BEIRUT – The head of Syria’s rebels said Friday that the food and medical supplies the United States plans to give his fighters for the first time won’t bring them any closer to defeating President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s civil war.
“We don’t want food and drink, and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons,” said Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council.
The former brigadier in Assad’s army warned that the world’s failure to provide heavier arms is only prolonging the nearly 2-year-old uprising that has killed an estimated 70,000 people.
In what was described as a significant policy shift, the Obama administration said Thursday it was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition and said it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels battling to topple Assad.
The move was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome. In the coming days, several European nations are expected to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition to increase pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition.
But the frustration expressed by Idris is shared by most of his colleagues in the Syrian opposition, as well as by scores of rebels fighting in Syria. They feel abandoned by the outside world while the Assad regime pounds them with artillery and bombs.
The main rebel units, known together as the Free Syrian Army, regrouped in December under a unified, Western-backed command headed by Idris and called the Supreme Military Council, following promises of more military assistance once a central council was in place. Despite those pledges, opposition members say little has been delivered in terms of financial aid, and more importantly, in weapons and ammunition.
The international community remains reluctant to send weapons, fearing they may fall into the hands of extremists increasingly gaining ground among the rebels.
Mouaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, has lamented the West’s focus on the presence of Islamic militants among the fighters. In a speech Thursday to the Rome conference, he said media reports give “more attention to the length of fighters’ beards than to the (regime’s) massacres.”
Syrians expressed their disappointment on social media websites. One showed a photo of Kerry carrying a toy gun as a gift for the rebels. Another depicted a three-wheeled cart, of the kind usually used by farmers, with the words: “The first of the nonlethal weapons has arrived.”
Idris, a 55-year-old who studied in Germany and taught electronics at a Syrian military college before defecting in July, said the modest package of aid will not help them win against Assad’s forces who regularly use warplanes to pound rebel strongholds.
“We need anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to stop Bashar Assad’s criminal, murderous regime from annihilating the Syrian people,” he said. “The whole world knows what we need, and yet they watch as the Syrian people are slaughtered.”