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."