Rebel leaders inside Syria are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with what they perceive as a lack of American support, according to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who met with key opposition figures in Turkey earlier this month.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) met with two top leaders of Free Syrian Army branches from different cities in Syria during their recent trip to Istanbul and heard firsthand about the U.S. operation to provide non-lethal aid to the rebels working to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the satellite phones and organizational training Syrian opposition members can receive in Istanbul -- as long as they are willing to make the long and dangerous journey to get them -- is not what they really need, the opposition leaders told the senators.
"Not only are the people of Syria suffering, the United States is suffering diplomatically in the region," Lieberman said in a telephone interview. "The people of the Middle East are following what's happening in Syria. They're siding with the people of Syria against Assad, and they are increasingly disappointed and angry with the U.S. for not taking a more active role."
"And there are consequences to that," Lieberman warned.
"The overall feeling is of deep disappointment and increasing anger at the United States among the opposition forces," Lieberman said, noting that the rebels are struggling to understand why they aren't receiving more American help. "They know they are getting some help from the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks. They see a little more from us, but not anywhere near what they need," he said.
The rebels' top concern is Assad's use of airpower, and they desperately need the ability to strike the aircraft from the ground, according to Lieberman. There are some indications that related technology is getting into Syria with the help of Arab countries, but the United States won't assist with that effort.
"The worries about where the MANPADs and other equipment would end up are real, but are not an excuse, and we can easily find a way to try to control the flow of those materials," Lieberman said, referring to shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADs.
Al Qaeda and other extremists groups are competing with the Free Syrian Army for the loyalty of young Syrians and a lack of international support for the FSA hurts its ability to keep young rebels out of the reach of the radicals, Lieberman said.
The FSA commanders told the senators, "We are losing too many of our young men to these extremists, who are offering them more than we are able to," Lieberman related.
Meanwhile, Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish leaders are lamenting the lack of U.S. help for the FSA and Turkey is using the excuse of American inaction to justify not getting more involved themselves, in the face of their own domestic political difficulties, Lieberman argued.
"What we heard from our Arab allies in the region is disappointment that we're not more involved," he said. "Our holding back holds back a lot of other countries that might be giving more aid to the opposition."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is participating in an "ad hoc ministerial meeting on Syria" Friday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, after which Clinton is expected to announce an increase in humanitarian assistance to refugees both inside and outside of Syria. Members of the Syrian internal and external opposition will attend.
The meeting comes as the estimated number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries has now reached 350,000, a senior State Department official said.
"We have now provided somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 pieces of equipment. It's mostly off-the-shelf stuff, but sophisticated off-the-shelf stuff. I mean not quite Radio Shack, but close to it," the official said.
The focus of the U.S. assistance will continue to be on helping the Syrian political opposition organize itself and communicate, as well as providing training on governance and the rule of law, the official said, adding that the U.S. government believes that political opposition leaders, not military opposition leaders, will play the larger role in a post-Assad Syria.
"The people with the guns are fighting. The people with the guns are not providing field hospitals. The people with the guns are not providing bread bakeries. The people with the guns are not organizing funding drives and getting funding from outside of Syria to provide for families that have lost bread winners. So I think there is a real distinction between the two," the official said.
"People with guns who don't know how to have bread baked are quickly going to lose credibility on the street. People with guns who can't make the lights come back on are going to quickly lose credibility on the street... and it is important therefore for the United States to make sure that we are enabling the political opposition to demonstrate its credibility and for it to play its role going forward. I don't want to leave space open for boys with toys, young men with guns."
Lieberman and McCain also traveled to Baghdad, where they were joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. They pressed Maliki on what Lieberman said were daily flights from Tehran to Damascus that contain arms for the Assad regime.
"[Maliki] said ‘I can tell you I have a pledge from the Iranians in writing that they are only carrying humanitarian material including food to Syria.' And we said, ‘That is not the intelligence we have,'" Lieberman said.
Maliki has the right and ability to stop the flights and search them but is refusing to do so, Lieberman said. If Maliki doesn't act, U.S. military and financial assistance to his government could be in jeopardy, the senator warned.
"He certainly wants the F-16s and also ground vehicles. That's probably the major tangible point of leverage that we have over his administration," said Lieberman. "Our point to them is this will very badly affect your relations with the U.S."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.