Analysts dismiss US 'biscuits and Band-Aid' for Syria

The United States may be stepping deeper into the Syrian war by agreeing to give the rebels direct aid for the first time, but some analysts fear it is likely too little, too late.

With the grueling conflict poised to enter its third year, the statistics are grim. According to UN figures, some 70,000 people have been killed as the fighting has spread and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned to increasingly brutal methods, including unleashing Scud missiles.

But with few independent eyes on the ground, observers say the true death toll may already have topped 100,000 and some scoff at the idea that Assad will comply with international calls for a political transition any time soon.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that President Barack Obama's administration was providing an extra $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition coalition to help rebuild and provide assistance in "liberated areas" of Syria.

A senior US official said the aim was to thwart the growing influence of extremist groups and show that the opposition "can deliver a better day... where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists."

So far, the US has provided some $385 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, mostly distributed through non-governmental organizations, plus $110 million total non-lethal aid with the newly announced funds.

Kerry said Washington would separately "extend food and medical supplies" to armed rebels.

But the news disappointed those hoping the United States might mirror moves it made in Libya in 2011 and provide some kind of protective military hardware, such as body armor.

"It took seven months to get to the biscuits and Band-Aid," said the director of the Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, referring to the lengthy negotiations to reach what has been billed as a major shift in US policy.

"I don't necessarily see things being speeded up, though you have a new secretary of state who has got a new tone."

But Shaikh insisted: "I don't think it's a pathway to arming the opposition at this point in time. I just don't think President Obama's convinced of that."

He has spent months contacting tribal elders, senior Syrian businessmen and some of the country's leading families and has shed his previous reservations about America arming the rebels.

"The regime will never negotiate in good faith, they will go to the bitter end," Shaikh told journalists, saying Assad could still count on some 60,000 to 70,000 troops and was reportedly even arming civilians loyal to him.

Last year, Obama rejected a plan put together by his national security team, including Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton, to arm trusted rebel groups.

But analysts say America's tepid response is now creating the kind of vacuum in which militant groups can flourish, and may damage US hopes of gaining long-term sway with whatever post-Assad government emerges.

The Al-Nusra Front -- designated a terror organization by the State Department late last year -- has so far been one of the most effective rebel groups on the ground, having honed its skills on Iraqi battlefields.

Shaikh highlighted that Al-Nusra was now providing aid in some villages, "making social connections in a part of the world where people are very poor, but increasing desperate."

However, in "a post-Iraq war and a post-Afghan context, there really is limited appetite" to put US boots on the ground, said Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Despite months of vetting the rebels, the US remains concerned that pouring more arms into the country will only lead to them getting into extremist hands.

Nerguizian echoed concerns that even if Assad were to go now, Syria will remain mired in sectarian conflict.

"Assad's departure in and of itself does very little to change the fact that minorities like the Alawites view this battle as existential and look at this as their ascendant moment in the Levant," he told a seminar on Wednesday.

The United States is also clearly hoping any power change in Damascus would break the long-reviled Iran-Syria axis.

Tehran is Assad's closest ally, accused of providing materiel, men and know-how to Syria, as well as helping Hezbollah militants flow into the country.

"Inaction could have grave regional consequences and serve to empower Iran at a time of nuclear uncertainty and embolden Hezbollah," argued Senator Robert Casey, who chairs the Middle East subcommittee.

"Providing immediate non-lethal aid to the armed opposition would provide the United States with an enhanced understanding of the armed elements and could serve as the basis for a cooperative security relationship in the future," he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.