Despite the White House’s public announcement Wednesday that it would provide “military assistance” to the Syrian rebels, Washington has yet to communicate with the rebels about that assistance, Gen. Salem Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, told The Daily Beast Sunday.
“We are still waiting for the military support from the United States. They didn’t tell us anything about the military support. Direct and officially, we didn’t receive any information from the United States,” Idris told The Daily Beast, adding that he had heard from “my friends who are close to the administration” while waiting to hear directly. “We welcomed the announcement from the United States,” he said. “They announced that the regime used chemical weapons. But we are waiting for the next step, which will be the decision to support the FSA with weapons and ammunition.”
Much like in the Libyan civil war two years ago, the White House has followed Europe’s lead in the intra-Syrian conflict. The French, and to a lesser degree the British, have been in close consultation with Idris and the other leaders of the FSA over the past days and weeks, according to the general, who said that he met privately on June 11 with French President François Hollande in Ankara, Turkey, after the French government decided to provide military assistance on June 5, according to two government officials and sources close to Idris.
The Idris-Hollande meeting set the stage for a larger meeting in Gazientep, Turkey, that took place on June 13 and included Idris, the French Special Envoy for Syria Eric Chevallier, U.K. Special Envoy Jon Wilks, and FSA commanders of the Northern Front, Eastern Front, Western Front, and Homs Front. The meeting was organized between the FSA, the French, and the British, without significant U.S. involvement. The State Department’s Mark Ward attended, but U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford did not.
During and since the June 12 conference call with Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes announcing that the U.S. would provide “military assistance” to the Free Syrian Army, the White House has provided no details on what that would entail. The announcement came along with the administration’s first acknowledgment that the U.S. intelligence community could determine with “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its people on a small scale on multiple occasions, crossing President Obama’s “red line” for the conflict—a conclusion both the British and the French had already reached.
But even if the U.S. does provide small arms and ammunition, as has been widely reported, the FSA needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, Idris said. There is already some fighting in the western and northern regions of Aleppo and the FSA is expecting a combined regime-Iranian-Hezbollah attack on the city any day now.
“We are concerned the regime will use aircraft very heavily as they did in Qusayr,” he said. “We are asking for a no-fly zone over the while country because the regime has a powerful air force and we don’t have any way to defend against it.”
While some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have called for a no-fly zone, and Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi endorsed one Saturday while announcing he had severed diplomatic relations with Syria, where at least 93,000 have died over the course of the conflict, the Obama administration has been wary of being drawn further into the conflict.
“We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past, We’re not going to do it here,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Sunday on Face the Nation. (The National Security Council declined to comment Sunday on the administration’s internal deliberations or on the timing of their decision-making regarding Syria.)
Speaking with the Beast, Idris said that every ten days there is another Russian arms delivery to the regime. About one month ago, the Russians delivered new tanks and new jets, he said.
“I told our friends in the U.S. and western countries we are sure and I can give them any kind of guarantee the weapons will be in good hands,” Idris said, claiming that the FSA can guarantee that any weapons they receive won’t fall into extremist hands, “I need weapons yesterday and right now, not tomorrow, because the situation is very dangerous and critical in Aleppo and we are afraid the regime will have the upper hand in the country and when that happens there will be a lot of danger because the extremist groups will win more sympathy.”
There will be no FSA participation in any peace conference if they don’t get weapons first, Idris said. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for a second conference in Geneva that was supposed to happen in June but has been postponed until at least July.
“If there is not change on the ground, if we didn’t receive weapons and ammunition to rebalance the situation on the ground, we will not go to Geneva, there will be no Geneva,” said Idris. “We hope our friends who love freedom and democracy don’t leave us alone.”
After this story posted, Gen. Idris contacted The Daily Beast to clarify his remarks about being informed about aid, saying: “After the U.S. administration had informed us that the regime has used chemical weapons, I had meetings with our American friends and we discussed many different issues in detail. But we did not receive any promises on specific types of weapons."
Other officials, lawmakers, and experts said the timing of Obama’s military assistance announcement had less to do with chemical weapons that with the rebels’ rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground following the fall of the strategic town of Qusayr, and the French and British governments moving before the U.S. to arm the rebels.
“This policy of leading from behind on Syria for the U.S. is not working,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American organization that works directly with the Syrian rebels. “The lack of U.S. leadership on Syria has allowed for our allies to take the lead in ways that are not necessarily conducive for U.S. interests and policy going forward.”
Several news reports have stated that following Rhodes announcement the CIA will begin providing the FSA with small arms and ammunition—but those deliveries could take weeks to arrive, not in time for the impending battle in Aleppo, said O’Bagy. She added that the CIA has reportedly been facilitating small arms shipments to the rebels for several months, leaving it unclear what was really new in the White House’s announcement.
“Even though the decision to increase military assistance has been made, they are still working out the details and that will take some time,” said O’Bagy. “The upcoming discussions [at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland this week] will be crucial to deciding whether this is game changing or more of a continuation of the same.”
McCain Sunday told The Daily Beast that the Obama administration is not “leading from behind” in Syria because it is not leading at all, noting that France and the U.K. tool the lead in determining that the regime had used chemical weapons and calling the White House announcement of “military assistance” a small adjustment, not a new policy. He also noted that past promises of American assistance to the Syrian rebels have not materialized or have been very slow to arrive.
For example, the U.S. has not supplied large amounts of non-lethal military assistance to the FSA, despite an April decision to authorize such supplies, which would include things like body armor and night vision goggles. The U.S. has provided some medical kits and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), which were delivered in May.
“The only thing that has actually reached the hands of rebels fighting are the MREs. Maybe they could throw them at the helicopters. Some of them aren’t that delicious,” McCain said.
He also said U.S. decision making was slowed by an internal division inside the administration between Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who he said favored more aggressive steps, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who have resisted more direct or lethal support for the FSA.
“If you do not change the equation on the battlefield and you have incremental increases in aid, they are going to be countered,” he said. “Unless we neutralize the air assets with the no-fly zone, this bleeding will continue.”
Editors' Note: This story was updated after publication to include a comment from Gen. Salem Idris about his communications with U.S. officials.