The Delivery Man

Can this unlikely American equip Syria's rebels before it's too late?

The attack on Syria is off -- at least for the moment. So the efforts by Barack Obama's administration to provide assistance to Syria's rebels are poised once again to become the focus of beyond-intense scrutiny. And an American whom the Syrian opposition knows as "Mr. Mark" is about to be one of the most important players in the planet's most important conflict.

Mark Ward is the U.S. State Department's senior advisor on assistance to Syria, and from his perch across the border in Gaziantep, Turkey, he oversees a growing American assistance package. Much of it is humanitarian aid provided to Syrians in need of help during the civil war. But an enlarging pot of assistance -- from packaged meals to pickups -- goes to the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military Council (SMC). Ward has been working out of hotel rooms and warehouses in Gaziantep since last November. With his San Francisco Giants ball cap and the authority of a veteran foreign service officer seasoned in world crises, Ward is the face of American assistance in Syria. He now oversees the $1.2 billion aid package that has flowed or, to some critics, trickled into the country since March 2012.

Assistance to the Syrian opposition, both "lethal" and "nonlethal," is one thing upon which most people on all sides of the argument about U.S. policy in Syria agree. But it has yet to give rebel forces the upper hand. A great deal of the aid has yet to arrive, in fact. Since the Obama administration announced its plan to up the aid into Syria this spring, the White House has come under fire for how that assistance is creeping its way into the country. Had the administration moved faster to bolster rebel forces, the thinking has gone, it might not be in the predicament in which it now finds itself, scrambling for a Syrian solution in cruise missile strikes or eleventh-hour deals with Moscow.

Tens of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance was announced in April, and early this summer, the White House said quietly it would also help rebels with direct arms, assigning that role to the CIA. But as FP reported in June, when the administration announced it would begin arming Syrian rebels, only half the nonlethal aid promised by Secretary of State John Kerry in April had actually arrived there.

Critics like Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican of Tennessee who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week he was "dismayed" at the dismal pace at which the United States has aided the opposition. Corker has pushed the administration to put forward a "viable plan" to bolster rebel forces before those forces fracture all the more and become weakened. Administration officials have variously blamed the delay in getting assistance to Syrian rebel forces on logistics issues and even on Congress, whose notification process some officials said held up the assistance. Others, however, told FP that the State Department was to blame.

The delay, perceived or real, frustrates Ward, too, who himself wishes assistance could be faster. But as he told FP, shipping aid and equipment into Syria too quickly could mean that it goes to the wrong organizations or communities. Experts on Syria who guide Ward and his team on where best to send it tell him to go slowly. "It's like vetting the end users of our aid to be sure they aren't bad guys," he said in an interview with FP during a visit to Washington last week. "Rush it, and you could do real harm."

And while critics laugh at an effort that supplies packaged meals to rebel forces that need guns and ammo, Ward defends the approach as one that makes sense. Indeed, packaged meals were the best way to start, he said.

Some time ago, Ward offered tens of thousands of "Meals, Ready-to-Eat" (MREs) to the Supreme Military Council's Salim Idris, as close to a military ally as the United States has right now. At first, Idris complained bitterly. The United States was providing the SMC with these strange packaged meals when what his men needed was real capability: weaponry. But Ward cautioned Idris: The meals, the American told him, were simply an exam for the Syrians. Take them, send them to your forces, Ward said, and good things will come. "I told him that if you essentially pass this test, the government will give you more things," Ward told the general.

The exam approach has worked, Ward said. Idris built a distribution network for the packaged meals -- sending them through a logistics chain while a subcontractor that the State Department has an agreement with monitors the network, taking pictures and sending them back to Ward and other American officials while at the same time training members of the SMC in effective logistics operations. So far, Ward said, he has seen positive results. Idris continues to pass the test, even asking for more MREs. "Is it perfect? No. But it is good enough for a war," Ward said.

So far, the aid Ward doles out comes from a combination of money from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. That includes about $1 billion in humanitarian aid and another $250 million committed for the Syrian opposition. Of that later amount, about $140 million has been spent or is "in train," as assistance officials call it, and has not all been delivered. An additional $27 million is being spent on MREs, medical equipment, communications gear, and trucks. Additional assistance beyond all that is under consideration but, for now, would fall under the balance of the $250 million pot of aid, about $110 million, State officials said.

Ward's crawl-walk-run approach may offer a road map for moving forward. The current debate about strikes aside, the U.S. government is likely to stay engaged with the Syrian opposition for months if not years to come. Many leaders in Congress, outside analysts, and those in uniform -- indeed many inside the administration -- have long favored helping the opposition with lethal and nonlethal assistance. Although the administration has sent over some aid, the assistance hasn't appeared to make a difference on the battlefield, not even tactically. The CIA's arming efforts, which are not transparent, are on a small scale. And what nonlethal assistance that has been pushed through hasn't begun to change the dynamic. Those connected to the effort say the deliberate approach will pay dividends down the road. But there is a move afoot to put the Pentagon in charge of the assistance to the opposition force. That's something the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has been vocally skeptical about intervention, is actively pushing for.

Pentagon officials won't detail what those plans would look like. But if the Defense Department were to begin a more pronounced train-and-equip effort, it would take cues from its training efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller scale. And given the need on the ground, rebel forces could be identified and vetted, and such a train-and-equip mission could commence and be ramped up to an appropriate scale relatively quickly.

"The path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed, capable, moderate opposition," Dempsey said last week, as he quietly lobbied for a more "transparent" approach to training and equipping rebel forces.

