Incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first foreign trip, set forth what sounded like a new Obama administration policy for Syria in his remarks in Paris Wednesday, Feb. 27. They were accompanied by reports that the US was stepping up its support for the Syrian opposition. It would cover training rebels at a base in the region and non-lethal assistances and equipment, such as vehicles, communications equipment and night vision gear.
But Kerry’s remarks did not reflect a new policy but merely recycled old definitions which confirmed US disengagement from Syria, rather than “stepping up support” for the Syrian opposition “for the first time.” US supplies of nonlethal assistance to Syrian rebels date back to early last year. The US has moreover been training Syrian rebels in Jordanian bases near the Syrian border for more than a year to carry out three missions:
1. To seize control of Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal;
2. To create a pro-Western core command structure as a factor in post-Assad government;
3. To ward off the takeover of the revolt command by Islamist factions, including groups associated with al Qaeda.
It turned out that none of these three missions was actually achieved. The chemical weapons remained firmly in the hands of Assad and his army – which never used them, contrary to rebel claims; factions close to Al Qaeda grew stronger; and their role in the rebel command expanded as they were seen to be the best-armed and trained of any Syrian rebel faction.