U.S. halts aid to Syrian rebels in a sign search for moderate force has failed

U.S.-led efforts to foster a moderate rebel force in northern Syria appear to have collapsed with the announcement Wednesday that the United States and Great Britain have stopped shipping aid to Western-backed fighters.

U.S. officials said they’d halted the provision of nonlethal supplies over the weekend after Islamist fighters seized a headquarters and warehouses belonging to the U.S.-allied Supreme Military Command, in a town near the Turkish border. That operation was the latest in a string of setbacks for the Western-backed forces, who’ve suffered from a lack of supplies, internal divisions and an exodus of fighters to better-equipped Islamist brigades.

Analysts who monitor the conflict said the U.S. decision shows the Obama administration is still struggling to identify a viable pro-democracy ally on a battlefield that’s now dominated by al Qaida extremists and ultraconservative Islamist factions. Some interpreted the move as a sign that the Obama administration might even be moving toward a policy shift that would keep President Bashar Assad in place and focus on preventing al Qaida from becoming entrenched in northern Syria.

“For the administration, the survival of the regime is a tolerable outcome and it’s turning into a preferable outcome given the growing al Qaida problem,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Six months ago, we could say the al Qaida threat was overstated, but now it’s a real problem.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a vocal proponent of the U.S. arming Syrian rebels, told reporters after a briefing Wednesday that the suspension of aid was “a recognition that parts of northern Syria and the border have been taken over by the Nusra and other extremists Islamist groups.” He blamed that development on “our failure to help people who are moderates.”

At a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the suspension of nonlethal aid such as laptop computers and prepackaged meals didn’t mean that the U.S. was giving up on rebel chief Gen. Salim Idriss, a defector from the Syrian military who leads the Supreme Military Command.

The blows to the moderate forces are concerning, Psaki said, but she insisted that the decision to halt aid “has nothing to do with our support for the SMC, nothing to do with our support for the opposition.”

Psaki said it was too early to tell when or if the nonlethal aid would resume and stressed that separate humanitarian aid operations weren’t affected.

“We’re not prepared at this point to make a broad statement about what it means and what the impact will be,” Psaki said.

Psaki told reporters that U.S. officials are working with Idriss on an inventory to determine what items were captured by the Islamist Front. However, it was unclear how involved Idriss could be in that process, as reports surfaced that he’d fled to Turkey and, according to The Wall Street Journal, on to Qatar. Psaki said she had no information on Idriss’ whereabouts.

For weeks, clues have cropped up that the Obama administration was rethinking its support of Idriss and his force as it became apparent that he held very little sway over fighters.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a senior U.S. envoy had been authorized to meet with elements of the Islamic Front, an umbrella group that formed in November to encompass a spectrum of Islamist fighters, from the ultraconservative Salafists to the less militant Muslim Brotherhood loyalists. The group released a short manifesto last month that denounced foreign influence over the Syrian revolt and said it would eschew democracy to promote a state built on Islamic law.

The two al Qaida affiliates – the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – are not formally part of the group, but Islamic Front spokesmen have said that the group would be willing to work with the al Qaida affiliates.

Western governments long have worried that any aid they send to the rebels would end up in the hands of radicals. The seizure of the warehouses made it clear that Idriss’ forces could no longer guarantee they’d remain in control of whatever aid they received.

Psaki didn’t deny reports of U.S. dialogue with the Islamic Front when the topic arose at the State Department briefing, but she refused to go into any detail and said only that the U.S. government was in talks with “a broad section” of groups.

Close monitors of the conflict, which just marked its 1,000th day, said such a hedging approach shows that U.S. policy on Syria remains muddled and hesitant after nearly three years of bloodshed that’s claimed more than 120,000 lives.

“Their actions say, ‘Yes, we acknowledge the reality of the new powers on the ground, but not so much that we want our aid going to them,’” Itani said.

“Behind closed doors, it’s turning into a conversation of, ‘We’ve got to defeat al Qaida,’ so that means engaging the regime to some extent, as well as talking to the Islamist nationalists,” he added.

Idriss’ ignominious downfall comes just a month before long-delayed peace talks in Geneva between representatives of the Syrian regime and an opposition delegation that still hasn’t taken shape. The U.S., which planned the talks in coordination with Assad ally Russia, had pushed both political and military opposition leaders to seize the opportunity as a first step toward a transitional government that assumes full executive powers from the regime.

Now, analysts say, there’s very little incentive for the opposition side to attend the Geneva conference, which already was derided as illegitimate and useless by many Syrians.

With the rebel movement in shambles, the U.S. now faces the choice of either trying to salvage the Supreme Military Council to represent the rebels in negotiations or to urge participation from the Islamic Front in recognition that “people they don’t necessarily want to affiliate with are the power brokers on the ground,” said Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

But overall, Hilal said, the Obama administration appears content to remove chemical weapons from Syria, continue its multimillion-dollar humanitarian effort and simply sit out the day-to-day conflict.

“They’re likely moving toward letting them fight it out while containing the spillover,” she said. “It’s too volatile right now to pick sides. The idea of getting behind the moderates just hasn’t worked.”

Allam reported from Washington, McClatchy special correspondent Prothero reported from Beirut. Ali Watkins contributed from Washington.