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ISTANBUL — Syria's bloody civil war is threatening to turn into a regional conflict. For six days in a row as of Oct. 8, Turkey has lobbed artillery into northern Syria in response to shells from President Bashar al-Assad's military landing on its territory.
Even as the conflict escalates, however, the United States still appears fixated on the peaceful activists who dominated the early days of what is now a 19-month revolt. U.S. policy remains geared to providing only nonlethal support to the Syrian opposition, which rebels and activists deride as useless to those fighting the insurgency. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are moving in to fill the vacuum left by the United States by supplying the rebels with lethal aid, bolstering their influence among the rebels.
The United States has consistently said Assad must relinquish power, but it has been hesitant to become heavily involved in Syria's insurgency. The U.S. financial commitment in Syria has been limited: At a meeting of the "Friends of Syria," a group of 70 countries supporting the opposition, the United States increased the funds it allotted to the Syrian opposition to $45 million. The amount allotted for humanitarian aid currently stands at $130 million.
The most overt form of assistance provided by the United States to the Syrian opposition is the State Department's Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS), an organization established to aid opposition activists trying to bring down the Assad regime and located in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul.
State Department strategic planner Maria Stephan, a prominent theorist of nonviolent resistance, was dispatched to oversee the training that OSOS provides to activists. Stephan, a State Department veteran whose foreign postings include Afghanistan and Libya, is the co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. She is also the former director of policy and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
Stephan had already been meeting with activists in Istanbul for months before the OSOS trainings began in August, according to multiple activists who met with her during this time. She organizes and observes the training on civil resistance, media production, promoting anti-sectarian thought, and avoiding communications monitoring, according to a Syria-based activist who traveled to Istanbul for the OSOS trainings. Activists from other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, conduct the workshops.
A British consultant also works with OSOS as an advisor, but he said he was not cleared by the State Department to speak about its activities. The State Department refused requests to interview Stephan.
The United States is relying on OSOS as one of its central points of contact with the Syrian opposition. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's August visit to Istanbul, she snubbed the Syrian National Council, which has failed to coalesce into a unified opposition body, and instead met with activists being trained by OSOS.
OSOS pays for activists' trip to Istanbul, as well as their stay in an upscale hotel if they can manage the perilous journey to Turkey. At the end of the training they are given a satellite phone and computer and are expected to return to Syria -- though not all do, according to activists familiar with OSOS.
"Most of them stayed outside of Syria. We were 34; only six of us came back," said an activist in Syria who attended one of the trainings. "I don't know about the equipment; I know those who are in Syria now with it."
OSOS also sends communications-related equipment into Syria through other avenues, though the amount is unclear. Activists have complained that the State Department's pledges of assistance have gone undelivered. "There is no kind of relief coming inside Syria. Where is the program you promised?" said one activist who attended OSOS training.