U.S. to Reevaluate Contribution to Syria After Withdrawing Aid

Kidnapping culture, Islamic extremists and massive displacement define volatile and bloody war.

A Syrian flag flutters in the foreground with Damascus' Sheraton hotel and Mount Qasyun in the background on Dec. 12, 2013.
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The U.S. took a step back in its support of the Syrian opposition movement by withdrawing all non-lethal military support to the rebel fighters, a move designed to add some clarity to a civil war spinning increasingly out of control.

America began supplying non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels last year, in addition to its continued humanitarian assistance. Many analysts have said this support amounts to a paltry sum in the face of money, arms and troops provided to the Bashar Assad regime from Russia and Iran, and Lebanese militant political party Hezbollah.

The last year has been marked by a sharp rise in al-Qaida-affiliated rebel groups, such as ISIS and the al-Nusrah Front, that may make up as many as a quarter of the overall fighters. The organized Free Syrian Army has lost control of checkpoints and border crossings to such groups, and reports on Wednesday indicate extremists now control some FSA weapons caches.

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The U.S. announced Thursday it would cease giving any more of the $260 million it has already donated to the rebel forces. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday America needs to reassess what is happening on the ground after almost three years of bloody war.

"What has occurred here in the last couple of days is a clear reflection on how complicated and dangerous this situation is and how unpredictable it is," he said.

The U.S. will continue to support Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim Idris, and the moderate opposition to exclude the growing number of Islamic extremists operating in and around Syria.

"This is a problem," said Hagel. "A big problem."

"We're evaluating right now," he said, following further questions about the new U.S. stance. "We're assessing what has happened, where we are. So I would leave it at that."

The death toll in Syria exceeds 125,000 since fighting began in early 2011. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes and are now living in cramped and under-provisioned refugee camps in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Withdrawing U.S. non-lethal aid will likely change little if anything on the ground.

"We have not been sending that much in to the armed rebel groups to begin with," says Mona Yacoubian, an expert on the Syrian uprising with the D.C.-based Stimson Center. "It certainly is not the kind of assistance, both in terms of what we're sending and the quantity, that would change the dynamics on the ground in a significant way."

The U.S. withdrawal signals a shift in the way Pentagon, State Department and White House officials assess and prioritize the threats throughout the Levant region, she says.

"This signals concern about the rising profile of Islamic extremist groups...which we've long flagged," she says. "It's raising questions about how the U.S. sees a very fluid situation on the ground inside Syria evolving."

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Yacoubian also points to the ongoing chemical weapons mission. International organizations have the herculean – and perhaps impossible – task of transporting hundreds of tons of extremely potent chemical weapons by ground through an active war zone, and then loading them onto ships for disposal.

"It underscores the volatility of the situation on the ground – the volatility with which events move," she says.

Hagel said there are still issues the U.S. and its international partners need to work out for this mission.

"It's a country torn in every region by war, unpredictability," he said. "But where we are now on the continuing progress that we're making with the destruction of chemical weapons is on track."

A culture of kidnapping by extremist groups continues to define the ongoing strife. Thirteen news organizations, including the BBC, signed an open letter to Syrian rebels asking them to help stem the rise of kidnappings.

"As long as kidnappings are permitted to continue unabated, journalists will not be willing to undertake assignments inside Syria, and they will no longer be able to serve as witnesses to the events taking place inside Syria's borders," the letter states.