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.”
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.”