New US aid to Syria's rebels is too little too late

The response of the US, the UK and other Western countries to the Syrian crisis has been slow, nervous and, compared to their actions elsewhere, utterly lacking in conviction and leadership.

John Kerry, the man who tried to be America's President and now its new Secretary of State, announced today that the United States will more than double its aid to the Syrian opposition and begin sending non-lethal aid directly to the rebels. The opposition had hoped to get weapons and is disappointed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) holds a news conference with Syrian National Coalition President Mouaz al-Khatib. Credit: ReutersJacquelyn Martin/Pool

But the move represents a shift in the administration's stance. Kerry justified the new aid for rebels by talking of the "brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah."

So the rebel Military Council can look forward to "an additional sixty million dollars in non-lethal assistance". Kerry mentioned medicine but failed to spell out the night vision gear, communications equipment, and armoured vehicles expected to be sent to the rebels.

The US may also do more to train rebels at a base in the region.

But the aid has come perhaps a year after the US might have given it. Last winter, Washington became very alarmed by the successes of an Islamist group, Jabat al-Nusra, which was proving itself to be the most effective force on the rebel side.

Panicked by its advances and the policy conundrum this presented to the US, the Americans decided to do nothing more to help the rebels.

The Americans decided to do nothing more to help the rebels. Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

By the summer, one group of rebels - Jihadis - were being fed weapons from Iraq and elsewhere, with Saudi money. Other rebels were running out of ammunition fast; they were sometimes down to a handful of bullets for each man and they were losing the small gains they had made.

So, a year on, this new US aid will go directly to those rebels, the "Free Syrian Army" (these days it is a very loose umbrella term) as opposed to other groups within Syria.

It remains to be seen whether this will even-up the battlefield against Bashar al-Assad, or simply give the non-Islamist rebels more firepower for the in-fighting that will almost certainly follow if and when Assad goes.

Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a joint news conference. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Wire

And then there's Britain. In stark contrast to its support for rebels in Libya, Britain has stayed to the rear of efforts to help Syria's rebels. The UK will announce more aid for the opposition "next week", according to the Foreign Secretary William Hague.

And the US is little better. There are no F16's above the skies of Damascus, challenging President Assad's warplanes. There are no (known) special forces liasing with Syrian rebels in government held territory.

President Assad is still in power and the West has little idea how to remove him. Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout

After two years of revolution, Assad is still in power and the West has little idea how to remove him and a policy that verges on incoherence; supporting rebels in Syria whose most effective fighters are Jihadis, while launching a war against Jihadis in Mali.

No, the West is reaching its hand out towards the flame of Syrian war, but pulling it back as quickly as it can. Calling from the sidelines for Assad to go, failing to bang opposition heads together to form a united front against him, failing to do anything for the best part of a year, then sending paltry, unaccounted sums in "non-lethal aid" doesn't add up to a policy the West can ever coherently defend.