x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syrian rebels open US lobbying agency

Lobbying for aid remains an uphill battle for the rebels, with Washington only publicly supporting groups it is convinced are committed to a secular, democratic Syria. Justin Vela reports from Washington

WASHINGTON // Brian Sayers is a former Nato political officer lobbying in the corridors of Washington on behalf of Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the country's president.

Not all the rebels, of course. Washington only publicly supports those rebel groups it is convinced are committed to a secular, democratic Syria.

Consequently, only a select group of fighters qualify to receive funds from the Syrian Support Group (SSG), the organisation where Mr Sayers works and the only group licensed by US authorities to fund the rebels.

Those constraints are at least one of the reasons why the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main anti-Assad political bloc, announced this week that is it planning to open offices in Washington and New York. Najib Ghadbian, an associate professor of political science and Middle East studies at the University of Arkansas who was born in the Damascus suburbs, will lead both offices.

The public-relations task facing both groups is daunting, not least because the Syrian opposition has not been able to put its own house in order.

Those internal divisions were evident again on Tuesday, when members of an SNC faction dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood rejected a proposal by the coalition's president, Moaz Al Khatib, to enter dialogue with the Assad regime, provided it meets certain conditions. It called for an emergency meeting to discuss the issue further.

Despite the discord in the rebel ranks, Mr Sayers described the SSG's reception in Washington as "fairly sympathetic".

"We have helped contribute to an overall intelligence understanding of the situation on the ground," he said in a recent interview.

Yet lobbying for aid to the rebels remains an uphill battle.

"There are different advocates out there for moving things, but you have to have a political will at the top, ultimately, to move forward. I don't see it right now," said Mr Sayer, alluding to resistance in the White House for more robust assistance to the anti-Assad forces.

All the money that the SSG sends to Syria is currently from private donations, though Mr Sayers refused to specify the amount. Most of the funds are earmarked for rebels' salaries, and none of it is to be used to buy weapons. But verifying the money trail is difficult.

"At the end of the day it's not funding that could be diverted for the most part. It's not been enough for lethal purposes. That's not within their purview anyway," he said.

Besides helping the insurgents' payroll, the SSG hopes to provide them with training on dealing with a chemical-weapons attack and on the Geneva Conventions and other international law pertaining to conduct during war.

"It's not just about salaries," Mr Sayers said. "It's also about how to influence and build a soft power."

The staff and board members of SSG profess no interest in playing a political role in post-Assad Syria. They are in regular contact with members of the political opposition and its armed wings, but deny any interest in returning to Syria, said a spokesman, Louay Sakka.

The lack of political motive is "the key to our success," Mr Sakka said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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