WASHINGTON — The United States is withholding $63 million that it had pledged to the main Syrian opposition organization because the Obama administration is frustrated with the group’s disarray and is searching for more credible partners to support in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, knowledgeable officials said Friday.
The decision not to fund the Syrian Opposition Coalition contrasts sharply with the Obama administration’s continued public expressions of confidence in the group, which has been central to U.S. policy on Syria since last fall and which the administration recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
But U.S. officials said privately that they are fed up with the group’s inability to organize, appoint a government-in-exile or reach decisions on a wide range of issues. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to more freely discuss sensitive diplomacy.
State Department officials are fond of repeating that they’ve pledged $250 million in nonlethal aid to boost the Syrian opposition. In reality, however, only a fraction of that – roughly $54 million – has been delivered, and almost none of it has gone directly to the coalition because “it’s obviously been a very unstable organization,” as one official put it.
“We have not given them money to go off and spend precisely because of the instability,” the official said.
Officials insisted the plan wasn’t to give up on the coalition. But they said that Secretary of State John Kerry was mulling greater support of rival opposition factions such as the rebels’ military command and grassroots civil society organizations inside Syria.
State Department officials also were said to be incensed at the coalition’s announcement Friday that it wouldn’t attend U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks in Geneva. The coalition blamed its refusal to attend on the “invasion of Syria” by Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
But analysts said the refusal looked particularly truculent, especially after Assad suggested in a Lebanese television interview Thursday that he might personally attend.
“If Assad sends someone and they don’t, it doesn’t look good for them,” said Leila Hilal, a Syria specialist and head of the Middle East task force of the New America Foundation, a Washington research institute.
A widening of the U.S. search for opposition partners might well be welcomed inside Syria, where many deride the coalition members as foreign-backed exiles who’ve been outside Syria, in some cases, for decades, and who haven’t shared the hardship of the past two years of conflict.
Some Syrians have expressed outrage at the spectacle of politicians haggling for days over how many members the coalition should include while their compatriots are living under a ferocious regime counteroffensive that’s reversed many of the rebels’ military victories.
“It’s been a fiasco. People in Syria are so upset with them,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a Washington-based activist with the Syrian American Council who just returned from the coalition’s conference in Istanbul. “In a post-Assad era, this can be healthy. We want people to compete for votes and to debate. But, right now, it’s disastrous.”
In February, Kerry announced that the United States would provide $63 million in direct support for the then-fledgling coalition, whose formal name is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In April, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told a congressional hearing that the $63 million would be used to “help counter extremists,” a reference to Islamist groups that were outperforming moderates forces in both military actions and the delivery of humanitarian aid in many areas.
“It will help us weigh in on behalf of the moderates,” Ford testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And it will enable the coalition to move ahead in attracting more support as it develops a political transition process.”
But the coalition leaders never got their act together, U.S. officials said, so the funds were never delivered. The entire $63 million remains in the United States instead of being dispersed in Syria, where community leaders in opposition-controlled territories say people are suffering because of the lack of basic services. Part of the money was intended to be delivered in grants, with the idea of coalition leaders parceling them out to needy communities to build the coalition’s credibility on the ground.
“If U.S. policy rests on this coalition, it’s a very bad thread,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said in an interview.
“This coalition will never, in my view, be the executive body we were hoping for,” Shaikh added, noting that its main legitimacy comes from the international community – not from Syrians.
Only Friday did the coalition barely avoid collapse with an 11th-hour agreement in Istanbul to add 51 new members – mostly liberals and moderates to act as a counterweight to the domination of the group by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
That decision took eight days to reach – five more than scheduled for the entire conference – and the coalition then postponed until June other pressing matters, such as selecting a new leader and naming an interim government that ideally would be poised to take charge in the case of Assad’s ouster.
Under relentless international pressure, chiefly by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Britain and France, the coalition early Friday added 43 members in addition to eight whose membership had been approved earlier in the week.
In a bid to dilute the Islamist influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc, the Saudis threw their support behind Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian who arrived in Istanbul with a list of 37 additions to the coalition membership. The 63 members of the group balked, saying it amounted to a takeover.
The coalition was willed into existence in November, after the United States announced that it no longer had confidence in another opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which also was dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood remained the dominant group in the new coalition.
The Obama administration is not the only international supporter of anti-Assad efforts to express frustration with the coalition during its recent marathon conference.
During the coalition’s conference in Istanbul, Eric Chevalier, France’s envoy to Syria, dressed down the group after it agreed to expand its membership by just eight seats. During the rant, caught on video and posted online, Chevalier said the group was undeserving of international help. “There was an agreement, between the leaders, 22. You end up with eight. There is a problem,” he said.
Coalition members can be seen in the video wandering off into the hotel lobby, muttering in Arabic: “Where are the arms?”