12 Dec 2013

In the wrong hands? UK and US suspend Syria non-lethal aid

After Islamist fighters seize Western-backed rebel weapons warehouses, the United States and Britain suspend non-lethal aid to northern Syria.

Fighters from the Islamic Front, a rebel group previously allied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) appear to have turned on their former comrades in a sign that the broad coalition fighting against the forces of president Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly fragmented.

The Islamic Front, which groups six major rebel brigades and which said last week it had quit the FSA, seized the headquarters of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), nominally in charge of the FSA, and a weapons warehouses at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey.

General Idriss

A US official said FSA leader General Salim Idriss had fled into Turkey during the takeover of the warehouses, which contained trucks, food, medical packs and communication equipment including laptops and radios.

Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the FSA had been forced to ask the Islamic Front for help after being overrun by another Islamist group, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

He said: “SMC warehouses were ran over by ISIL… three or four days ago. As a result of that General Selim Idris sent a request to the Islamic Front to help protect these warehouses.

“The Islamic Front came in, managed to push ISIL back and they are waiting for General Idris to come and take control over the warehouses.

Read more: Syria’s politics are infecting its humanitarian crisis

“Perhaps the bigger question is whether the SMC is going to have enough forces to actually protect these warehouses the initial group of 200 fighters obviously was not enough.”

Mr Saleh added: “Until that situation is resolved both the UK and the United States have decided to suspend delivering any aid to the warehouses and this is very understandable.

“They will and other countries as well, will only deal with the SMC representative General Selim Idris as well. So we are awaiting for that situation to be resolved. There are talks taking place right now. There is lots of strategy planning taking place in order to prevent the situation taking place again in the future.”

What is non-lethal aid?

According to title 10 of the US Code, non-lethal aid can include communications equipment, medical supplies, intelligence assistance, body armour, and infrastructure.

In other words anything that "is not a weapon, ammunition, or other equipment or material that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-Assad monitoring group, said the Islamic Front had seized anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons from the SMC arms stores in fighting on Saturday.

Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Channel 4 News: “The US and the UK need to know where the supplies are going to before they can reissue aid.”

But the Free Syrian Army, which has been fighting the forces of president Bashar al-Assad since 2011, said the US and British moves were rushed and mistaken.

“We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer,” FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said.

The suspension underlines a crisis for the FSA leadership, which needs international backing to reinforce its credibility and to stop its fighters joining al-Qaeda-backed Islamist militants who now dominate the war with Assad.

Islamic Front

The Islamic Front’s battlefield success in capturing the stores could undermine SMC assurances to the United States that no supplies sent to their fighters would fall into the hands of Islamist brigades.

The US embassy spokesman in Ankara said the situation was being investigated “to inventory the status of US equipment and supplies provided to the SMC”.

“As a result of this situation the United States has suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria,” the spokesman said. Deliveries into southern Syria, through Jordan, would not be affected.

Read more: Syrian rebels come together in battle with Assad

Five rebel fighters were killed in the clashes at Bab al-Hawa, but it was not clear which side they were on.

A senior US administration official said the suspension should not be misinterpreted.

The first UN relief airlift to Syria from neighbouring Iraq will deliver food and winter supplies to the mostly Kurdish northeast over the next 10 days.

The 2-3/4 year conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, driven more than 2 million abroad as refugees and left many millions more dependent on aid.

Infighting among Syrian rebels has weakened their efforts to bring down Assad in a conflict that began with peaceful protests against his rule in March 2011 and has descended into civil war.