WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wary of directly arming Syrian rebels, the Obama administration has opted for a typically American solution when government won’t get involved: let the private sector help out.
From a hodgepodge of U.S.-based Syrian opposition organizations run by expatriates, one - the Syrian Support Group - has emerged recently with the explicit purpose of raising money for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The group says it convinced the U.S. government to give it a license to send money to the rebels, after setting up shop in Washington and hiring a former NATO political officer to manage it. Supporters can now go on the group’s website, click on a form and make a donation to the Syrian rebels via credit card and PayPal.
The Syrian Support Group won’t say how much it has collected, and says no cash has yet been sent. Members want to start by raising $7 million a month, according to SSG co-founder Louay Sakka, a Syrian-Canadian who lives in Toronto. He admits gathering such sums is going to be difficult without some “big institutional” help.
The rebels may use the money to pay salaries to thousands of their fighters as well as buy arms and ammunition. But the SSG is still lobbying the Obama administration to chip in government funds and/or intervene militarily to help bring down the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We can’t finance a no-fly zone,” said the group’s Washington lobbyist, former NATO political officer Brian Sayers. He said such a zone, free of Syrian warplanes, is essential for the success of Syria’s rebels, who want to create safe areas for civilians to escape the fighting without fear of aerial bombardment.
Assad’s forces command the skies and have an overwhelming advantage in armor, artillery and troops. In recent days they have been pounding rebel positions in Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo.
“I’m not ruling out that safe zones could not be defended without a no-fly zone, but it will be very challenging,” Sayers said.
Despite pressure from some in Congress, the Obama administration has declined to directly arm the Syrian rebels. Privately, U.S. officials express disquiet over the vast array of opposition groups and their limited knowledge about them.
But last month, the U.S. Treasury Department granted the Syrian Support Group a license to send money to the rebels, something that U.S. sanctions on Syria would have otherwise blocked.
The move followed months of efforts by SSG members - a group of Syrian expatriates in the United States and Canada - to scope out rebel commands and brief the Obama administration and Congress about them.
It is unclear whether other organizations have received similar waivers.
Obama also has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. support for Assad’s opponents, short of lethal aid. U.S. government sources say the United States is collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to rebel fighters [ID:nL6E8IQLVT].
Sakka, who left Syria 15 years ago, says he and others launched the Syrian Expatriates Organization in February 2011 to push for peaceful change in his native land. But after the Assad government began answering protests with live bullets, “we started to see people move toward arms,” Sakka said in a phone interview.
Last November, he and other Syrian expatriates began investigating the military situation in Syrian provinces, using their connections and the Internet to get in touch with local rebel commanders on the ground, and cross-checking reports of defections from the Syrian army.
By May, they were ready to go to Washington with information about rebel military councils operating in a number of Syrian provinces. They argued to U.S. officials and lawmakers that using Western funds to pay rebel fighters could be a unifying counterweight to extremists like al Qaeda who have joined the fight in Syria.
“If you want to fight a vacuum (being) created, and al Qaeda taking over and some other extreme groups, we have to unify” the rebels, Sakka said. “We have to be able to pay them their payroll.”
The SSG says rebel Syrian commanders representing thousands of fighters in nine provinces have signed a proclamation of principles, calling for a democratic country for all Syrians regardless of sect, religion or ethnicity. The principles also reject terrorism, extremism, and revenge killings.
It is these groups that the SSG wants to start sending funds to. At the moment they probably constitute about half the fighters in the Free Syrian Army, Sakka says. The SSG has pledged not to fund rebel commands unless they abide by the principles, which are on its website.
“We don’t want to screw this up,” Sayers said. The SSG is required to file periodic reports to the State Department.
The U.S. government says it has set aside a total of $25 million for “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition, such as communications equipment. U.S. officials say weapons for the rebels are being organized and financed by others such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian Support Group has about 60 members, Sayers said; Sakka is one of about a dozen on the SSG board. Another board member, Maher Nana of Palm Beach Florida, was listed as the “incorporator” when the SSG registered in Washington as a non-profit corporation in April. Sayers and Sakka declined to list the other members for security reasons, saying many still have family in Syria.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was impressive that many rebel commanders had signed the SSG’s proclamation of principles. Other Syrian opposition groups such as the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, a political umbrella organization, had taken a long time “to agree on almost anything,” Tabler said by phone this week from Lebanon.
He suspects the SSG is having a greater impact than some groups in exile because it is focusing on fighters inside Syria. Tabler spent a recent evening with some armed elements of the Free Syrian Army who thought the SSG was “a good development.”
Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based SNC leader, said there was no direct connection between the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Support Group, but that they had the same goals.
“There is no other option for the Syrians to defend themselves, other than the Free Syrian Army,” Ziadeh said.
Additional reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Doina Chiacu