ISTANBUL In a move intended to trim support to Islamist radicals who have a leading role in the Syrian uprising, the United States, Turkey and key Mideast allies this weekend agreed to funnel future military aid only through the internationally recognized Syrian rebel coalition.
It's one of a set of steps that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other western and Mideast officials announced Sunday, in what appears to be a concerted new drive to end the two-year civil war that pits the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, against a diverse group of rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, European allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Among the steps announced was a U.S. decision to provide $123 million more in nonlethal aid to the Syrian rebel fighters, doubling the aid to date, and a call by all 11 participants for a negotiated solution to bring in a transitional government.
They also condemned Assad's use of ballistic missiles and endorsed a written pledge by the Syrian opposition to hold individuals responsible for war crimes and not to seek "revenge and retribution" against members of Assad's Alawite sect or any other minority.
All 11 countries represented at the Istanbul meeting "made a commitment to direct their military aid and assistance directly and uniquely, solely, through the Supreme Military Command," headed by Gen. Salim Idriss, a former Syrian army general who defected in July, Kerry said Sunday. "This may be one of the most important single things that was agreed to that can make a difference to the situation on the ground."
How to help the rebels without empowering militant Islamists who have been at the forefront of anti-Assad victories for the past year has bedeviled countries seeking an end to the Assad regime. The Supreme Military Command is poorly organized and its control of fighters on the ground is uncertain. Aid from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the primary providers of military aid, have dealt primarily with individual commanders on the ground, many of whom are affiliated with Islamist extremist movements.
Idriss made a lengthy presentation at the foreign ministers meeting Saturday night, detailing the military situation, province by province, and describing in detail the forces reporting to him. He assured the ministers that he would provide a full account of "everything you provide to me," said a diplomat who attended.
Kerry said everyone was impressed by the "strength and clarity" of the Idriss presentation and said the Syrian general "could not have been more clear about his determination to separate what he and the opposition are doing from what some of the radical and extreme elements are doing."
"I think we are quite confident that he is a strong leader with a capacity to make a difference," Kerry said.
Military analysts who closely follow the war say that Persian Gulf states, and individual donors, have been backing the Nusra Front, which the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist group identical to al-Qaida in Iraq, and similar groups because of their effectiveness. More moderate rebel groups have said they've been starved for support. A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity Saturday, said a provincial military commander with thousands under his command said recently that he had to rely on donations obtained by his troops from family and friends, because Idriss was unable to deliver.
"Your help to Salim Idriss isn't going fast enough," the official quoted the commander as saying. "How do I tell my guys, 'Wait for the stuff from Salim Idriss. Don't take that money from that business guy who is backed by an Islamist network' ?"