The U.S. has suspended non-lethal aid to opposition forces in northern Syria after members of a militant Islamist rebel group seized warehouses belonging to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.
The decision applies to “all deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria while we evaluate the situation on the ground and gather additional details,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday in Washington. The U.K. also has halted aid temporarily, the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of six militant groups, took control of the warehouses this week. The U.S. has sought to withhold non-lethal aid -- including items such as night-vision goggles, communications equipment and body armor -- from such Islamist groups while backing rebels it describes as moderate.
The U.S., France, the U.K., Turkey and other nations have struggled to unify and strengthen moderate opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, encountering setbacks involving leadership, ethnic representation and the role of expatriate Syrians.
Prospects for a peace process to end the civil war rest in part on the existence of an opposition that’s representative of Syria’s diverse population and capable of negotiating. Efforts by the U.S. and Russia to set the stage for talks suffered a blow in September when the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition was repudiated by more than a dozen rebel factions.
The Supreme Military Council, led by General Salim Idris, is part of the Syrian National Coalition. Marie Harf, another State Department spokeswoman, said today that Idris was “in Turkey when the warehouse was seized.”
The suspension of nonlethal aid had “nothing to do with our support for the opposition,” Psaki said. “It has everything to do with the security of the material assistance, which is, of course, what we’re evaluating.”
Saudi Arabia has indicated it won’t be constrained by the U.S. restrictions on the effort to topple Assad because it considers the U.S.-backed factions disorganized and largely ineffective. Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary, Iran, is Assad’s close ally.
Militants have been seizing U.S. supplies at the border with Turkey for months, according to an official with an international aid agency who asked not to be identified discussing the incidents.
“Assistance continues through other neighboring countries to other parts of Syria” and humanitarian aid isn’t affected, Psaki said.