But before any of that takes form, all the nonlethal assistance, for now, is the focus of effort. Through Ward, the State Department has provided the SMC with 330,000 MREs. But now that nonlethal assistance is expanding. Idris asked for medical supplies and kits for his men that don't create a large logistical footprint that regime loyalists would notice. So the State Department has provided Idris and his forces more than 500 first-aid kits and three tons of surgical and medical supplies for field clinics. More is coming. Over the next several months, the State Department plans to deliver additional equipment, like commercial trucks and pickups for the military, satellite and radio equipment, laptop computers, and more medical kits, according to a State Department spokesperson in Washington. The State Department would not provide more particulars about the upcoming assistance for fear it would tip the hand of the SMC's capabilities to the regime.

Meanwhile, few Syrians recognize what the United States is doing inside Syria. Most Syrians complain that the United States is doing very little, spurring a debate among assistance groups and officials about just how to "brand" the assistance the United States is providing. On one hand it may be important for Syrians to see what the United States is doing for them; on another, giving opposition forces an opportunity to build credibility within the country could be a game-changer. Either way, injecting millions of dollars of assistance into such a complex environment has challenges. The rebels haven't always been organized enough to accept more aid. As Ward puts it, "Getting them to make a decision in a hurry is hard."

U.S. Air Force/Flickr


The Haunting

Why the Syria crisis will torment Obama for the rest of his presidency.

Just as President Barack Obama was losing the debate in Congress for launching a military strike against the Syrian regime, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, offered him an escape hatch. Moscow's proposal that Bashar al-Assad relinquish control of his chemical weapons has given everyone a convenient diplomatic pause to do "something else" -- even at the risk of accomplishing nothing of value.

Nobody should be under the illusion that the Russian initiative means that the Syrian crisis is solved. It should be clear to all now that Assad is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power -- his regime and his international backers will block, obfuscate, and delay for all they are worth, while launching a brutal assault to crush their domestic opponents. And when it comes to the political process, they are focused on Syria's presidential election in mid-2014, which will once again anoint Assad as the "legitimate" president of Syria.

Obama's pursuit of a diplomatic solution is the path of least resistance right now, both at home and abroad. He has made the issue all about chemical weapons and not about the removal of Assad -- a point the Syrian dictator would have clearly noted in listening to Obama's presidential address on Tuesday night. But all the words and diplomatic initiatives cannot hide one basic truth: The Syrian crisis will not go away -- in fact, it will continue to haunt Obama's presidency for the rest of its days.

Nevertheless, this latest sorry episode contains a lesson for the Obama administration about how to deal with the Assad regime. In order to bring real change in Syria, the White House must state clear goals, isolate the regime diplomatically, and be prepared to enforce these mandates through the use of force, if necessary.

It is this strategy that allowed U.N. inspectors to reach the site of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in five days -- not the five months it took them to get into Syria in the first place. It has also forced Russia to scramble to extract concessions from Assad -- namely, admitting for the first time he has chemical weapons and opening the possibility of putting them under international control.

Given the history of Russian obstructionism at the U.N. Security Council since the beginning of the Syria crisis, there is every reason to be skeptical of a return to Turtle Bay. But there is a chance that Washington and Moscow's interests could finally align: In early December, the Russians warned Assad not to put them in an awkward position by conducting a large-scale chemical weapons attack. Now that the Assad regime has done just that, Moscow should be pushed to deliver in order to protect its own credibility.

In the next few days, there will be a struggle between those who want effective U.N. action and those who are looking for another diplomatic time-waster to help Assad escape accountability. It is time to banish the duplicitous talk that has so far characterized the debate at the United Nations. If the world body fails again to affect meaningful change in Syria, its credibility will decline even further. In this regard, the U.N. Secretariat and the U.N. secretary general can play an important role in guiding its members toward an effective U.N. mandate. But the United Nations must also be in a position to move quickly if it is forced to do so.

The United States and its allies should be prepared to take their argument to key countries in the United Nations, including the powerful 120 member non-aligned movement and the non-Security Council BRICs -- India, South Africa, and Brazil. By building broader international support, Obama will pave the way for a U.N. Security Council resolution that lays out real consequences for Assad if he does not cooperate.

The United States must not be dissuaded from action by the memories of wars past. This is not Iraq -- the Obama administration's case is just and the evidence is there. The United States may also be helped by the U.N. inspector's first report, which is rumored to be released in the next week or so.

The White House also must not forget the larger human tragedy occurring in Syria. Whether or not it cuts a deal over the Assad regime's chemical weapons, it will still have made no progress in stopping the slaughter of Syrians and the radicalization of opposition forces. A political solution lies not with a negotiated settlement brokered by the world's major powers, but by engaging the majority of fence-sitting Syrians who are now too scared to risk backing either side. This silent majority is crucial to forging a Syrian-led political transition -- and they have not been supported enough by the international community.

The entire Arab world is closely watching how Obama handles this crisis. Friendly Arab leaders are increasingly worried about Washington: They have not been consulted adequately about the zigzags of American diplomacy, and are asking how they can rely on the United States if Obama does not have the determination to take on their arch foes, particularly Assad. In the absence of U.S. leadership, they will be tempted to pile on more weapons support to the rebels -- without the organizing capability that Washington could bring.

It has become obvious that President Obama needs a real Syria strategy -- one that relies on America's military, diplomatic, financial, and humanitarian assets. Such a strategy must treat Assad like the brutal despot he is, acknowledging that only coercion and diplomatic isolation will convince him to give in to U.S. demands. Congress, through amending the bills authorizing the use of force in Syria, has a chance to insist that the administration produce such a strategy.

Obama should now realize that he cannot simply manage the effects of the Syrian conflict, he has to help resolve it. Otherwise, Assad will keep provoking crises -- at the cost of American credibility, and Syrian lives.

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