Op-Ed: Obama wants half a billion to aid Syrian rebels, but why?

Posted Jul 2, 2014 by Nathan Salant
Unfortunately, it's far too early to tell whether U.S. President Barack Obama's recent proposal to spend $500 million in support of Syrian rebels will accomplish anything.
NERVE CENTER:  U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet in the O...
NERVE CENTER: U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet in the Oval Office in 2009.
Pete Souza-White House/Wikimedia Commons
Not only are prospects of approval uncertain in this strange-and-getting-stranger political environment, but it's also far from clear whether that will be enough money to make a difference or even whether U.S. officials are capable of getting it to the right people.
Regrettably, it's not even clear whether U.S. diplomats know who the right people are.
But they apparently think they do and are sure enough that Obama asked Congress to appropriate the cash, according to The New York Times.
Obama wants the Pentagon to “train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement,” the Times said.
“While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks,” Caitlin Hayden of the National Security Council told the Times.
The rebels, of course, have been fighting to overthrow Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad since 2011, and more than 160,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed in bloody attacks by both sides.
Hayden, an NSC spokeswoman, said the funds would provide supplies and training for rebel forces battling extremists, a break with U.S. policy so far of not supplying military assistance to any combatants.
But U.S. officials conceded that they did not yet know what programs were being made available to rebels and could not identify any Syrian opposition groups they intended to train and arm, the Times said.
“I think the president has realized that the containment of the Syria crisis has not worked,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Times.
The growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq demonstrated that the Syria crisis has “become a threat to the homeland, because this is a durable safe haven” for terrorists, Tabler said.
Obama's $500 million request is in addition to the cost of last week's decision to send 300 military advisers to Iraq to help the government of Nouri al-Maliki battle Islamic insurgents who have seized several major cities and embarassed the country's U.S.-trained army.