The carefully chosen wording in the statement leaves unclear how much of the first $127 million is on the ground, and even State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki appears confused on the subject. In the past week, Psaki has declared the $127 million both “delivered” and “in train,” which she said meant that it was in the process of being distributed.
“The majority of U.S. assistance is spent out over time,” the State Department response said. “In the Syria case, it’s in the form of trainings, equipment provision, cash grants, support for essential services, etc. Based on the nature of these capacity-building and service provision efforts, it does not get spent all at once.”
The breakdown gives details of how chunks of the $127 million were allocated. The State Department said that $54 million – among the first money pledged – was spent on projects that helped to create a Free Lawyers’ Union in Daraa province, offered media training that allowed the broadcasting of Aleppo’s local election results last March and provided satellite phones so that opposition activists could still communicate after the regime imposed a blackout.
Another $63 million, already approved by Congress, “is being used to deliver basic community services,” such as repairing infrastructure and restarting public works in opposition-controlled areas. There are plans for summer schools in Aleppo and training for teachers to provide “psychosocial support to war-affected children.”
The balance of that $127 million – $10 million – was spent on aid for the Supreme Military Council, the group that’s nominally in charge of rebel militias and that the State Department has become more focused on after months of fruitless dealings with the political opposition. The money was spent on 200,000 battlefield meals, 529 medical kits and 3 tons of other medical supplies – not exactly what the outgunned rebels had in mind when they implored Western allies to supply heavy weapons and ammunition.
“The U.S. doesn’t have a clear policy and they’re facing the Russians, who have a coherent plan and who are supporting the Assad regime with weapons and with advisers on the ground – and the Iranians are doing the same,” said Nadim Shehadi, who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, a British research institute. “So what is the United States doing?”
The sheer logistics behind the aid distribution are dizzying.
Funding comes from a variety of State Department offices, such as the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; the Middle East Partnership Initiative; and Conflict and Stabilization Operations. No single point person oversees it all, said an official in the Syrian opposition’s Assistance Coordination Unit, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Other donor countries, such as France, are much more streamlined, the official said.
The Assistance Coordination Unit is a 40-person operation in Turkey that was created about six months ago to help foreign donors set priorities and to identify local implementers. It’s no secret that part of its mission is to confer legitimacy on the Syrian Opposition Coalition, making it seem as if the coalition members were capable of administering rebel-held territory. But its employees work almost entirely independently, preferring to keep a distance from the volatile politics of the larger group.
The State Department breakdown mentions direct support to the Assistance Coordination Unit in several places, with such lines as, “We also continue to provide assistance to the ACU to build its strategic, communications and operational capacity.”
That seemed a bit of a stretch to the coordination unit official, who spoke to McClatchy by phone while poring through the latest spreadsheets that track U.S. assistance. In six months, the official said, the U.S. had contributed just $215,000 in direct support to the Assistance Coordination Unit, which plans to post all such transactions online soon so as to foster transparency in the aid effort.
The official said there might have been other U.S. funding through different avenues, but couldn’t say for sure because of the murkiness of the process.
“It’s almost impossible to accurately trace the U.S. aid that’s coming or where it’s going,” the coordination unit official said. “It allows them that kind of wiggle room to make some of the statements they make in Washington.”