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Rebels in Syria suffer losses on two fronts

The Syrian army says it recaptured a strategic motorway as a pledge of support for the opposition from Washington is less than expected. Taimur Khan reports

Anti-regime protesters in Syria at a demonstration in Idlib province on Friday. Edlib News Network / AP Photo
Anti-regime protesters in Syria at a demonstration in Idlib province on Friday. Edlib News Network / AP Photo

NEW YORK // The Syrian army claimed yesterday to have recaptured a vital motorway leading to Aleppo as Washington's latest offer of support for the opposition has led to questions over its commitment to supporting the rebels.

The loss of the motorway, which links the city of Hama with Aleppo's international airport, would be a major blow for the rebels and could alter the balance in the months-long battle for Syria's largest city.

Troops carried out special operations in towns and villages along the road, restoring stability there and at the airport, the Syrian Army's general command said in a statement on the Syrian state-run Sana news agency.

The setback for the rebels came after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, announced on Thursday that Washington would for the first time provide direct, non-lethal aid such as food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as increase by US$60 million (Dh220m) its efforts to help the western-backed political bloc provide services in rebel-held areas.

Far from being the game-changer he had promised, Mr Kerry's announcement shows that the US still has no coherent strategy for breaking the war's bloody stalemate, which may alienate its rebel allies, Syria observers said.

"What the US has done might make the situation worse," said Marina Ottaway, a senior Middle East scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center think tank. "He promised not to let the rebels dangle in the wind, but in reality he offered very little and the US is certainly going to pay the price for that."

The FSA and its political wing, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), could write off the US as a source of support, she added and "the US will have no influence in the end".

In Tehran yesterday, Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers said Washington's decision to provide aid to rebels will only prolong the fighting. The remarks by Syria's Walid Al Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, were the first official statements from the two nations following Thursday's announcement.

The diplomats also emphasised that whether Syrian president Bashar Al Assad stays or goes will be decided in elections scheduled for next year.

Non-lethal aid is not going to provide the additional pressure that might convince Mr Al Assad to step aside to let others negotiate for him, nor will it satisfy the opposition, said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle Eastern affairs at the National Defense University in Washington and an adviser to the SOC. "It maintains the things the way they were but with a bit more assistance to show that the administration has done slightly more - and this alienates parts of the opposition."

The US administration has so far refused to directly provide arms and other military support to the rebels, with officials citing fears of weapons falling into hands of jihadists.

A decade of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan has also taught military planners and politicians that America's ability to shape outcomes in other countries' wars is questionable.

Washington deeply fears being drawn into a protracted conflict that could engulf the region if Mr Al Assad falls and there is fighting between rebel factions to fill the power vacuum.

The US has so far hoped to avert this by pushing for negotiations that lead to a political transition, and has been content to increase pressure in peripheral ways, such as strengthening the SOC's ability to provide services and governance in rebel-held towns in a bid to become an alternative to the Assad regime.

Until now, "the SOC has not been particularly effective or relevant to most Syrians, so building these councils at this time may be a way to bolster its ability to interact and sell itself to the people", said Leila Hilal, the director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington. "But in terms of a strategy for transitioning the country out of violent civil war of attrition, I don't think it is that."

The daily realities of a war in which an estimated 70,000 have been killed and millions displaced may make this strategy divisive among Syrians whose allegiances are being sought by a range of rebel groups, and who hear US promises but see few real results.

"The only thing Syrians care about in terms of whether or not they are going to judge the US as being helpful or not, is whether or not the killing stops, which remains to be seen," Ms Hilal said.

They will likely be forced to keep waiting for a breakthrough in the political impasse that is set to prevail as Russia and Iran continue to support the Assad regime.

What could begin to force the Assad regime to change its calculations is the news, reported last week in the New York Times newspaper, that Saudi Arabia was increasing the flow of more powerful weapons to rebels in the south of Damascus, opening a new front and a potential point of pressure. "That would be a more significant development than Kerry standing up and saying that we're providing money for sanitation services," Ms Hilal said.

The US is likely involved in these efforts, at least indirectly, but does not want to take credit because it fears that if acknowledged, it would create a slippery slope to long-term commitment, Ms Hilal added.

Barack Obama, the US president,  also has more pressing foreign policy priorities in the region, saying recently that when he evaluates his options in Syria he has to consider the ongoing withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

"The answer has to do with the Russians," said Daniel Serwer, a former State Department official now teaching at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies in Washington.

"Obama is concerned that if we go too far in arming the opposition, the Russians will retaliate against us in the Northern Distribution Network, which they essentially control and which is vital to the withdrawal from Afghanistan," he said.

Whether the new direct relationship between the FSA and the US leads to a more trusting relationship that eventually eases Washington's fears about providing the arms necessary to topple Mr Al Assad is an open question, the analysts said, but it is one that the slow pace of debate and limited actions may ultimately render moot.

"The one fact in all of this," said Mr Jouejati, "is that the radical Islamists are being strengthened by the absence of a concerted international effort to make Assad cease and desist."

tkhan@thenational.ae