On his first trip abroad as secretary of state, John Kerry announced a sweeping aid package for the Syrian rebels fighting against the forces of President al-Assad. However, the promised package and continued Syrian violence complicates U.S. interests in the region. Tweet it: Tweet
Meeting last week with Syrian opposition leader Moaz Khatib in Rome, Kerry reiterated the White House policy that Assad "must be out of power."
It was along with this proclamation that Kerry announced a $60 million package to assist the Syrian rebels. All the aid the U.S. has provided to this point has been funneled to the rebels through proxies. Share the news: Tweet
On Kerry's trip, however, he indicated that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) would directly receive the assistance from the United States. A subtle shift in American policy, the new aid package represents a step closer to directly arming the rebels.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has thus far been unable to procure weapons and ammunition from the West. Part of its problem has been the inclusion of the al-Nusra Front in the umbrella opposition. Designated a terrorist group, al-Nusra is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Formed in early 2012 and with the goal of installing a fundamentalist Islamic state in Syria, al-Nusra routinely engages in kidnappings, suicide bombings, and IEDs.
According to one U.K. Daily Telegraph story, al-Nusra is gaining an increasing amount of influence within the Syrian population. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, al-Nusra provides social services such as food distribution. A PR campaign is attempting to put a better face on the group:
"There is a wrong image in the West that Jabhat al-Nusra is Scarface. Jabhat al-Nusra is human and we don't hate anyone. We don't hate Christians. "We are not al-Qaeda. Just because some of our members share in its ideas, it doesn't mean we are part of the group."
When the US recognized the National Coalition as the legitimate government of Syria, al-Nusra was deliberately excluded in its statement of support.
One of the obstacles to directly arming the rebels has been the fear that weapons will fall into the hands of radical jihadists. Yet, that designation has not hindered al-Nusra's actions in Syria.
In the case of one town in north central Syria, rebels may have received weapons from terrorist groups. Highlighting the difficulty of identifying acceptable rebel groups, one rebel spokesman told McClatchy News, "Of course they share their weapons with us. We fight together."
In addition to the violence that has plagued Syria for two years, neighboring Iraq may enter the fray.
This week, a Scud missile fired from Syria landed across the Iraqi border. According to a rebel spokesman, Iraqi forces returned fire on the FSA.
In a statement this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that Iraq has a policy of non-interference in Syria. However, Maliki also indicated that his government has an interest in seeing the Assad government remain in power.
"The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq," Maliki said. He added that a rebel victory in Syria could create a vacuum a-Qaeda might fill.
The potential addition of Iraq to the conflict further complicates U.S. interests in the region. Tweet it: Tweet
After nearly eight years and over four thousand dead American soldiers, the U.S. made a substantial investment in Iraq. Now, the U.S-installed regime is de facto aligned with the Assad regime the U.S. is passively seeking to topple.
One of the reasons in favor of directly arming the rebels is that Assad's removal would deny Iran a valuable regional ally. However, by accomplishing that objective, the U.S. may risk further complicating its standing in the region and undoing some of the expensive gains it made in Iraq.