Can America Help in Syria?

Our options go far beyond whether to bomb or not to bomb.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes in Aleppo. (Reuters)

Amid the daily reports of clashes and killings in Syria, a subtler message is emerging: America is increasingly irrelevant.

Inside Syria, opposition fighters complain that the United States is doing little to help them, according to intrepid reporting by correspondents for Reuters, the New York Times, and Foreign Affairs. Instead, funds and arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are turning jihadists into a growing presence. Among international observers, Washington is seen as insignificant.

"On the ground, really, this administration has been essentially irrelevant, locked into its own perpetual debate on what to say and what to do," said Peter Harling, Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. "I think generally this administration in the Arab Spring has spent a huge amount of time trying to analyze events instead of shaping them."

Those comments, of course, may thrill many Americans -- and White House staffers. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans want nothing more than to get out of the Middle East. One of Obama's primary pitches to voters this year is that he gets America out of foreign entanglements, not into them.

There are ways, though, to aid the Syrian opposition without becoming militarily entangled. One of the many tragedies of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is that they distort our views of how we can have influence in the region. Our options go far beyond whether to bomb or not to bomb.

America's effort to help the Syrian opposition with non-lethal aid is a reflection of this odd moment in American and Middle Eastern history. Many Syrians think the U.S. remains all-powerful and could easily topple the Assad regime, while many Americans doubt America's ability to do good beyond its shores and understandably call for domestic focus.

To its credit, the administration is providing $82 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees and $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But fear of even non-lethal American aid getting into the wrong hands has created a byzantine system that dilutes its effectiveness, slows delivery and alienates our best potential allies in Syria -- secular members of the opposition.

In a Washington Post story published on Monday and in interviews this week, Syrian opposition members scoffed at claims by State Department officials that the United States had provided them with 900 satellite phones. The phones, which cost $1,000 each, can be used for communications between opposition forces and for broadcasting atrocities by government forces to the outside world.

"Everywhere we turn, no one is able to locate these phones," said a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who spoke on condition of anonymity in a phone interview Thursday. "They're definitely not getting into our hands."

American officials said that the 900 phones and other elements of $25 million in assistance have been distributed, but members of the Syrian opposition are not given the details. In past conflicts, U.S. officials found that openly providing American assistance to opposition groups endangered the recipients, undermined their legitimacy among the local population, and created rivalries between groups.

American officials are aware that as a result, the U.S. does not get credit for the assistance it provides. But they pointed out that many people in the Middle East continue to resent any American role in the region.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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