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Biscuits and Band-Aids vs. Scud missiles

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Biscuits and Band-Aids. Those two words sum up the farcical "new" policy toward Syria U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a Rome meeting with Syrian opposition leaders.

In what was ballyhooed as a major breakthrough, the United States will, for the first time, provide aid to the armed Syrian opposition. So what are we giving to help Syrian rebels confront the missiles and bombs that have killed tens of thousands of civilians? Not desperately needed anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons, but medical aid and MREs, those ready-to-eat-meals used as field rations for American soldiers.

Biscuits and Band-Aids to combat Bashar al-Assad's Scud missiles.

The Rome meeting was supposed to be a high point of Kerry's first overseas tour, aimed at enhancing the credibility of moderate Syrian opposition leaders. Instead, it had the opposite effect, undercutting their credibility and raising the question of whether Washington really wants Assad gone.

The administration is rightly worried that al-Qaida-linked groups are taking the lead in the battle against the Syrian president, but apparently not worried enough to stop them. Radical Islamists raise funds from the Arab Gulf, which enables them to attract recruits and distribute charity to desperate civilians. Moderate groups led by defecting Syrian officers or civilians are short of bullets. This raises the spectre of a dominant Islamist presence on the ground if Assad falls.

Meantime, neither moderates nor Islamists have the heavy weapons needed to counter the regime's planes and missiles. This has led to a military stalemate. The longer this fight goes on, the more likely Syria will become a failed state and a mecca for jihadis in the heart of the Middle East.

That's why former administration officials Hillary Rodham Clinton, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, supported a plan to arm and train certain Syrian rebels who had been CIA-vetted. President Barack Obama declined.

The administration says it wants to facilitate a negotiated solution. Kerry says his goal is to change Assad's calculus (and that of his allies in Moscow). "He needs to know that he can't shoot his way out of this," Kerry said in Rome, adding that Assad is "out of time and must be out of power." But Kerry's puny military aid offer sends the opposite message.

"Biscuits and Band-Aids won't have a big impact at this point," says Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, who has been working with tribal and clan leaders on ideas for a Syrian transition. "Syria and Russia won't be overly concerned."

True, Kerry also announced an additional $60 million to help the umbrella Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) provide services in areas controlled by rebels. This is a positive step. But that aid can't stop Assad's missiles and bombs.

As the war drags on, large tribal areas of Syria are coming under the control of radical elements. According to Shaikh, "The whole area east of the Euphrates could come under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaida-linked militia). So we would have less and less control even if Assad falls."

As for negotiations, Shaikh says: "The regime will never negotiate in good faith. They believe they are winning." Assad's backers in the Kremlin and in Tehran also believe he can hold on.

There is only one way to shift that thinking: convince the regime and its backers Assad could lose. To do that, the United States and its allies would have to shift the Syrian military balance -- by arming and training certain rebel commanders and units. Washington knows who those commanders are. The CIA had officers on the Turkish border for a year, and they met with many rebel officers from inside Syria.

The risk of heavy weapons going astray could be minimized; a new Syrian Free Army command was organized in December that could be used as a control.

Instead, Kerry's announcement in Rome has undercut the SOC and the rebel military command structure by leaving Assad free to bomb. Syrian sources close to the Free Syrian Army say Kerry's offer has spurred a huge wave of anger, along with a stream of bitter jokes.

There's a slim chance Kerry's pledge is only a first step. Britain and France have promised to send night-vision goggles and body armour -- still too little, too late, but better than MREs.

Yet much more is required to break the military stalemate. Washington, or its allies, would have to boost the capacity of the Free Syrian Army with training and heavy weapons. Obama would have to play hardball with the Russians, insisting that, if they don't push harder, we'd help the opposition win.

There's no sign Obama is heading in that direction. "You have a president who doesn't want to own this conflict and is very popular for saying he got us out of the Middle East," says Shaikh, correctly. "If he doesn't do more, soon, he won't be able to shape the situation on the ground."

Biscuits and Band-Aids won't persuade Assad he can't shoot his way out.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

-- McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2013 A11

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