The objections to this approach are clear, and should not be lightly dismissed. Such cross-border assistance in the absence of U.N. authorization would take place in an uncomfortable legal grey zone. Many fear it could open the door to military intervention and undermine longstanding international legal norms governing humanitarian neutrality. Humanitarian organizations object to the politicization of relief, which threatens to undermine the imperative to provide aid solely on the basis of need. They worry that the Syrian opposition currently lacks the capacity to handle or effectively deliver the aid, and would do so less efficiently than established organizations.
Meanwhile, groups currently working quietly on the ground fear that a public push for such aid could threaten existing channels. Aid could be captured by local warlords and used as an instrument for intra-opposition political battles. It could make aid workers a military target. And it could rupture existing aid networks and end Syrian government cooperation with humanitarian relief operations.
But unlike with military options, the benefits here outweigh the costs. The sheer magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and the failures of the current system provide overwhelming incentives. The aid currently allowed in by the Syrian government disproportionately helps people in government-controlled territory, leaving the vast numbers of Syrians in rebel-controlled areas in desperate need. This has the pernicious effect of strengthening Assad's control of his territory while undermining the emergent opposition leadership. It is simply not clear that the current system of small-scale, quiet relief efforts is worth preserving.
Direct humanitarian aid to local organizations, channeled through Syrian opposition institutions, would not only alleviate immediate suffering, but would also be a major step toward the development of meaningful and effective alternative governance. The institutional capacity for delivering aid, which is now unfortunately lacking, is the same institutional capacity needed to effectively govern. Pushing the humanitarian assistance through opposition channels is the best way to strengthen them, to show progress toward improving conditions in rebel-controlled areas, and to give the opposition something to demonstrate its relevance on the ground.
What about the war? The best way for the United States to affect the course of the conflict is not to arm the rebels. Instead, it is to more forcefully coordinate the military and civilian aid that Syria is already receiving. Since the conflict has already regrettably been militarized, and there's clearly no going back, a coordinated flow of arms is better than an uncoordinated flow of arms.
Currently, military aid to the rebels flows through Gulf and regional governments and private citizens directly to local commanders and fighting forces, while humanitarian aid is channeled primarily through NGOs operating with the consent of the Syrian government. This generates a distinctive political economy of war that has distinctly pernicious effects -- encouraging the fragmentation of the opposition, deepening geographic and political divides, discouraging a coherent political strategy, and creating rent-seeking incentives for ongoing warfare. The uncoordinated, often competitive, financing of favored proxies by outside players has actively contributed to emergent warlordism, intra-rebellion clashes, and the absence of a coherent political strategy.
American diplomats already urge their allies regularly to coordinate their support to the rebels, but with little success. Critics of American policy argue that it fails because it does not have any "skin in the game" -- that is, it is not providing arms to the rebels and so cannot presume to dictate conditions to others who are.