwait.

KELEMEN: Kuwait, Zellin says, has lax terrorism financing laws and many ultra-conservative Islamists called salifis in parliament.

ZELLIN: The salafis have been able to gain a lot of power within the country over the last 10 years or so and have been using their own charities to provide money and weapons to these different groups either through shell NGOs in southern Turkey that they'll create, or using banks in other countries to bring the money to Turkey and then into Syria as well.

KELEMEN: The U.S. estimates that these fundraising networks have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in donations that end up in the hands of al-Qaida affiliates like the Nusra Front, which is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist, or the Islamic state of Iraq in the Levant, which is waging war on both sides of Syria's border with Iraq.

Former State Department official William McCants, who is now with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, says these groups carry out their fundraising campaigns through social media.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: So if there's a big battle going on, you know, they will have a hashtag that includes the name of the battle and then they will make a specific plea for assistance to go to the mujahids who are fighting in Syria, or they will make a more general pitch for aid, humanitarian aid.

KELEMEN: Once the money is gathered, it's wired to individuals, often in Turkey.

MCCANTS: And those individuals will usually show up in a border town, pull out the money in cash and bring it across the border in suitcases or bags and hand it to the groups.

KELEMEN: And there is a real impact on the ground, McCants says. While the U.S. wants the opposition to get more organized and united under the umbrella of the supreme military council, the aid to that group has been slow to materialize while money flowing to extremist groups is driving the rebels apart.

MCCANTS: You read continually of groups that are aligned with the supreme military council of running out of ammunition, of not being able to pay their men. So the private money that's going to these other militias, these more ultra-conservative militias, are drawing in a lot of the young men just by virtue of having more cash on hand.

KELEMEN: And it's not just the jihadis who are able to raise funds easily in this conflict, says Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council.

FRED HOF: They are flush with money, they are flush with weapons. The regime on the other side is being supplied lavishly by both Russia and Iran. It's the people in the middle who are not getting what they need.

KELEMEN: The more moderate opposition fighters have had to hire a sanctions lawyer in Washington just to try to cut through U.S. regulations to try to get money and supplies to the groups the Obama administration says it supports. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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