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U.S. halts nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition

by New York Times News Service on December 12, 2013 10:10 AM

WASHINGTON — Just a month before a peace conference that will seek an end to the grinding civil war in Syria, the Obama administration’s decision to suspend the delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate opposition demonstrated again the frustrations of trying to cultivate a viable alternative to President Bashar Assad.

The administration acted after several warehouses of U.S.-supplied equipment were seized Friday by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate, U.S.-backed opposition, but who also battle al-Qaida.

Administration officials said the suspension was temporary and that aid could flow again. Under the administration’s division of labor, the State Department is in charge of supplying nonlethal aid to Syria while the Central Intelligence Agency runs a covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels.

But with rebels feuding with each other instead of concentrating on fighting Assad, and with the U.S. still groping for a reliable partner in Syria, the odds of any peace conference breaking the cycle of bloodshed appeared to have dimmed.

For the White House, which has pinned its hopes for Syria on a political solution, the fracturing of the opposition raises a number of thorny questions, including whether the U.S. should work more closely with Islamist forces as it sometimes did in Iraq.

“For all practical purposes, the moderate armed opposition that the administration really wanted to support — albeit in a hesitant and halfhearted way — is now on the sidelines,” said Frederic C. Hof, who as a State Department official who worked on plans for a political transition in Syria and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Under such circumstances, Hof said, the prospects for major progress at the peace conference were “pretty grim.”

The impact of the aid suspension was hard to gauge, as rebels have routinely complained that aid from the U.S., Britain and their allies is too little, too late and has had little influence on the conflict.

Many antigovernment activists reacted with scorn and bravado, saying they did not care about the suspension of aid that they believed had been mostly for show.

“What nonlethal assistance?” said Moaz, an activist who recently fled Syria. “The U.S. is supporting us with expired tuna, and in this way they think they are supporting the revolution.”

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