WASHINGTON -- While State Department officials are fond of saying they’re providing hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the Syrian opposition, only a fraction of the promised funds has arrived, and none has gone to the political body the U.S. looks to as an alternative to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The State Department this month released the most in-depth aid information to date after weeks of requests from McClatchy, and the figures back up the complaints of Syrian opposition leaders that the United States has been slow in fulfilling a pledge of more than $250 million. The topic is only expected to get thornier now that the administration has promised even more nonlethal aid after concluding that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons.
Such aid is separate from U.S. humanitarian assistance, which now totals more than $800 million pledged, including President Barack Obama’s announcement late Monday of a $300 million boost. Both the humanitarian and nonlethal aid are extremely hard to track to their intended destinations, given the chaos of wartime Syria, the number of agencies involved and a reluctance to label aid as coming from the United States because of political concerns.
So how much of what the State Department calls “transition assistance” has made it to opposition hands? After nearly a month of hedging, some inaccurate responses and sometimes no answer at all, the department’s formal reply only partially solves that mystery.
The State Department said that $127 million in U.S. nonlethal aid had “gone out” to the opposition and that another $123 million was still being discussed in Congress. The department recognizes that the program was slow to take shape.
Officials said the funds were held up by a time-consuming process of vetting recipients in order to stop aid from going to extremists, winning approval from U.S. lawmakers and carving out delivery mechanisms in a war zone.
“Now that those pipelines are established, we’re in a position to get money moving quickly,” a State Department official, insisting on anonymity as per department protocol, said in a statement that accompanied the aid figures.
The department cautioned that the $123 million would include “communications equipment and vehicles, and will take several months to be purchased and delivered.” And that’s only after the weeks it might spend tied up in Congress.
The four-page breakdown also acknowledges for the first time that the Obama administration hasn’t sent a dime yet to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which it recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and has spent months trying to shape into a cohesive body. Officials say privately that they’re losing patience with the fractious exile group, which has failed to agree on a leader, form a transitional authority or win legitimacy on the ground.
The State Department official conceded that “we have not given any cash” to the coalition, but insisted that it wasn’t because the department was withholding funds. U.S. officials have told McClatchy separately that the State Department is considering diverting more than $60 million earmarked for the coalition because of rising frustration over the group’s deadlock.
“The State Department has tried to use money as a blunt instrument, an incentive to have greater coordination,” said Rex Brynen, a professor at McGill University in Montreal who’s written extensively about the Arab Spring revolts. “But it’s a Catch-22. You don’t want to provide the assistance if they’re disorganized, and yet the lack of resources contributes to them staying disorganized.”